Alex V. Cook
Preferably in a pink-and-white seersucker suit
Many are the genteel pleasures of Oxford, a cherry on the kudzu-and-blues layer cake of North Mississippi. Should you find yourself up there for a football game or just a weekend of Southern finery, they do it up right in Oxford. May I suggest this itinerary:
The Square: The square surrounding the 1872 historic courthouse is not only the center of town, it is the center of Oxfordian identity in an orbit that presents the town’s finery. Under its succession of verandas, you’ll find upscale shopping. Neilson’s is a department store out of time, literally, from 1839. I understand that if you are the right kind of people, you can have clothes put on account and sent to your stately manse, of which there are plenty just off the square.
Personally, I have lust in my heart for a pink and white seersucker suit I spied in the collection at Landry’s, just off the square to the south. It’s out of my price range, but I’ll send measurements to any generous benefactor that wants to help sort out my sartorial issues.
All this dreaming of dandyism leaves a fellow peckish; and fortunately, there are a number of civilized—yet down-home—options available on the square; Ajax Diner is one. Try to get the perfect people-watching table up front (on gorgeous fall days, they open the front doors) and dig into a pimento cheese poboy and a bowl of succotash, nurse one of their signature bloody marys or a Jon Daly—vodka, sweet tea, and lemonade—and watch Oxford stroll by.
Or find a spot at Bouré, Chef John Currence’s sports bar and one of the many facets of his award-winning Oxford dining empire. My vote is for the turducken sandwich on ciabatta or the breaded pork tenderloin, some sweet potato fries, and a Yazoo Pale Ale. Upgrade your table with black-eyed pea hummus (the time has come for us to marry the southern bean traditions with hummus and devour their offspring) and a pomegranate martini or a planter’s punch—rum, orange and pineapple juice, grenadine, and soda.
It should be check-in time after lunch, and while there are plenty of perfectly acceptable places to stay right off the square, I like to head two blocks down University to the Ole Miss Motel. It’s a classic, low-frills motor lodge, inexpensive and handy, with a must-see lobby. The lobby walls are done up with dozens of signed promo photos of bands that have stayed there—everybody from Fugazi to Cowboy Mouth—and behind the glass at the check-in desk hang a number of signed photos from the original Star Trek cast. There is also a photo of John Candy in there; he would have been a welcome addition on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Back up to the square with you (after changing into your new pink seersucker suit)—time to peruse the three bookstores in Richard Howorth’s Square Books empire. Oxford is a literary town; there is a bench where you can sit awhile with (a statue of) William Faulkner, who cast Oxford as the fictional town of Jefferson in his celebrated cerebral novels—or a Barry Hannah collection or a Jack Pendarvis or Tom Franklin novel, for that matter. Once you’ve basked in the glow of his influence, saunter over to Square Books to buy one of his novels. The flagship store sits in the center of the north side of the square in an old ice cream store, thus anchoring the city’s love of its authors. Down the block is Off Square books, which deals in second-hand books and a dazzling array of literary magazines. It also hosts the Thacker Mountain radio program—think a smarter Prairie Home Companion—from a stage in the back. Around the corner, Square Books, Jr. caters to children of discerning temperament.
The Eats and Drinks: Once the hour hits half-past-four, head over to City Grocery’s upstairs restaurant, the fine-dining piece of Chef Currence’s four-fold vision and a required stop. Collect an expertly muddled mint julep and locate a seat on the small balcony facing the square; there you will experience Oxford at its essence.
City Grocery’s dinner menu and wine selection are peerless, and you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant with such refined cuisine in as cozy and comfortable a setting. A recent visit found me sat with spiced scallion fritters and an expertly grilled lamb’s heart, sliced and fanned out with a helping of mustard greens. “Last meal”-grade decadence.
If you are after something more rustic, take the ten-minute drive through the hills out to Taylor Grocery in nearby Taylor, Mississippi. Prepare to wait outside on the porch of this nominally converted country store to enjoy some of the best catfish of your life. Every inch of the weathered building is covered with signatures of past visitors. The banquet room boasts a graffitied giant red heart flanked by mounted deer heads. It is the best dining room mural ever, as far as I’m concerned. Get the fried catfish whole on the bone, like the universe intends us to eat it, a large sweet tea (no alcohol on the menu) and, should you have room, a plate of their chocolate cobbler. I witnessed an entire table of Ole Miss sorority girls cackling and documenting each other’s party dresses on cell phones come to a quick studied silence when the catfish arrived. That good. Oh, they have Ro-Tel cheese fries as an appetizer. Do not forget the Ro-Tel cheese fries. You will regret not getting them much more than you might regret the full belly after.
If you are in the mood for live music, head back to the square to catch touring acts at the Lyric Theatre—at the very least, poke your head in just to see the psychedelic expanse of period black and white wallpaper in the lobby—or walk down a block to Proud Larry’s to take in some local music and expert bar food. I saw Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers translate his giant rock show into a smoldering, rolling thunder, intimate set with a backing band there. It’s pretty much how I’d like to see every concert.
Break Your Fast: There are two must-hit breakfast options in Oxford. One is Chef Currence’s Big Bad Breakfast just into town on North Lamar. Be warned, there will be a line spilling into the unassuming parking lot before they open at 7 am. They are all about literary puns, what with Burgsalom! Burgsalom! and the Pel “Egg” Can Brief—an eggs benedict variant served with grits. I’d recommend the Pain Perdue—brandy-infused French toast topped with whipped cream and strawberries.
But say you’ve taken in too many of Oxford’s charms and you have a tailgate full of drinking to do. For a recharge, I’d recommend a cup of the Grandma Turner’s Oatmeal, slow cooked overnight at Bottletree Bakery, oatmeal good enough to warrant inclusion in an article that mentions fried catfish and lamb hearts. I wish I had ready access to Bottletree’s baked goods, their pain au chocolate and baguettes and homemade monkey bread—like a pull-apart cinnamon roll. My favorite is their humble pie, a crumbly butter cookie filled with seasonal fruit jams and drizzled with streusel.
Fully charged, you are now prepared for the tailgating scene at the Grove on the Ole Miss campus. Just inside the gates of the University of Mississippi is one of the loveliest tailgate spots in the SEC. A sea of white tents occupy the shady park central to the campus, football fans decked out in red and white finery. This would be a great place for me to wear that seersucker suit one of you might be compelled to buy for me. It is a high cotton garden party of gargantuan proportions, one that every football fan, regardless of team affiliation, should experience. The stadium is but a mere highball stagger away, and then you have the full embrace of the square awaiting you after.
My final stop is always End of All Music, Oxford’s stellar independent record store run by the fine minds behind the Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess record labels. This is a place for vinyl records enthusiasts, which is why I make it my last stop so my bounty doesn’t melt in the car. They carry the full lineup of their house labels’ garage pop and blues as well as a wealth of north Mississippi blues music; but the real treasures can be found in the back. Notable is their well-curated selection of 78s. I picked up a Webb Pierce gospel number and “When I Been Drinking” by Rosetta Howard and the Big Three Trio.
Pulling out of End of All’s parking lot and back to the less-genteel environs of I-55, I’m struck thinking that Oxford does it right; and when you are there, you do it right too. You eat right, you drink right, you brush against literature and high living, you even tailgate with style. You leave Oxford wondering why they don’t do it all like this everywhere.
Details. Details. Details.
Landry’s Gentlemen’s Apparel
Bouré, City Grocery, Snackbar,
and Big Bad Breakfast
Ole Miss Motel