The food of the South is a significant part of the culinary heritage of the United States. Its dishes may lack the romantic language of French food or the precision cuts of the Japanese, but Southern cooking puts flavour first – not least in Mississippi, known for its down-home dishes and an agricultural landscape that produces a range of ingredients, from catfish, shrimp and red snapper to sweet potatoes, corn and watermelons.
As well as nurturing these crops, the warm climate means people are often able to cook outdoors, and they take advantage of that in many ways: with summer sausage (fermented, smoked sausage), red rind cheese and dill pickles eaten on the porch; with shrimp boils in springtime, where stock pots full of beautiful, white Gulf shrimp are set over gas burners; and over catfish frys invariably dished up as double acts with hush puppies (fried cornbread balls). Join any of these gatherings and you’ll find sweet tea with lemon icebox pie, and pecan pie being served afterwards.
There’s a strong social element to cooking and eating in the region, and hospitality runs in Southern blood. The locals are often teased about the awfulness of grits, but the beauty of Southern food today is that it’s embracing its own story with pride, backed by an army of Southern chefs who care as deeply about the preservation and revival of traditional foods as they do about what tastes delicious.
One of the best places to witness this is in Oxford, a university city in the slow-rolling hills of north Mississippi. On the surface, much here appears as it would have done 100 years ago, but the city has a large, diverse population now, which makes for the perfect confluence of local Mississippi food culture and culinary influences from the wider South and beyond.
If you stop at one place for barbecued food in the Mississippi Delta it should be at Abe’s in Clarksdale, where bluesman Robert Johnson is supposed to have sold his soul to the devil. Grab an exemplary pulled pork sandwich or try tamales. abesbbq.com
2. The City Grocery
At John Currence’s signature restaurant in Oxford, expect Cajun and Creole influences (John is originally from New Orleans) but don’t miss the shrimp and grits, a respectfully hybridised version from one of his mentors, Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner restaurant. citygroceryonline.com
3. Taylor Grocery
‘Eat or we both starve’ is the slogan of what is commonly considered the South’s best fried catfish house. There’s one in every town, but this one in Taylor is definitely worth the drive. It doesn’t serve alcohol, so BYO. taylorgrocery.com
4. Ajax Diner
Ajax is the epitome of Southern ‘meat and three’ restaurants. Blue plate specials change daily. If you can’t decide, Matty’s Mom’s Meatloaf, stuffed with jack cheese and ham, will hit the spot. Wash it down with plenty of iced tea and don’t miss dessert: anything from the pie section. ajaxdiner.net
5. The Mayflower
This Jackson restaurant is a Mississippi institution. Its menu focusses on fish and it’s also famous locally for its comeback sauce, a Mississippi condiment based on mayonnaise and chilli sauce. Don’t miss the broiled oysters with colbert sauce. Mayflowercafems.com
Words by Brad McDonald.
First published October 2016.