Greetings From Oxford, Mississippi

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Many know Oxford, Miss., mainly as the home of the University of Mississippi, called Ole Miss by most. The campus is an integral part of the little city, and students account for a good chunk of its population. On home-game weekends each autumn, thousands of Ole Miss’ faithful fans swarm in for food, fun and football. But there’s much more to Oxford than pigskin and academics—and spring’s a smart time to discover it. The crowds are smaller compared to fall’s football frenzy, the temps are mild, a bevy of tulips provide pops of color and there’s plenty to see and do, including the 20th annual Double Decker Festival (April 24-25): a weekend-long celebration of music and art that’s grown from one band in the bed of a truck to a highly anticipated event that drew 60,000 people last year.

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Double Decker Festival Photo: Ben Pharr

Day One

If you wake up with raging appetite, tame it quickly (and deliciously) with a visit to Big Bad Breakfast. Owned by Chef John Currence (a torchbearer of modern Southern cuisine who put Oxford on the culinary map), BBB is known for its massive morning-meal options. Some are quite refined, like the house-made, sun-dried cranberry and almond granola over yogurt, but go for the signature BBB plate: two eggs, Andouille sausage, home fries, red-eye gravy and a cathead biscuit.

Fight the urge to take a nap, and head over to Ole Miss’ campus to walk off the 1,000+ calories you just consumed. Start at The Grove, 10 acres of green space shaded by ancient oaks. On weekends from September through November, it’s packed with tailgating tents decked out in chandeliers, grandma’s silver and other finery. But in spring, it’s an oasis of calm.

Stroll over to the Lyceum, the oldest building on campus, and look for the scars left by bullets ricocheting off its thick white columns when, in 1962, the arrival of the university’s first African-American student, James Meredith, sparked an ugly, violent protest. A statue honoring Meredith and the progress he symbolizes stands nearby.

The Lyceum Photo: Flickr/Joseph

Leave campus for The Square, the historic city center that’s anchored by the Layfayette County Courthouse. It looks like a set for a movie depicting idyllic small-town life, with its perfectly preserved buildings (many with balconies), immaculate landscaping and smiling citizens.

If you’re actually hungry again by noon, Ajax promises to undo all your ellmeaning exercise. This diner on The Square serves heaping helpings of classic comfort foods, and serves them up quick, even when it’s crowded (which it usually is). Try a veggie plate and choose from items like creamy broccoli-rice casserole that’s got two surprises inside, a spicy kick and the crunch of slivered almonds; potato salad heavy on red onion and dill; and slow-simmered black-eyed peas that aren’t embellished (and don’t need to be). A hunk of dense jalapeno cornbread teeters on the edge of every plate, ready to sop up juices and scoop up stray bites.

Step outside of Ajax and enter shopping nirvana. On all four sides of The Square, shops old and new offer all kinds of things to tempt money from your wallet. Don’t miss Neilson’s, the South’s oldest still-operating department store; Mississippi Madness, chock full of magnolia-state-made pottery, foodstuffs and more; and Therapy, a hip ladies’ boutique with flirty dresses and tops styled (and sized) for the younger set. Jewelry stores, home décor shops, art galleries, stores devoted solely to Ole Miss-themed items and three independent bookstores round out the mix.

If spending money makes you thirsty, make your way to City Grocery, another John Currence joint. But skip the restaurant downstairs, and look for the door with a glass panel that reads, “No belly aching. Must be 21 to enter” that will take you up to the bar. Snag a seat on the small balcony cooled by lazy ceiling fans and watch beautiful people go about their business below you. While the ghost of Oxford’s own literary luminary William Faulkner is everywhere (Faulkner’s Alley is right next door), he won’t care if you sip a Hemingway daiquiri as you wonder why everyone—men, women, children, dogs—in Oxford is so good looking.

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City Grocery Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

For dinner, leave the Square for a strip mall where Snackbar is waiting. A long bar-height table dominates its dimly lit dining room and leads to communal eating and conversations with strangers. But they won’t be strangers long; it’s hard not to get happy and friendly after a few seasonally available cocktails like the Smash That Ate the South: a sweet-sharp mash-up of tequila, strawberries and muddled mint with house-made kudzu bitters over crushed ice. Chef Vishwesh Bhatt’s French-meets-Southern cuisine will make you (and your taste buds) even happier still. Pan-roasted Mississippi redfish resting on fennel-cauliflower gratin is a must-try.

If you’re feeling happy enough to pretend you’re a college student when you leave, visit Funky’s, a loud, dark bar where the “cool” kids gather to dance amid colored lights and drink ridiculous, neon-hued frozen concoctions like the “Taylor Swift.” Try The Wine Bar for a more sophisticated nightlife experience and eclectic selection of vino.

Day Two

Find your way to the Oxford Canteen in an alley beside the Lyric Theatre right off the Square. Check out the chalkboard list of the morning’s specials, and order at the walk-up window. Sit at the barely-there board affixed to the alley’s brick wall and go to town on eggs scrambled with poblanos and onions, topped with salsa verde and tucked cozily into soft corn tortillas.

Use that food fuel to immerse yourself in Oxford’s deep devotion to the written word. Start at ground zero: Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, godfather of Southern letters. The primitive Greek Revival house is owned by the University and has been left much as it was when the author lived there from 1930 until his death in 1962. Executive director Bill Griffin will greet you at the front door with a self-guided-tour brochure. But he’ll gladly walk with you and answer questions as you look at Faulkner’s personal belongings, letters, manuscripts, his typewriter, even empty liquor bottles that are on display. Don’t leave without seeing the grounds. Peaceful and secluded, the 29 acres feel a world away from the busy streets circling the property’s borders and offer a glimpse of what inspired Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County based on Oxford and surrounding areas.

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Rowan Oak Photo: Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

Take a biscuit break for lunch with a stop at Ember’s Biscuits and Bar-B-Que, where fillings of all kinds are stuffed into hearty Southern biscuits made by Miss Earline. Try the pit-cooked chicken biscuit and add tomato. Or opt for the BBQ nachos, and ask them to go lite on the barbecue sauce (the tender pork doesn’t need it) and heavy on the rich, only slightly spicy queso.

After lunch, continue your exploration of Oxford’s literary heritage. Start at Square Books. Opened in 1979, it hosts frequent book signings and other events that highlight the many writers like Willie Morris and John Grisham who’ve called Oxford home. Nearby, Square Books, Jr. is a treasure trove of kids’ lit. If your two days in Oxford include a Thursday, check out Off Square Books. This shop is the place to find cookbooks and other tomes focused on Southern food, but on Thursday nights, the Thacker Mountain Radio show is recorded there live. Anyone is welcome to drop in and watch, and they do; there’s usually standing room only if you don’t get there early. The show features area musicians, artists, authors and others performing, reading and chatting with local writer Jim Dees and airs on Mississippi public radio on Saturday nights.

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Square Books Photo: Flickr/Visit Mississippi

You’ve got time for one last history lesson before drinks and dinner. Visit the Lamar House, a beautiful example of preservation (that earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places) and the former home of L.Q.C. Lamar, statesman extraordinaire. In the mid-1800s, he was a congressman, a senator, Secretary of the Interior and finally a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and exhibits outline how his became an important voice encouraging reconciliation after the Civil War.

Next, down a pint of beer at The Growler, a laidback lounge featuring a wide selection of Southern craft brews on tap. Then, walk to Boure. Housed in an old drugstore, this spot is always hopping, thanks to its Creole-influenced dishes like the Peacemaker, a French loaf mounded high with a trio of crispy critters—fried oysters, shrimp and crawfish—and dressed with tangy remoulade.

Getting There
The closest major airport is Memphis International Airport, an hour’s drive away. It’s served by U.S. Airways, United, American, Southwest, Frontier and Delta.

To Stay
The charm of The Z bed and breakfast, housed in a cute cottage and impeccably decorated in comfy-chic style, is matched by Annie, Ole Miss alum, owner and innkeeper. She’s welcoming and witty and available for almost any need. And she’s an excellent cook. Annie’s always changing things up to fit what she can locally source, but the breakfast (included in your rate) could be farm-fresh eggs with spinach and goat cheese and a side of cinnamon-sugar broiled orange halves. Within walking distance of The Square and with only three rooms (named Laugh, Love and Live), The Z fills up fast, so make reservations early.

The Inn at Ole Miss, located on campus, is another option. This full-service hotel has 146 rooms, a pool, fitness center and nightly shuttle service to The Square.

Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer based out of Montgomery, Ala. She writes about food and travel and traveling for food.