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Oxford a college town to feel good about

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

OXFORD, Miss. - I come here as often as I can, because I want to. I simply feel good when I am here. Emotional compatibility comes quickly and easily in this laid-back college town.

Oxford is a small town with a courthouse that dominates. Life revolves around the square. There are other things to appreciate about Oxford. Magnolias. Button-downed students on game day. Aliterary cloud that hovers about, fried chicken, and a "y'all come" beckoning that is irresistible.

There is an ambience, a history, and a tradition that has an enduring allure. There are other things to draw one to the home of Mississippi's state university, which is known as Ole Miss. The very name speaks Old South, yesteryear, and easy living. How could the home of William Faulkner not be an attraction in itself? People come here to see where he lived and breathed, composing moving literature and writing on the kitchen walls his "to do" list for the week.

They still come here to see Ole Miss play football, but since the Johnny Vaught years, football championships have been virtually nonexistent. Still, it is fun on Saturday to be in Oxford. Mainly because of "The Grove." That's where tailgating tents spring up and cover the landscape like Canada geese cover eastern Washington in January. Like with the geese, you can't count the tents.

Oxford may well be the epicenter of Southern hospitality. We southerners pride ourselves on being sociable. If we didn't invent tailgating, we can lay claim to perfecting it. While tailgating is not necessarily a thing of elegance, it comes closest when you tailgate at The Grove.

There is an abundance of catfish and barbecue in Oxford's environs, but if you are drawn to culinary sophistication, you find your way to City Grocery on the square.

John Currence is another one of those chef-owners who knows what it takes to steer you through an evening of kitchen excellence as only a seasoned chef can do.

A native of New Orleans who attended the University of North Carolina, Currence often spent his childhood summers in Rome, Georgia. John has been honored by Wine Spectator and was awarded the Best Chef South Award by the James Beard Foundation in 2009.

A traditionalist who enjoys hunting and fishing, John and his wife, Bess, own five acres five miles away where they grow a variety of vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, beans, beets, carrots, and collards, which he serves at City Grocery. They restored a Mississippi dog trot cabin and raise chickens in the back yard-Rhode Island reds.

He jets off to restaurant meetings, high-level cooking affiliations, highlighted by invitations to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York city. Currence is acquainted with Athens's renowned chef Hugh Acheson of the Five and Ten. "I fell in love with Hugh's passion for food right away," Currence says. "He is at the top of his game and he inspired me to be a better professional."

There are many passions in Currence's life. Basketball, of course, since he is a Tar Heel. Football Saturdays give him a lift, but he has agonized with Ole Miss lately when there has not been the kind of cheering experienced in yesteryear. Being from New Orleans, there is an affinity for the LSU Tigers.

When he wants to talk football in the spring and summer, his cup runneth over, since Archie Manning and his son, Eli, quarterback for the New York Giants, often book a reservation. "They have homes here and love to return to Ole Miss," Currence says. "I love to feed them, too."

John likes to take in a good tailgate party, but what he most prefers is victory in the afternoon and tailgaters celebrating at City Grocery afterward.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.