Grub and the Gridiron
Discover the culinary scene in Oxford, Mississippi, alongside the fun of football
By Boyce Upholt
Before I moved to Mississippi, I figured I knew how to eat. But this place has proven me wrong. Fried okra? Shrimp and grits? Cornbread dressing? It’s wild to think that my world once existed without all this.
As soon as I moved to my new home in the Mississippi Delta, I started hearing about the town of Oxford (just a few hours’ drive away). It was, I was told, a kind of food mecca up in the hills; it was also the best football party you could find in the South—or, rather, the best in America. A promising combo, but no place could live up to all this hype. Once I made my first trip, it became clear this would be a regular pilgrimage.
It’s hard, really, to say what’s the best part of an autumn weekend in town. There’s the morning’s tailgate at the “Grove”—a high-class, catered affair, with hundreds of football fans gathered together on a wide, wooded lawn—where, in grand Southern tradition, hospitality reigns. Don’t expect to be lonely, in other words, even if you know no one in town: you’ll be offered food and drink and conversation, and might find you’ve got new life-long friends.
But the fun doesn’t end at the tailgate, or even after the game is over. Because in Oxford, you get to treat yourself to some of the South’s best cooking. Just be sure to pace yourself: there is quite a bit to eat.
A world of food
Let’s give credit where credit is due: John Currence did much to turn Oxford into a world-class dining town, and he’s done it by embracing a world of food. A former chef on a tugboat, Currence came to town in 1992, and soon opened City Grocery, a French-by-Southern bistro located inside a historic livery stable on the courthouse square. It became not just a thriving restaurant, but the start of an empire.
These days my favorite Currence restaurant is Snackbar, which sits in an unassuming strip mall north of town. Executive Chef Vishwesh Bhatt is a perennial James Beard Award nominee, and always delivers a mouth-watering mixture of flavors: the curry and cumin of his native India; the delicate flavors of upscale French food; and the rich, buttered goodness of down-home Southern chow. Don’t miss the okra chaat—a quick-fried dish seasoned with chiles and chaat masala, that mouth-popping flavor of Indian street food.
Currence’s aren’t the only world flavors here in town, nor the sole winner of accolades. Saint Leo—nominated for a James Beard Award this year for best new restaurant in America—offers simple Italian flavors. Its wood-oven pizzas merit all the praise they’ve won: a perfect blend of crispy and cheesy, and the sharp flash of fresh veggies and hand-cured meats.
Then there’s Canoodle by Oxford Canteen. It started as an alleyway pop-up alongside a local music venue, but has turned permanent, thanks to its enduring popularity. Chef Corbin Evens serves up his version of street foods: spicy bahn mi sandwiches with a bright flash of cilantro and jalapeño, for example, and savory ramen noodle bowls whose steam will warm your soul.
It’s places like these that are why I say that Mississippi—and Oxford more than anywhere—has educated me in food. The modern South is a surprising mix of flavors, bringing together the varied techniques of the people who are moving here from all across the world.
A deep soul
But there is, of course, that classic cooking of the South—deep-fried and long-stewed, popping with pepper sauce and the comforts of fried cornmeal and mouth-melting pork. It’s a mixture steeped in culinary techniques of Europe, Africa and Native America. And in Oxford it is on fine display.
Nowhere does it better than Ajax Diner, located amid the hubbub of the Square. That’s where I go when I need the rich goodness of a chicken-fried steak or a thick-stacked meatloaf, with some of the best side veggies this side of the moon. Dressing? Yes please; never will I say no.
And if football and food just aren’t enough, try Proud Larry’s. The French bread sandwiches have a perfect, toasty crunch before giving way to the burst of flavor within. It’s always a highlight to catch a band playing there, keeping the football weekend going with tunes.
One last stop
By the end of a football Saturday, I’m always a little bit stuffed—but one perk of the weekend is that there’s Sunday morning, too, and by the time I wake up I’ll be hungry again. And, breakfast has always been my favorite meal.
There are a plethora of options, but I often find myself drifting to Bottletree Bakery, just off the Square, so that I can double up: a little something savory, and then a little something sweet. The bagels might have you thinking of New York City, and the croissants of some French country town. (Or, if you want to stay more Mississippian, there’s always the sausage and biscuit). It’s Oxford, in other words: a small football town, with a whole world of flavors.
Go with your gut feelings in Oxford!
Don’t miss out on the non-conference game weekends. In addition to area food worth writing home about, this is where you’ll see Ole Miss on the gridiron in a relatively intimate crowd. A few highlights from the 2017 schedule include:
- South Alabama (September 2)
- University of Tennessee Martin (September 9)
- University of Louisiana Lafayette (November 11)