Food, Fun and Faulkner
Oxford, Mississippi is less than seven hours from Springfield, making it a great quick getaway. Read on, and see how you can take advantage of the history and charm of this sweet Southern city. BY DEBORAH MITCHELL
DISCLAIMER: The information in this article was fact checked and accurate at press time, but 417 Magazine cannot guarantee its accuracy indefinitely.
After a cold, snowy winter last year, I hungered for spring, but it didn’t arrive as scheduled. So I rounded up my BFFs Susan and Kim, and we set out for Oxford, Mississippi. I had read about Oxford some years ago, and when I saw The Blind Side, my interest in Ole Miss, the square, and William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, was piqued again. We spent the weekend shopping, sightseeing, and eating good food; I liked it so much, I returned two weeks later!
Getting to Oxford is simple: Go to Memphis and continue south on I-55. Oxford is located off I-55 about 25 miles east on Highway 6. You can’t miss it. That’s what we thought, anyhow. We missed a left turn, and then frantically tried to follow the GPS instructions: “Turn left. Turn left.” Eventually we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss looks like what a university campus should look like: Old brick buildings, open green spaces, big trees, a huge football stadium and students enjoying the season!
We meandered through campus, but it was lunchtime, and we were hungry. First, however, we checked into our hotel, the Downtown Oxford Inn, which is right off the square. It was absolutely perfect because all necessities were within a block or so: Shops, restaurants, galleries and coffee. Parking was tight for our Crossover, so we parked in a lot right across the street.
The hotel staff offered lunch suggestions, and we chose Bouré, a small restaurant serving New Orleans–style food; we enjoyed lunch, but the best place to get New Orleans–style food is... New Orleans. From there, we walked around the square, browsing locally owned shops, scouting restaurants and window-shopping.
As we rounded the last corner as the last shop was closing for the day, I spotted a sporting goods store; I needed walking shoes because I had forgotten mine, and we planned a long walk on Saturday. What fortune! Within 15 minutes, I had my shoes, and a customer in the store was showing us around town. Our guide? Pat Patterson, sixth-generation Oxfordian and currently Oxford’s mayor.
Mr. Patterson, charming and garrulous, showed us Oxford’s important sites: The Grove at Ole Miss, where football fanatics tailgate dressed to the nines; the dormitory on the campus’s highest and most defendable point, where James Meredith lived when he integrated the University; the square, largely destroyed by fire during the Civil War and then rebuilt; Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home; and Faulkner’s grave, which was—and usually is—adorned with a whiskey bottle. Today’s was Jack Daniels.
Mr. Patterson dropped us at the hotel, and we prepared for a dining adventure at Taylor Grocery, where locals and tourists alike praise the catfish as “da bomb!” The restaurant was once a grocery store and now functions as a foodie haunt. It has a BYOB rule: If patrons want wine or beer at dinner, they can bring it in, because while Oxford is “wet” (you can buy a drink at bars or restaurants), Lafayette County is “dry,” and restaurants can sell no liquor.
We drove seven or so miles to Taylor, Mississippi, where the only building is Taylor Grocery. We took our bottle of wine, and the owner told us to “go ahead and sit over there at the table that ain’t got nobody sittin’ at it.” We did. We drank wine, read the names written on the wall, listened to guitarists playing 1970s hits and ate catfish grilled, blackened and fried. I got the fried, which we all agreed was best. The other two preparations were delicious, but you just can’t beat fried catfish with hushpuppies.
Later, driving back into Oxford, we planned for the next day, beginning with breakfast. Locals touted Big Bad Breakfast, but Mr. Patterson suggested Bottletree Bakery, which offers artisan breads and pastries. We arrived and read glowing newspaper reviews quoting Oprah and the Food Network, and we agreed with their praise after devouring a Danish, muffins and “humble pie,” a shortbread crust with fruit filling.
We then took our walk around town, me in my new shoes, strolling through the beautiful old town where wisteria grows wild and buildings evoke history. Then we went store-hopping. First on our list was Square Books, which has old, wooden plank floors and evoked memories of an old dime store. It has sections for Faulkner and first editions, and a balcony overlooking the square. Next we went to lunch at City Grocery. Chef John Currence was a contestant on Top Chef Masters, and won the 2009 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef South award. His food is spectacular. We ordered asparagus salad, veal and pork meatloaf, spicy shrimp and cheese grits, and blueberry ice cream. I was in hog heaven. After that feast, we toured Rowan Oak. William Faulkner’s home is owned by the university and is open to the public. Visitors approach the house on a tree-lined path, and the grounds, boasting a huge magnolia tree, a circle garden, and an English Knot garden, feel truly Southern.
During our walk, we had selected Two Zero Eight for dinner. The décor was contemporary and sleek, and the menu looked interesting. So we ordered three different kinds of fish, only one of which was outstanding. To be fair, the restaurant was experiencing refrigeration problems, which probably affected food preparation and the temperature of the wine, but fortunately, not the dessert, which was bacon ice cream with caramel sauce. It was fabulous.
Two weeks later, I took my husband to Oxford. And I will be back again. Life often gets hectic, so I look forward to another visit to Oxford, where I can slow down in a way only the South allows, I can enjoy good food, and maybe experience an author’s lecture. In the meantime, however, I make a mean shrimp and grits and just pretend.
How to Do Oxford
• WHERE TO STAY: Chain hotels are located on the town’s west side; B&Bs are available in the city and the county. The 5 Twelve B&B was recommended, but was booked up during my visit. The Downtown Oxford Inn, the only hotel downtown, offers free breakfast and fitness center. Each local property has a web site with phone numbers and on-line reservations. During a football home game weekend, you’ll probably sleep in your car.
• WHERE TO EAT: Obviously, City Grocery (citygroceryonline.com, 662-232-8080, reservations). We were lucky to walk in, because the restaurant was full both times I dined there. Bottletree Bakery (see on Facebook) serves breakfast and lunch. Locals recommend John Currence’s Big Bad Breakfast (citygroceryonline.com) as well. Taylor Grocery (taylorgrocery.com, 662-236-1716, no reservations) is a must. Earlier is probably better, and bring your own bottle in a paper bag. Most restaurants on the square were well populated at lunch and dinner, and I will try some of those next time.
• INTERESTING SIDELIGHTS: If the mayor is not available (!), you can take a red double-decker bus tour. Tickets are available on the square for around $5. More information is available from Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau (oxfordms.com/tourism.html or 800-758-9177).