by Chris Davis
What a year it has been! Inside of 12 little months, I've dined better than a man of my decidedly low station should legally be allowed. I've washed down tapas with gallons of zesty sangria on the beaches of Barcelona. Paris provided foie gras and countless cabernets. Rabbit stuffed with its own meat was accompanied by a chewy, black Chianti in Tuscany, while Rome introduced me to the decadent splendor of Lardo di Colonnata. The space cakes and bonbons of old Amsterdam went down smoothly with cannabis beer, and, after consuming these loaded appetizers, even typically uneventful Dutch food became irresistible.
Between bites, I did my best to see the world. But -- sigh -- those lazy days of wine and wanderlust are behind me now. I've been informed that I have twins on the way: two little bundles of joy poised to pick my pocket and change my globe-trotting ways. Summer vacations will be less extravagant from now on, but that doesn't mean they have to be boring. Anyplace can be a vacationer's paradise if you know where to go and what to do. Well, almost anyplace.
Covington, Tennessee, a steadily growing rural community located only a few miles north of Memphis, seems like it would make for a wonderfully bucolic getaway affording, at the very least, an opportunity to view a vast array of domestic cattle in their native habitat. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a listing for anything like a Covington Convention and Visitors' Bureau to provide me with vacation information. The best I could come up with was a phone number for the Super 8 Motel, and I hoped the knowledgeable concierge would be able to provide me with some information about the city and its sights. A child answered the telephone.
"Hello," I said. "Aren't you a little young to be a concierge?"
"No," the brat answered.
"Are you aware of the fact that Covington doesn't have a convention and visitors' bureau?"
"No. What's that?" The little dickens couldn't have been more than 3 or 4, and I began to wonder whether or not I should consult the proper authorities concerning child-labor laws in the less-civilized reaches of western Tennessee.
"A convention and visitors' bureau," I repeated. "It's a place where potential visitors can find out where to go and what to do while visiting scenic Covington." The child said nothing for a long time. Eventually, the whippersnapper bade me an enthusiastic bye-bye and handed the phone to a man with a thick Middle Eastern accent who said he could help me.
"So where does a person in Covington go to get their groove on?" I asked.
"This is a very small town," he answered. "Most people go into Memphis."
"I've already been to Memphis. Didn't think much of it. I'm interested in Covington. What can a person do in Covington? Are there any points of interest: great restaurants, fine architecture, shopping?"
"No. This is a small town. We have nothing here."
"Nothing at all? That sounds mighty bleak. Don't you at least have some kind of museum or something?"
"We have a Slim Fast factory."
"Slim Fast," the voice said. It was a solid voice as all-American as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Red Man chewing tobacco. It was a helpful voice, rich, resonant, and ringing with the kind of hospitality I hoped to enjoy sometime in the near future.
"My wife and I are thinking about vacationing in Covington, and we're just huge, huge fans of your product, if you catch my drift, and we were wondering if we could come by and tour your plant?"
"No," the man said succinctly. "We're not set up to do anything like that."
"Oh, no," I whined. "My wife will be so disappointed. We both just love your product, especially the more exotic flavors like pineapple."
"Sorry, sir, but we just don't do anything like that."
"Surely there must be tons of people, if you catch my meaning, who want to see how your product is made. Don't you?"
"Well, no, not really. We're not set up for letting people come in here."
"You don't have something to hide, do you? Something embarrassing you're putting in the Slim Fast?"
"No. Look, I asked my manager and he says we just can't have people coming in here."
"How long have you lived in Covington?"
"All my life."
"So I bet you know all the best places to eat. My wife and I will be vacationing there this summer. We love to eat and especially like to sample local delicacies."
"Well, there's this restaurant."
"What's the best thing on the menu?"
"Man, don't ask me these things. I don't know."
"Well, what are your favorite things to eat?"
"I don't know. I just eat everything."
"Is that why you need the Slim Fast?"
"Man, I keep telling you I don't know anything."
"Well, thank you for your time," I concluded, as graciously as possible. Clearly, Covington, in spite of its many obvious attractions, is not the vibrant vacation community I thought it might be.
Oh, well, there's always West Memphis.
by Janel Davis
Are we there yet? -- surely the cruelest refrain of summer vacation.
But thanks to Samantha Coerbell and her Elmo George Tours, you are practically there yet, just 75 minutes away.
The tour is a weekend job for Coerbell, who, during the week, works as actor Morgan Freeman's assistant.
Coerbell's tour whisks travelers from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and back again on luxury coach buses. During the ride, passengers can watch movies or entertainment specially tailored to the group. The tour then takes passengers to two of Clarksdale's best sites for good food and good music: Madidi and the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Owned by Freeman and local attorney Bill Luckett, Madidi offers French cuisine in a variety of dishes ranging from rack of lamb to hybrid bass, all prepared using local ingredients.
Clarksdale has long been known as ground zero to blues aficionados around the globe, and Ground Zero Blues Club was created to celebrate the area's rich music heritage and provide a forum for local musicians to continue that heritage.
Why Clarksdale? Why not? asks Coerbell. "There is so much to see and do here. People go to Tunica for the casinos. This will take them a little past Tunica to see the area and enjoy some good food."
The tours began last year and will resume in July. Buses pick up tourists near Memphis' Rock 'N' Soul Museum inside the Gibson Guitar Factory one Saturday each month. Tours can be arranged to include only dinner at the restaurant or boogie-ing at the club. Packages range from $55 to $85 per person.
Coerbell plans to expand the evening tour to include visits to area festivals, further exploration of the region, and an overnight stay at a bed-and-breakfast.
Elmo George Tours are by reservation only. For information, call 662-647-8455.
by Bianca Phillips
Imagine a landscape bursting with vine-ripened tomatoes, juicy watermelons, fresh cucumbers, and colorful flowers in full bloom. The only noises are the chirping of crickets in the nearby woods, the buzz of a few garden tillers, and the voices of a few close friends. Sound like a dreamland far away from the hustle and bustle of city life? Not quite.
Shelby Farms' community gardens, free to anyone with a little extra time and a green thumb, are as serene and peaceful as a Monet painting. The quaint little plots are approximately 25-by-100 feet in size and are just off Farm Road. The only traffic noise comes from the passing cars of other gardeners and the occasional police car from the Penal Farm down the road. "The gardens are 10,000 miles away from anything," says gardener Lynn Doyle.
Over the years, the gardeners have made the "community" in community gardens a reality. They've begun to regard one another as family. During the day, they convene over their rows of tomatoes and share gardening tips over blooming sunflowers.
"You've got an umbrella set up out there, and sometimes someone will just sit down under it with you and have a Coke," says J.C. McCollum. "We'll sit there and solve the world's problems under that umbrella."
According to Tommie Cervetti, manager of the Shelby County Mayor's Office on Aging and liaison to the gardens, most of the gardeners are senior citizens. She said there are some younger families too, but care for the gardens requires a great deal of time, which many young working families do not have.
Doyle, a 69-year-old retired florist from East Memphis, has been gardening at Shelby Farms for four years. He visits his plot daily, except on Sundays, for six to eight hours a day.
"[The community gardens] have given me a good tan, keep me laughing, and keep me fighting the weeds," Doyle says while relaxing in a lawn chair in front of his plot. "It's a constant challenge, but it's so rewarding when you plant a really tiny seed and it grows into a big bush with green beans all over it."
There are no rules as to what can be grown (as long as it's legal, of course), so myriad vegetables and various flowers abound in the 624 plots (500 are currently in use).
No one seems to know much about the gardens' history, only that they were started by a man named Bob James. The year remains a mystery. At one time, the gardens were divided into the Shelby County Senior Gardens and Youth Gardens, but these plots are now open to all ages.
"Everybody has their own hobby, and in this case, this is something that is not just a hobby. They can grow vegetables. They can grow flowers. They can get exercise. They can be with people," Cervetti says. "It just runs the gamut of meeting a lot of the needs that people have. It's a really well-rounded program."
Anyone interested in obtaining a plot in the Shelby Farms community gardens should call Tommie Cervetti at the Shelby County Mayor's Office on Aging at 452-0340.