Sister Cities?

What’s behind the growing New Orleans influence on Oxford cuisine?



At first glance, the two places couldn’t be more different.

One’s a picture-perfect college town nestled in the gently rolling hills of northern Mississippi, where a big football game can swell the town to twice its size, and no one’s a stranger at the one Kroger in town.

The other’s a swampy, sometimes sleazy, always intoxicating city on the eve of celebrating its tricentennial, with a working mishmash of French, Italian, Spanish, and Afro-Caribbean influences, just to name a few.

And yet, more than Memphis, Nashville, or Jackson, Oxford and New Orleans are bound together in a two-way current of transplants and taste buds. But if you ask the residents of either city, no one can quite put their finger on why. The proximity is one obvious reason. It’s about 348 miles from Oxford’s courthouse steps to the center of Jackson Square, arguably the heart of the city and the nexus of the French Quarter.

“It’s only five hours away,” notes Rebecca Lauck Cleary, currently a Southern Studies graduate student at the University of Mississippi. “It’s not too terrible. You can leave in the morning and be there in time for a cocktail and lunch.” Cleary is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and grew up visiting family in nearby New Orleans. Though Oxford has been her home for years, she and her husband try to make the trip down south three times a year or more.

Cleary doesn’t discriminate when it comes to fine dining or dive bars when she visits: “That’s the beauty of the city,” she says. But when it comes to satisfying her cravings for New Orleans food back home in Oxford, she says the only place to be is in her kitchen. That makes Rouse’s, a Louisiana-based grocery store chain scattered throughout the Gulf South, one of her must-stops for gumbo filé, Mam Papaul’s jambalaya mix, and dirty rice.

As far as finding a bit of New Orleans in Oxford, she says, “There are king cakes in Kroger and the church has a little Mardi Gras parade…but I still wish there could be a little more NOLA up here. I’d love to have a real Mardi Gras and a krewe.”

Corbin Evans, the chef/owner of Oxford Canteen, also has deep New Orleans ties. He cooked at and ran various notable restaurants for nine years while he was down there before moving in 2008. “I probably meet a couple people a week that are from there,” he notes when talking to people at his North Lamar restaurant. But don’t expect the traditional Monday red beans and rice dish from Evans. “Occasionally, I’ll make a gumbo,” he says. “But I don’t try to serve New Orleans stuff.” When he does run a NOLA-influenced special, there’s sometimes a bit of a learning curve for the customers: “I did a blackened catfish po’ boy a couple weeks ago…it sold really well to the people who knew what it was.”

When they first settled in Oxford, Evans thought he and his wife, journalism professor Cynthia Joyce, would go down once a month to explore their former haunts in the Big Easy because “you think it’s closer than it really is.” While he admits that long, construction-ridden stretch of Interstate 55 is “not a fun drive,” Evans tries to tag along whenever Joyce teaches her winter session in New Orleans. “I’m always excited to go to New Orleans, but I get anxious about how everything has changed. I miss the diversity of options…I miss good Vietnamese and a real bakery.”

Evans acknowledges the “NOLA North” appeal of Oxford, but says he doesn’t “feel the connection on a regular basis.” He credits the Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the University, for the constant flow of southern minds and palates between the two. “They have a huge contingency in both places; they bring that food literature community,” he says.

Marian Howorth, an Oxford native who relocated to New Orleans five years ago, also sees the migration of people as a major factor. “I think there’s a certain Southern camaraderie,” she says. “It’s more than just proximity; Jackson doesn’t have that. Both cities bring in people from other places.”

Just don’t call it “the Little Easy,” she urges, referring to a nickname given to Oxford by Jim Dees, the local author, editor, and host of the legendary Thacker Mountain Radio Hour. “It is not the Little Easy!” Howorth exclaims, citing Oxford’s strict open-container laws and fastidious police presence as evidence that the town is not as laidback as its big brethren.

She’s seen Oxford expand exponentially while growing up in the late ‘90s, but insists the Big Easy’s decadence and, shall we say, lawlessness, has not made it in the cultural migration up north. But, she admits, both cities tend to be a beacon for creatives from all over the South. “Oxford is a meeting ground between other cities,” she says.

For those who crave New Orleans food but don’t have a five-hour drive in them, your best bet is to head underground. Beneath the long-established Nielson’s department store, owner and chef Angele Mueller has opened her second outpost of the Tallahatchie Gourmet. Mueller grew up in Metairie and Uptown, and has called Oxford home for years — but she’s determined to bring her hometown’s cooking to the city. With red beans and rice served every Monday and fresh Leidenheimer bread shipped in from New Orleans for her poboys, her Oxford outpost is determined to fill a certain void.

Mueller also sees trickles of NOLA culture in Oxford. “Last year, I went into Walmart and they had a whole Mardi Gras section,” she remembers. She thinks Oxford’s ever-appealing destination for retirees and alumnis might have something to do with it, too: “With all the new condos around downtown, you’ve got a lot of people from New Orleans with a second home or a little getaway. I see a lot of that.”

With Carnival season in full flux (January 6 was the official kick-off date), Mueller has purchased her Mardi Gras decor and says she “plans to celebrate throughout the season.” And perhaps most importantly, her baker is geared up to sell king cakes at the restaurant.

“I want every Tuesday to be a Fat Tuesday,” she says.