From strawberry jam biscuits to shrimp and grits and locally roasted coffee, Oxford, Mississippi, offers good eats worth the trip.
March 22nd through 24th marked the 19th Annual Oxford Conference for the Book, a three-day event dedicated to celebrating reading, writing, and publishing, and featuring a number of noteworthy speakers. On this year’s schedule, “Cornbread Nation: Making Sense of the South by Way of Food,” with John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Kim Severson of The New York Times, Brett Andersen, restaurant critic and features writer at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and Randy Fertel, writer, philanthropist, and son of the founder of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. So I called a few friends, and we packed up the ole Buick for what promised to be a weekend full of fun, food, and a whole lot of Southern charm.
Before heading out, we did our homework and researched where to eat in Oxford. Of course there was City Grocery,the flagship restaurant of John Currence, 2009 James Beard Best Southern Chef, and Honey Bee Bakery, famed for their made-from-scratch cakes (featured in Southern Living‘s January 2012 feature, “The South’s Best Bakeries”). But there were other discovers along the way too.
The afternoon began with a lively discussion of food writing, including a few colorful jokes, John T.’s infectious signature laugh, and a focus on writing about New Orleans. In her new book, “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,” Kim Severson looks at family and relationships through the lens of food. Randy Fertel writes about the food of his beloved city, New Orleans, “to connect with the reader,” but he follows with a plea to save the wetlands that sustain the city. Brett Andersen says that while learning about Creole cooking, he has come to appreciate the interpretative art in the many different ways that cooks can prepare the same traditional recipes. Coming from different backgrounds and areas of writing, the panel seemed to echo a cohesive theme that food connects people and helps us to relate and better understand one another.
All this talk about food had my stomach growling. Supper at City Grocery included buttery cornbread muffins, a mushroom pâte salad, and seared scallops over bright pink beet risotto. Sunday started off with brunch at Honey Bee, and all agreed that the raspberry muffins and cheese grits were well worth the slight drive from downtown. A surprise discovery, High Point Coffee, revived us with their locally roasted brews and smooth iced coffee.
I returned to Birmingham with a new appreciation for the power of food. No matter where we come from, we can connect over a meal, put aside our differences, and understand a little better a new place and the people who live there.