The scrubby hills around Oxford, Mississippi, have long evoked the brooding landscapes of native son William Faulkner, who set the bulk of his fiction here, in a mythical county where generations weaned on "molasses and meal and meat" endured their travails with just the dimmest hopes of something better. But times have changed in Oxford, a diminutive college town an hour south of Memphis. The little tobacco and general-goods stores have been usurped by a smart array of boutiques and art galleries, and on any given night, you might encounter Czeslaw Milosz or Jim Harrison reading from one of his works in a cluttered bookshop or come upon a New Orleans brass band leading revelers out of a bar and onto the sidewalk.
The epicenter of Oxford's new vibrancy is City Grocery, a 22-table restaurant housed in a 19th-century livery stable on the town square. Since City Grocery opened its doors seven years ago, travelers have come from all over for 34-year-old chef-owner John Currence's playful but elegant take on Deep South cuisine, an approach that melds farmhouse staples (grits, barbecue sauces, catfish fillets) with international inspirations. While Currence's innovative food is a draw--especially his soft-shell crabs over bok-choy coleslaw with a ginger aioli and his savory crawfish and tasso-ham cheesecake with a smoked-tomato coulis--so too is the relaxed spirit of the restaurant's low-lit dining room, where you might occasionally witness an impromptu tableside guitar performance.
City Grocery gets much of its personality from Currence. Born in New Orleans, he says he got into the restaurant business purely out of desperation: "I was singing in a band and needed extra money, so I started washing dishes at Bill Neal's Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina." Neal, one of the first chefs to be recognized for preparing southern recipes using French techniques, took the fledgling rock star-dishwasher under his wing, and within a few months Currence became his pastry chef. After a stint at a restaurant in New Orleans, Currence discovered Oxford through a friend who had attended college there and thought the town ready for ambitious cuisine. The friend's assessment of Oxford proved true, although a few locals did complain at first about the "crunchy" haricots verts. Getting the townspeople comfortable with foie gras also took time.
Yet the utter ebullience of Currence's cooking soon won over the critics. Now even those early skeptics would be thrilled to come to his annual Fourth of July parties, which combine high-stakes horseshoe games and great food, including rosemary-Cheddar biscuits with sausage and cheese and molasses-marinated chicken with mustard glaze. This year's celebration, held at the bed-and-breakfast of Currence's friend Susan Barksdale, saw the addition of a new Fourth of July recipe--the mojito, a sort of rum mint julep that Currence discovered on a recent trip to Havana. Served in a sterling-silver julep cup, an undying symbol of the Old South, the mojito is an apt metaphor for Currence's culinary style: a mingling of Deep South tradition with the flavors of the larger world. And a whole lot of hill-country spirit.
Story by Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Sports Afield, who writes for the New York Times Book Review and Salon.