Of Parties, Prose and Football
Oxford is more than a town, much more. It's a way of life, a place built with words that holds the heart, mind and spirit of those who call it home whether for four years or a lifetime. Oxford is at the crossroads of Southern culture, class and cuisine. The storied buildings around the picture perfect town square seem to hold the key to Southern culture, equally embracing learning and leisure. In many ways Oxford is a dichotomy, simultaneously offering stimulation and serenity, creativity and calm. Oxford is a state of mind, a gateway to some and a lifelong home to others. It's a place where all four seasons take a firm hold, accentuated by football games, festivals and friendships.
Oxford is full of stories that resonate with a tenor that can only be found in a town that reverberates Southern charisma and charm. Enjoy the slices of life that follow as they are but snapshots of the town and university we so deeply love and admire.
- Texas Visionary Brings Development, Love to Oxford
- Ronzo: The Gateway Drug to Cool
- Ron Shapiro, one-of-a-kind ‘cultural ambassador’ for Oxford, Mississippi, has died
- Four Decades of Oxford’s Square Books
- Tailgating Goes Above and Beyond at the University of Mississippi
- At Ole Miss, evolving perceptions both outward and inward
- Week 6: What Happened To You On Saturday?
- Real Estate Students Network With Wine-Tasting, Plan Future Goals
- The Anatomy of a Field Storming: The Fantastic Saga of the Ole Miss Goalposts
- Hotel for College Towns Coming to Oxford in 2015
- Harvest Supper: An Unforgettable Night
- Movie Magic
- Who Remembers the Rebel Deli?
- American Atlas: Oxford, Mississippi
- The Sounds and the Fury - Down Home with Ole Miss, Beauty Queens and Literary Greatness in Oxford
- Are You Ready to Ryde?
- Ole Miss, MSU Real Estate Producing Grads Schooled in the Art of the Deal
- About Oxford
- Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Rebels Boat Race Longhorns 44-23
- Top 10 Best Small Towns, 2013
- Throwback Friday
- Oxford Takes the Tailgate
- Of Parties, Prose and Football
- A Sincere Thank You To The Good Folks of Ole Miss
- America’s Best College Bars
- New Oxford High School Under Construction
- They’re Bitin’ at Ezell’s Fish Camp
- Oxford Ranked as Nation’s Second-Best College Town
- Best of 2012- #4 Oxford Ranked as Nation’s Second-Best College Town
- Oxford Tourism: ‘All Good News’
- Best Breakfasts Around the World
- Take Monday Off: Oxford
- The Grove at Ole Miss
- Goose Creek Club Breaks Ground
- Inside Forbes: On a Visit to Ole Miss, a Look Into Journalism’s Past, Present and Future
- Forward Together: We Are Ole Miss
- Ole Miss National 60 Second Spot
- Sorry We’re Open
- Tailgate Movie
- Ole Miss Football: Vanderbilt Highlight ‘13
- The Tailgating Experience at Ole Miss
- The Pride of the South: From Dixie With Love
- Oxford, Mississippi on CNBC Boomer Nation
- Oxford, Mississippi
- Best Atmosphere in College Baseball
- Ole Miss Football - Opening Weekend 2012
- Ole Miss Football Team Intro 2012
- America’s Game - 1962 Ole Miss Rebels National Champions - John Vaught
- “Lock The Vaught”
- Ole Miss Baseball Home Run Shower
- The Ole Miss Rebels Throw Texas Size Party
- Ole Miss Band Dixie
- Ole Miss HOTTY TODDY Cheer
- The Oak Ridge Boys Tribute to George Jones
- Hoka Video / Documentary
- Oak Ridge Boys Stop in Oxford
- George Will Gives Honors Convocation Address
- College Towns Doubling as Retirement Communities
- William Widmer, The New York Times
The Grove, on the University of Mississippi campus, has been popular for tailgating since the 1950s. Red and blue, the university's colors, are a fashion statement.
“CIVILIZATION begins with distillation,” William Faulkner wrote, and in Oxford, Miss., his adopted hometown, it’s possible for a literary pilgrim to visit what’s left of his liquor cabinet. It wasn't until his death that Oxford began to embrace William Faulkner and his legacy.
Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s family home, is open to visitors, and in a glass case you will find a bottle of Four Roses bourbon, which he liked because it was inexpensive and easy to find. There’s his metal mint julep cup. There’s also a bottle of Harvey’s Fine Tawny Hunting Port, which he used for cooking game birds while a second bottle, for drinking, warmed in the ashes of the fire. And there are a few bottles of fine French wine, which he could afford to imbibe after winning the Nobel Prize in 1949.
A trip to view Faulkner’s spirits is the best possible way to begin a long weekend in Oxford, a town in which civilization and distillation, in all their higher forms, are revered. At no time is this more true than on fall weekends when the University of Mississippi football team is making a home stand. Never mind that the Ole Miss Rebels are in the middle of another hapless, hurts-to-watch losing season and haven’t won a Southeastern Conference title since the year the Beatles released their first LP. On home-game weekends the free-floating festivity — a kind of refined, khaki-wearing Mardi Gras — lasts for days. An old saying here goes, “Ole Miss may not win the game, but we will always win the party.”
On a recent Saturday morning in early fall, as the Rebels were preparing to play the University of Georgia Bulldogs, the place to be in Oxford, as it is before and after every home game, was the Grove, the legendary 10-acre tailgating lawn at the center of the Ole Miss campus. This is a sight to see, almost certainly the most convivial landscape in college athletics. A sea of tents in red and blue, the Ole Miss colors, are packed tightly among mature oak, magnolia and elm trees. Many of these tents are tended as carefully as summer homes. You’ll find good linen, elegant pitchers filled with chilled bloody marys, flat-screen televisions, the occasional chandelier. “Y’all behave last night?” is a pretty standard greeting. A visitor from the North finds that food on toothpicks and drinks in clear plastic cups are pressed upon his person at every turn. After a while, his person needs to sit down.
Tailgating in the Grove has been a tradition at Ole Miss since the 1950s, its rituals closely attended to. This is not a land of face- and chest-painters. Many male students wear coats, ties and loafers; female students mostly wear brightly colored cocktail dresses and more makeup than one is accustomed to seeing on a human face in daylight. The polite din is shattered, every so often, when a hoarse voice cries out, “Are you ready?” This is the beginning of the Ole Miss cheer, known as “Hotty Toddy.” Everyone within earshot yells back: “Helllll yes! Daaamn Right!” The batty, but catchy, cheer rolls on:
Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty
Who the hell are we, Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
OLE MISS BY DAMN!
Otherwise sane adults are unembarrassed to holler this out every 10 minutes or so.
Amid the crowd, if you look hard enough, you can find a semi-legendary tent that belongs to the writer and former Boston Globe correspondent Curtis Wilkie, who graduated from Ole Miss in 1963. “Tailgating in the Grove is a combination of so many things that are dear to hearts in Oxford,” Mr. Wilkie said. “There’s football, of course. But there’s also this sense of a family reunion, a gathering of friends, a class reunion. College football is unimaginably big in the South. In all the years I lived up north on the East Coast, you know, I never even went to a college football game.”
Amid the crowd, too, you might catch a glimpse of the University of Mississippi’s greatest sports legend, Archie Manning, a kind of secular saint in Oxford. He was Ole Miss’s starting quarterback for three years in the late 1960s and early ’70s — Bear Bryant called him the best college quarterback he’d ever seen — and he is the head of a football dynasty: his sons Peyton and Eli are, respectively, Super Bowl-winning starting quarterbacks for the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants. Like his father, Eli was a starting quarterback at Ole Miss; Peyton attended the University of Tennessee.
How much does Oxford love Archie Manning? Photos of his clan are everywhere, as are bumper stickers that read simply: “Thanks, Archie.” A pulled-pork sandwich that’s sold at Vaught-Hemingway, the Ole Miss football stadium, is called the Archie Hamming. On the Ole Miss campus, the speed limit is a stately 18 miles per hour in honor of his old jersey number.
I didn’t spot Mr. Manning in the Grove, but I did sit one table away from him and his wife and some friends in City Grocery, a venerable Oxford restaurant, on the Thursday night before the Georgia game. (I had a notebook, an iPhone, a furtive look and no Southern accent. I fear he thought I was a spy from the Oakland Raiders, or whomever his sons were playing that Sunday.) After being interrupted many times by beaming well-wishers — “I just wanted to say ‘Hey,’ ” most said — Mr. Manning finally stood up and, like a self-effacing senator, began to slowly work the room. Oxford is small enough that he knew just about everyone by name.
Mr. Manning’s sons grew up tailgating in the Grove, before it had the recognition it does now. A magazine called Tailgater Monthly — yes, such a journal actually exists — recently named Ole Miss the No. 1 tailgating school in America. This year Newsweek called Ole Miss the most beautiful college in America, as much for its handsome student body as for its leafy campus. The writer and former Harper’s magazine editor Willie Morris, a longtime Oxford resident who died in 1999, once dilated at length on “the beauteous sorority girls for which Mississippi has always been famous.” Don’t underestimate these young women, Morris cautioned. “They are smarter and more tenacious than their sunny countenances suggest. For generations the best of these lustrous cyprinids with double names have grown up to run the Sovereign State of Mississippi, just as their great-grandmothers ran the Old Confederacy, their men dying without shoes in the snows of northern Virginia.”
Traces of the Old Confederacy linger around the margins at Ole Miss, and the university is working hard to scrub most of them away. In 1997 the university squelched the flying of Confederate flags during games by banning sticks in the stadium under the guise of fan safety. Since then, the university has had an easier time recruiting talented black players, including Michael Oher, the Ole Miss offensive tackle made famous in Michael Lewis’s 2006 book “The Blind Side.”
In 2003, the school’s longtime mascot, Colonel Reb, with his unfortunate resemblance to a plantation owner, was given his walking papers, but efforts to replace him have so far fizzled. A leading contender for new mascot is a black bear, but this is no easy sell. Many signs in the Grove read: “No Bears Allowed.” During the Georgia game, a black bear mascot briefly roamed the Ole Miss sidelines, in a kind of trial run. This creature was pitilessly booed, and slunk away long before halftime.
THE changes at a revived and increasingly modern Ole Miss mirror the changes in Oxford itself over the last two or three decades — an era in which Oxford has become one of the South’s artiest and most literate college towns, a pint-size and much more navigable Austin, Tex.
I’ve visited Oxford (population 14,147), which is about an hour or so south of Memphis, many times and have slowly arrived at the opinion that it may be America’s best small city, at least for my needs, which include great bookstores, friendly dive bars and restaurants that do profound things with game birds, pulled pork, grits, delta catfish and oysters.
In political terms, Oxford exists in northern Mississippi as a fleck of blue in the state’s sea of conservative red. Its outskirts are still rural and relatively poor. These contrasts give the city its raw-boned charms. The county seat of Lafayette County, Oxford was founded in 1835. It named itself after the British university in the hope of attracting the state university. Incredibly, this scheme — the equivalent of naming your child Jefferson and hoping he will become president — actually worked.
The University of Mississippi opened its doors in 1848 and was segregated until 1962, when President John F. Kennedy ordered federal troops into Oxford to facilitate James Meredith’s efforts to enroll. This ugliness was memorialized in Bob Dylan’s prickly folk ballad “Oxford Town.” More recently, the satirical newspaper The Onion delivered this funny if decidedly untrue headline: “National Guard Mobilized for Mississippi Class of ’62 Reunion.” Still, the crowd in the Grove remains overwhelmingly white, despite the reality that 19 percent of Ole Miss’s students are minorities.
The first thing to know about Oxford today is how central books, and writers, are to its social and intellectual fabric. Faulkner’s complicated legacy lingers in the air. While he was alive, Faulkner wasn’t beloved in Oxford. The locals called him “Count No-Count” because of his dandified aloofness and lack of a steady job. Worse, he wrote the kind of books that made your head hurt. Faulkner loathed his job as the postmaster at the university because, he said, he “didn’t want to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”
You can still walk into J. E. Neilson’s roomy department store, on Oxford’s town square, and find a framed copy of Faulkner’s irritable response to a dunning note on an overdue bill: “If this [$10 payment] dont [sic] suit you,” he wrote, “the only alternative I can think of is, in the old Miltonian phrase, sue and be damned.” Following his death in 1962, however, Oxford gradually began to embrace Faulkner and his legacy.
Oxford’s modern renaissance began around 1979, many locals say, thanks in no small part to one bookstore and one writer. That was the year Richard and Lisa Howorth opened Square Books, an independent bookstore that’s become a Mississippi landmark. (For eight years, Richard was also Oxford’s mayor.) And it was around that time, too, that Willie Morris moved to Oxford from New York City and became writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. Morris encouraged local talent, and his famous friends — George Plimpton and William Styron among them — began to visit. Suddenly Oxford was on the map.
“When I was in college, and while Faulkner was still alive, there wasn’t a single legitimate bookstore in Oxford,” Curtis Wilkie said. “There were a few spinning paperback racks. You could maybe buy a Mickey Spillane novel. That all changed when Square Books and Willie came to town.”
Square Books, on Oxford’s downtown square, prominently features the works of the state’s living writers and also tends to its literary ghosts. Near the front door are complete or nearly so collections of the works of Mississippi writers like Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Richard Ford, Shelby Foote, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Walker Percy, Larry Brown, Donna Tartt and John Grisham. Hundreds of framed photographs of writers line the walls.
Mr. Grisham graduated in 1981 from the University of Mississippi’s law school, and lived for a while in Oxford. He left for Charlottesville, Va., in 1994 after his fame began to turn him into a walking tourist attraction. (The last straw, some residents say, was when he and his wife, Renee, awoke one morning to find a young couple taking their wedding vows on his front lawn.) Mr. Grisham still owns a house in Oxford, and at Ole Miss he supports fellowships in creative writing and a visiting writer’s program.
It was a blow for Oxford when two of its best-known and most talented writers, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, died in recent years. That hole in the town’s heart has begun to heal thanks to the arrival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, who was born in Jackson, Miss. Mr. Ford joined the university’s creative writing faculty this year. Locals trade sightings of him riding hard on his racing bicycle, his steely blue eyes flashing like headlamps, or eating in a lovely restaurant, a short drive from downtown, called Ravine.
“Literature,” Richard Howorth once told me, “is one of the few things Mississippi can be proud of.” On weekends, he and his wife operate an informal salon out of their book-filled house, their kitchen, living room and long hallways stuffed with local and visiting word people. Among the better-known writers living in Oxford these days are Tom Franklin, Jack Pendarvis and Chris Offutt.
Running almost parallel to Oxford’s literary rebirth has been its emergence as a mecca of Southern eats. This is largely thanks to the young New Orleans-born chef John Currence, who owns four popular restaurants in town: City Grocery, Snackbar, Bouré and Big Bad Breakfast. Mr. Currence won a James Beard award in 2009 for best Southern chef, and it’s possible to eat brilliantly in Oxford for weeks, without repeating a course, in his restaurants alone. In fact I’d recommend this experience. When I mentioned game birds, pulled pork, grits, delta catfish and oysters above, it was Mr. Currence’s versions of these things I was thinking of. He’s got a way with delicate local vegetables, too. He’s pushing the notions of what Southern food can be, pulling off impressive feats with a casual air of embarrassment.
Mr. Currence’s restaurants reflect Oxford’s literary bent. The name Big Bad Breakfast, for example, is a nod toward a 1990 Larry Brown story collection called “Big Bad Love.” Many of the restaurant’s dishes are named after books. A delicious and belly-filling baked cheese, egg and ham dish arrives in a small cast-iron skillet. Its name is “Dear American Airlines,” after a comic novel by Jonathan Miles, a novelist who lived for many years in Oxford.
Mr. Currence’s flagship restaurant, City Grocery, which opened in 1992, has long been a literary hangout. “I love and respect what writers do,” Mr. Currence said, “and I love it that my places can be clubhouses for them. For writers, I think, City Grocery is especially appealing. It’s got a tortured naturalist dive bar upstairs with a refined downstairs. We’ve got quality and degeneracy.”
Oxford’s culinary obsessiveness has been driven, too, by the prolific food writer John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance, a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Mr. Edge writes hearty books with titles like “Fried Chicken: An American Story,” and if you follow him on Twitter he will make you hungry all day long. (He also writes the United Tastes series in the Dining section of The New York Times.)
When you stumble out of an Oxford restaurant, it’s easy to stumble right into a live music show right around the corner. At Proud Larry’s, a popular bar, I caught an intimate show by Jason Isbell, a former singer and guitarist with the Drive-By Truckers. The city is home to the unorthodox blues label Fat Possum Records, which has released LPs by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, as well as contemporary acts like the Black Keys. Elvis Costello and Modest Mouse are among the artists who have made records at Oxford’s Sweet Tea Recording Studio. One night I stayed at a spacious and elegant bed-and-breakfast called the 5 Twelve; George McConnell, a former guitarist with the jam band Widespread Panic, is an owner.
There’s only one way to end a lazy, liquid weekend in Oxford. It’s with a 15-minute drive on a late Sunday afternoon to rural Taylor, Miss., for supper at Taylor Grocery, a catfish joint that seems to exist outside of time. You practically expect to see Eudora Welty at a small table in the back. Taylor Grocery is housed in a former dry goods store that was built around 1889. Young and old gather at big communal tables in the twilight and listen to some of the state’s best live music. Outside on the front porch, both grandmothers and guys who look like guitarists for Kings of Leon sit to have a smoke or just linger awhile in the evening air.
No alcohol is served at Taylor Grocery. But maybe you’ve thought ahead and consulted Faulkner’s mint julep recipe, printed on a little slip at Rowan Oak: “whiskey, 1 tsp sugar, ice, mint served in a metal cup.” This you discreetly stir. And sip.
Another football game lost, another memorable party, won.
IF YOU GO
You can reach Oxford, Miss., by flying into Memphis. The drive to Oxford takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Be sure to flip your radio dial to WEVL 89.9 FM, a volunteer radio station in Memphis that plays terrific blues and alternative country music.
For a University of Mississippi football game, it is best to arrive on Thursday or Friday night. Remember to book hotel and restaurant reservations well in advance. Among the best places to stay is the Inn at Ole Miss (theinnatolemiss.com; 888-486-7666), Oxford’s only full-service hotel, which is on the campus about a mile from downtown and offers shuttle service into town. The Downtown Oxford Inn (downtownoxfordinn.com; 800-606-1497) has the best location, right off the town’s main square. Its exterior is charming, but its rooms are utilitarian at best, similar to those at a Days Inn. Among good bed-and-breakfasts is the 5 Twelve, a few blocks from downtown (the512oxford.com; 662-234-8043).
Oxford has become a culinary mecca of the South. The four restaurants owned by the chef John Currence (citygroceryonline.com) are essential stops: City Grocery (662-232-8080) for its rowdy upstairs bar and elegant dining below; the more cosmopolitan Snackbar (662-236-6363) for edgier Southern food (a pig’s ear stir-fry is on the menu); Bouré (662-234-1968) for fresh, updated family food; and Big Bad Breakfast (662-236-2666).
Ajax Diner serves classic Southern comfort food — po’ boys, chicken and dumplings — and excellent bloody marys in a pleasantly funky downtown space (ajaxdiner.net; 662-232-8880). Ravine is a warm, sophisticated restaurant a few miles out of town (oxfordravine.com; 662-234-4555). On Sunday evenings, driving to Taylor Grocery (taylorgrocery.com; 662-236-1716), where catfish is a local tradition.
Oxford offers plenty for the literary. Square Books (squarebooks.com; 662-236-2262), above, is a must stop. It also runs a children’s bookstore and an annex called Off Square Books. There are readings several times a week, and on Thursday nights in Off Square Books there are live tapings of “Thacker Mountain Radio,” a kind of Southern “Prairie Home Companion.” William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, is open every day except Monday (rowanoak.com; 662-234-3284).
Tickets for Ole Miss games can be found through Ticketmaster. Because the team has struggled this year, there are often cheap tickets to be found on resale sites like StubHub.
DWIGHT GARNER is a book critic for The Times.