The flavor of the Upper Mississippi—both literally and figuratively—has been influenced by immigrants from European lands, many of whom traveled to their new homes through the port of New Orleans and up the river by steamboat. So it’s not surprising that the river today is lined with vineyards and breweries.
The Great River Road Wine Trail—running from Red Wing, Minnesota to LaCrosse, Wisconsin—counts 11 wineries where you can sample vintages from grapes grown in the warm microclimate of river valleys. Five more wine producers make up the Mississippi Wine Trail around Quincy, Illinois, and Southeast Missouri, boasts the Mississippi River Hills Wine Trail with four local producers. Many other wineries dot the valley, producing semi-sweet wines in the German tradition but also dryer selections using new hybrid grapes.
Craft breweries and brewpubs are also popping up on the river’s banks, breathing new life into the lively tavern culture that characterizes many river towns. Akin to Irish pubs and German bierkellers, the whole family is welcome at riverfront taverns on the upper river. Don’t pass up the chance to dig into a Friday night fish fry, which sometimes feature channel catfish.
The rolling hills lining the Mississippi for much of its journey from Lake Itasca to the Missouri River harbor growing ranks of farmers dedicated to local food production—and their cheeses, sausages, pickles, jellies, meats and fresh produce inevitably find their way to the region’s restaurant tables.
- Jay Walljasper, a travel writer and Urban Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College.
I am one of the seventh generation of my family to reside in Natchez on the river. Although I traveled far away, many times, I am always pulled back. The river has become a major part of my culinary identity as a chef. Six years ago, I was approached by the owners of the American Queen to develop recipes and their culinary direction. I am now creating the culinary imprint for the French America Line, which has a new boat coming on the River. I spend a lot of time meeting with farmers, cheese makers, breweries, distilleries and other producers along the river to secure the best the region has to offer. My quest is twofold- one to secure great ingredients, but two to support the economy along the river, which in turn helps continue the preservation of the river I love.
- Regina Charboneau, author of Mississippi Current: A Culinary Journey Down America’s Greatest River and owner of King’s Tavern in Natchez.
As you travel anywhere along the Mississippi River, part of the adventure is discovering the diversity of cultures that thrive along its banks. Sampling the foods of each region is often a great way to meet people and a delicious way to learn about their heritage and history. Keep your eye out for local festivals and events and jump right in! You’ll find heritage festivals, fish fries, church picnics and barbeques and whatever the local specialties are, give them a try!
Some memorable tastings from my 90-day road trip from the headwaters to the Gulf include fresh walleye and creamy wild rice soup in Minnesota, squeaky-fresh cheese curds and the creamiest homemade ice cream I’ve ever tasted in Wisconsin. If you’re in Iowa when they are harvesting sweet corn, just slather it with butter and enjoy – or, if you happen upon some homemade corn pudding, you are in luck! In Illinois, you can celebrate the Eastern European heritage there by diving into a plate of Pierogies, yummy little cheese or potato filled dumplings! In Kentucky and Tennessee, you’ve entered the land of some of the world’s best barbeque, and in Missouri, try the toasted ravioli in St. Louis and the Gooey Butter Cake just about anywhere! Loosen your belt when you get to Mississippi and try some fried catfish, hushpuppies and sweet potato pie. And, oh my, Louisiana…crawfish, red beans and rice, beignets, gumbo and pecan pie!
~ Gayle Harper, travel photographer and writer and author of Roadtrip with a Raindrop: 90 Days Along the Mississippi River