This past weekend, one-fourth of FiTR journeyed to Oxford, MS, for the twelfth annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. The three-day conference was dedicated to the topic of Southern food and music, which meant lots of discussions about everything from the symbolism of chickens in song to the connection between hip hop and grits, as well as a chitlin ballet and, of course, impressive displays of caloric consumption.
Much of the consumption took place at the conference itself, which featured, among other things, red beans and rice from Bayona‘s Susan Spicer, goat and spoonbread from Cochon‘s Stephen Stryjewski, and a whopping catfish fry at the vaunted Taylor Grocery. But there were plenty of memorable meals on the road between Memphis and Oxford, in places both well-known and unexpected.
Just outside of Oxford’s downtown, Honest Abe’s sells doughnuts, Czech kolaches, and beef tamales against a backdrop of wood-paneled walls decorated with taxidermied hogs, pheasants, and moose. The doughnuts and tamales are superlative, but it’s the boiled peanuts, sold for $1.39 a bag, that are a regional food nerd’s wildest and sweatiest dream come true. Wet, salty, and edible right down to the crunchy yet pliant shell, they’ve got the addictive properties of a Schedule I controlled substance. Best of all, they’re perfect car food, easily consumed by the fistful and leaving no waste.
Among Memphis’s barbecue bounty is the Dancing Pigs Bar-B-Que Shop, which sells pulled pork sandwiches served on massive slices of Texas toast and bottles of some of the best sauce the South has to offer: it’s a perfect hybrid of Kansas City sweet and Carolina vinegar, and compellingly spicy.
Pig may be prevalent in Memphis, but chicken also holds a place of renown, particularly at Gus’s, a Front Street institution whose modest exterior belies the lavish bounty found just beyond its front door. Their chicken was, in the words of one delirious convert, “unbelievable,” endowed with crispy, spicy skin that sheltered almost unbearably moist meat. It’s no accident that certain New York chefs have visited Gus’s before opening their own Yankee chicken shacks: if you’re going to try to sell the South to the city, you should know what sort of precedent you’re up against.
Oxford has plenty of good food to recommend it. Some of it can be found at Big Bad Breakfast, one of the four restaurants John Currence has opened in town. Located in a nondescript strip mall that’s also home to a Sears and an Italian deli, BBB, as it’s known, represents the platonic ideal of new-wave Southern comfort food, serving grapefruit-sized biscuits, bowls of grits impregnated with local butter and cream, and in-house andouille sausage made with organic free-range pork. The biscuits in are one of the menu’s building blocks, providing bulky but tender foundation for gutbombs including the Cathead, pictured above, and accompanying fat, pillowy omelets like the Secret History (below), which comes stuffed with shallots, tomatoes, and Swiss.
New York has of late been embroiled in a somewhat passionate affair with Southern cooking, and like any affair it’s had its share of ecstatic highs and miserable lows. Going back to the source of the attraction was an enlightening if calorically ruinous fling of its own, a reminder that while restaurants and trends come and go, our love of real regional Southern cuisine, devoid of pretension and buttered with gutbusting soul, is here to stay.