Tag Archives: Oxford Mississippi

Saharan Sunset | Moveable Feast

The fact that our lives in the Southeast United States this weekend were significantly influenced by an infusion of dust from the African Sahara is a reminder of how small our world is and how close we all are.

There is a quality of light on this early summer late afternoon that is striking. It’s hard to determine, really, how much is cloudiness as a front settles in and how much is the dust. I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s Light in August and, as a firm believer in the Faulkner claim that his title refers to an actual natural phenomenon, I prefer to attribute the odd quality of the sky today to natural occurrences from across the Atlantic.

Driving down a two-lane highway into Oxford, Mississippi, on an August afternoon some decades ago, I was sure that the specific light through the long-leaf pines was what Faulkner, and his wife, Estelle, who suggested the title Light in August, surely meant. It was a special and translucent light that is hard to describe. When you encounter it, you will surely recognize it.

It has been raining off and on all day in north Alabama, and the pre-dusk light has taken on an intensely bright quality. The sunset last night was splendid, but tonight’s dusk tends to be leaning toward a chalky mundane.


Lifestyle changes have been the order of the day – every day – in this year of the pandemic. Much of my social activity for years centered around meals and an effort to satisfy my interest in foodways — in social as well as historical terms.

The last time I ate a meal in a restaurant was March. As restrictions have begun to be loosened – prematurely, I think – I still have no real desire to “dine in” for a while. I want to support my local eateries and I have ordered take-out from some of my favorite places in an effort to do so. Even as the restaurants do their part to ensure safety, there are just too many people who don’t seem to be taking this crisis seriously. Currently, I know of about eight people who are diagnosed with COVID.

I know many of the restaurants are open on a more restricted basis and I wish them well. I was amused to read that The Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com), the much-acclaimed Virginia restaurant outside D.C., had plans to seat costumed mannequins in its dining rooms upon reopening so that the place would not feel so empty. It’s an amusing solution, but a little depressing, too.


Among the things I’m missing most are the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence at the factory/atelier of designer Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Chanin brand (www.alabamachanin.com).  These dinners began about five years ago and were my introduction to many chefs whose work was only previously known to me by their reputations and awards. I have met people from all over the world at these events and formed friendships along the way.

Four Friends of the Café dinner events were scheduled for 2020 and I had tickets to the whole series. The first two were postponed. The rest are up in the air for now. I am a little pessimistic about the likelihood that there will be any trips to Florence for Friends of the Café this year. The dinners also served as fundraisers for notable causes like Southern Foodways Alliance  and Chanin’s Project Threadways.

I have frequently written about these dinners in the past. The ambiance and sense of community they inspire always impressed me. Each featured chef has been on some part of the James Beard Award spectrum and the dinners have become a treasured part of my year.


American Public Television’s “Create” affiliate has aired the PBS show “Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking” (www.finecooking.com/moveablefeast) for a few years now. That program comes as close as anything I’ve found to capturing the spirit of those magical Florence meals. During the pandemic, “Moveable Feast” has become a brief escape for me, reminiscent of a more social time of the recent past.

The show’s title is inspired by a Hemingway title and quote about Paris in the 1920s. Each episode features a different location – sometimes American, sometimes international. The program host introduces the location and a couple of chefs from the area. They visit local purveyors to choose what to prepare for that evening’s “feast.”

Then it’s off to the kitchen where the host and guest chefs prepare their recipes for a pop-up communal meal. The show has always been appealing; nowadays, the sight of convivial guests gathering, hugging, shaking hands, toasting, and sitting down to have a meal together evokes bittersweet nostalgia.

“Create” showcased hours-long blocks of “Moveable Feast” episodes over the weekend and I found myself drawn to them – even though I had already viewed most of them. I was most pleased to revisit a charming episode in which host Michelle Bernstein visits and cooks with Jeremiah Tower, a godfather of California cuisine, in his current hometown of Merrida, Mexico. The occasionally prickly Tower, whose memoir California Dish is among my favorite books on food, exudes immaculate charm and wit as he shows Bernstein around the town and introduces her to a wealth of local ingredients and their knowledgeable purveyors.

In another favorite, host Pete Evans attends an event of “Outstanding in the Field” (www.outstandinginthefield.com), a roving pop-up restaurant event founded by artist Jim Denevan. The guest chef is Ravi Kapur and the site is Secret Sea Cove on the California coast. Guests at the table closest to the ocean get a gentle foot soaking as the tide moves in during the magical feast.

I was interested in what “Outstanding in the Field” is up to during the pandemic and found a moving letter from Jim Denevan on the website. He explains that the project is on hiatus until 2021 and concludes, “The table will be set. It will have been a long time coming. We are looking forward.”

In the milky sunset of a Saharan-influenced dusk, I will only add “Amen.”

Big Bad Chef

In January 2006, four and a half months after the disaster in the aftermath of Katrina, I drove to New Orleans to join a crew of volunteers assembled by the Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) to work on the resurrection of Willie Mae’s Scotch House in Treme. Willie Mae’s is a neighborhood place in New Orleans that was designated an “America’s Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, less than four months before the storm. Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken is often declared the best anywhere (www.williemaesnola.com). Willie Mae passed away but her legacy is carried on by her great-granddaughter, Kerry Seaton Stewart.

When I got to my hotel after an eight-hour drive, there was no room available. I produced a print-out of my reservation and confirmation number but the little French Quarter hotel – a place I had stayed at and enjoyed in the past – was full of construction workers who were working on the larger reconstruction efforts around the city. The desk clerk called a couple of places and declared there were no rooms in the area to be had at short notice. I was too tired to argue.

I blame myself. When I made the reservation in December, the staff Christmas party was going on in the background so maybe – confirmation or not – my reservation was lost in their revelry.

Despondent, I emailed my regrets to the SFA folks and drove back to Alabama that same night.

If I had figured out a way to stay and work, I would have been working with Chef John Currence, who headed up the Willie Mae’s restoration.


Currence, a New Orleans native who made his culinary mark in Oxford, Mississippi, may be as well-known for his philanthropy as he is for his restaurant brand. City Grocery, his flagship restaurant on the Square in Oxford, is a fine dining restaurant with a famously rowdy upstairs bar. Snackbar and Boure are other Currence ventures in Oxford along with Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast also has locations in Alabama and Florida (www.citygroceryonline.com).

I’ve had a couple of great meals at City Grocery and was thrilled when it was announced that John Currence would be the guest chef for the August Friends of the Café event at Alabama Chanin’s Florence factory. He had been on my wish list of possible chefs for the series.

The Friends of the Café series of chefs and dinners is always announced in advance (www.alabamachanin.com). However, the August chef is kept secret until a few weeks before the event. This dinner always happens on the Thursday night before the opening of Billy Reid’s weekend-long “Shindig” the next day. I was happy when Currence was announced in July.

Currence’s dishes for the evening were paired with wines selected by Eric Solomon, a champion importer of French and Spanish wines through his European Cellars distributors in Charlotte. Solomon’s passion came through in his presentations and descriptions throughout the evening (www.europeancellars.com).

Passed hors d’oeuvres included a chicken liver pate with pickled egg mimosa on grilled bread. The hearty second pass-around was kheema pao, an Indian street food stalwart, with spiced lamb, soft scramble, cilantro chutney, and slivered serrano peppers served on a hefty sweet roll.

As the diners were seated, a first course of sweet corn soup with marinated blue crab arrived at the table. The course that followed was grilled summer vegetables served with spiced yogurt, smoked almonds, sweet onion, and a lemon vinegar. At the end of the night, Chef Currence touchingly revealed that the vinegar we were served was made from champagne that had been part of his mother’s cellar.

The third course was a perfectly prepared beef ribeye with celery root puree, vinegar-wilted arugula, and chimichurri. The dinner ended with the most elegantly presented Mississippi Mud Pie I have ever tasted. It was a soulful, well-paced meal, pleasingly complemented by Solomon’s pairings.


Currence’s food philosophy is on vivid display in his 2013 cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) (Andrews McMeel Publishing). The book is an enjoyable and colorful collection of profanity-laced insights on food and great recipes. Currence draws from his culinary training, international travel, a New Orleans upbringing, and long-time Mississippi residency for recipes that resonate and thrill. His culinary viewpoint is headstrong and provocative and his cookbook is a showcase for his culinary tastes and his opinions; I tend to agree with most of his takes on food, as I do with his takes on politics in his unbridled social media posts. The text of the cookbook, like the food Currence champions and serves, is honest and to the point.

This is not your grandmother’s cookbook.

After the dinner, Currence signed my copy of Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. As he signed, with a typical Big Bad Chef flourish, he blacked out a tooth on his picture on the facing page and gave himself a diabolical moustache.

It’s always hard to imagine how each Friends of the Café dinner might be topped. The parade of master chefs who present there seems to always come through. Add Big Bad John Currence to the list.

John Currence photo by Angie Mosier; photo defaced by John Currence