From William Faulkner and Barry Hannah to Fat Possum Records, from family silver on plastic tailgate tables at The Grove to the University of Mississippi’s Southern Studies program, the people and culture of Oxford have made this college town far from square, despite the shape of its historic downtown center.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Oxford’s foodscape. A big, bad bang in the 1990s smashed together work by chefs, Ole Miss scholars, artists, and authors. Chef John Currence opened City Grocery in 1992, and its convivial upstairs bar became the sun around which the city’s famous authors orbited. John T. Edge cofounded the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999. Now, it’s the most important source of documentation as well as commentary on Southern cuisine.
Today, Oxford persists as a mini but mighty force in food. At his collective of restaurants, Currence continues to place classic Mississippi ingredients like catfish and country ham in a contemporary context. Snackbar chef Vishwesh Bhatt adds fried okra to his Southern-Indian version of chaat, a traditional, tangy snack mix that’s now one of the city’s can’t-miss dishes.
In an alley next to the historic Lyric Oxford theater, chef Corbin Evans brought long lines to his walk-up window for brisket grilled cheese and “dirty grain” salads. He still serves up breakfast taco orders at a window, but now customers can eat inside his restaurant, Oxford Canteen, located in a former service station that has become a fill-up spot for students, locals, and tourists.
The scene from the street outside Saint Leo’s sophisticated shotgun space on the north side of the downtown square looks like a buzzy Brooklyn bistro. Inside, Emily Blount has wed her past lives in California and New York to a love for her husband’s Mississippi home with wood-fired pizzas and salads loaded with fresh veggies grown nearby.
Whether they’re natives or Mississippians by choice, Oxford locals are writing a brand-new chapter on Southern food.