Ashley Rose Young is a graduate of Yale University and is a candidate for a PhD in History at Duke University. Her dissertation research focuses on the culinary history of New Orleans in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is currently in New Orleans researching culinary icon, Lena Richard.
For more information on the Southern Foodways Alliance, visit their website – www.southernfoodways.com
In May, I attended an oral history workshop called Gathering the Stories Behind the Food in Oxford, Mississippi. The workshop was hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and was conducted by noted oral historian Amy Evans Streeter. Several food scholars from across the South made their way to the home of the SFA: the historic Barnard Observatory building nestled in the center of Ole Miss’s breathtakingly beautiful campus. Our cohort represented a wide range of institutions including: The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Foodways Texas, Emory University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tulane University, and Georgia State University.
For five days we convened at the Observatory to learn the SFA’s oral history methodology and practices, while also learning from one another’s experiences in the field. The first day various members of the SFA team swung by our workshop to say hello. John T. Edge, director of the SFA, and Joe York, filmmaker, told us that they were headed off to Cajun Country to finish shooting a film about cochon de lait called “To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish.“ The film premiered at The Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York City on June 12, 2011.
The end of our first workday was marked by a potluck dinner. This was a nice occasion to get to know the SFA crew one-on-one. The food was simple and delicious. The pulled pork, baked beans, deviled eggs, potato salad and strawberry cake were perfect picnic fare. Above all, the company was wonderful. I really enjoyed learning about my fellow scholars’ academic interests and future research endeavors. It is such a comfort to know that there is a budding network of food scholars and food enthusiasts that I can look to for support and encouragement.
Throughout the week, Amy guided us through preparing, conducting and processing oral histories. We learned how to craft a substantive question set for interviews, we conducted mock interviews to master digital audio and digital SLR camera equipment, and we followed Amy into the field to observe her conducting an oral history with Liz Stagg, the owner of the Farmers’ Market Store in Oxford. After collecting Liz’s oral history, we created an audio slideshow of her story, which is now posted on the SFA’s blog. It was both challenging and rewarding to choose excerpts from the interview and pair them with images that we shot at Liz’s store. I am proud of the finished product—it was a true team effort, and is a testament to the success of Amy’s workshop.
During our mid-afternoon breaks, we explored the quaint town of Oxford, Mississippi. The town square is riddled with numerous boutiques and eateries, but my favorite store was Square Books. This bookstore is any reading enthusiast’s dream. Once I walked into the shop, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Square Books has almost every southern studies and southern food studies book written in the past few years (many of which are signed by the author). I hungrily scanned the book displays catching glances of titles such as Martha Hall Foose’s A Southerly Course, Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen and Charles Thompson’s Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World. I was in heaven. I spent a good hour browsing through various monographs, wishing I could take a laden shelf’s worth of books home with me. I settled on a signed copy of Jessica B. Harris’ High on the Hog.
In addition to window shopping and meandering around the square during our lunch breaks, we also made a concerted effort to get to know Oxford’s food scene. Upon Amy’s recommendation we ate at Ajax Diner. Twice. The diner’s interior is lit with hollowed out squash lanterns, strings of bulbous Christmas lights, and star-shaped tin light fixtures. The walls are graced with a hodgepodge of local art, and the ceiling is peppered with frill toothpicks. I ventured to guess that enthusiastic patrons shot these toothpicks through straws, embedding them permanently in the ceiling. The food at Ajax was classic. Our first trip I ordered the “vegetable” plate with red beans and rice, sweet potato casserole, cheesy grits and a hearty piece of jalapeno cornbread. Although nutritionally unsound, this dish was spiritually renewing. On our second visit I ordered the Ajax hamburger dressed with cabbage, pickles and seasoned mayonnaise. Both meals were delicious, and I left Ajax with a sense that I had experienced an essential slice of Oxford’s food scene.
Other notable eateries in town include Bottletree Bakery, which is famous for its pastries. I was lucky enough to try their Strawberry Humble Pie. The combination of buttery shortbread crust and semi-sweet strawberry filling was perfection. Our cohort also stopped by notable institutions such as City Grocery, Soulshine Pizza, Holli’s Sweet Tooth, Emileigh’s Kitchen, Ya Ya’s Frozen Yogurt, and High Point Coffee.
One of my last eating experiences in Oxford was at Big Bad Breakfast (known in Oxford as BBB). Nearly every Oxford local I talked to raved about chef John Currence’s breakfast joint. Time was limited, and I decided to head to BBB at 7:00 am on Friday morning to try out the Big Bad Breakfast Plate which consisted of two eggs, andouille sausage, tomato gravy, a homemade biscuit and the best grits I have ever had in my life. Sacrificing a good night’s rest was well worth it for the grits alone. They were a beautiful golden-yellow color with strong undertones of butter and garlic and just the right amount of black pepper. Sheer perfection!
Overall, my experience in Oxford, Mississippi was fantastic. I reflected upon my visit during the 6-hour train ride back to New Orleans, and could not help but smile as I remembered some of the more quirky moments that I had with my fellow food scholars. One thing is certain: when you have a bunch of food-lovers in the same room, you are bound to eat well and have good conversation.