Mississippi has always been a space occupied by many cultures which seem dissonant and irreconcilable with one another. Its history of racial prejudice and oppression is made more nuanced by the traditions of hospitality and faith which are also prevalent. However, amidst the cultural and political dissonance that has been bred over generations, Mississippi’s culinary heritage stands as a more neutral, uniting force which has gradually brought seemingly divided communities together.
The restaurants scattered around Oxford are a testament to the rich food culture that has developed in one of the most culturally diverse towns in the state. Whether it is the home-style soul food that so many Mississippians were brought up with or the fresh-from-the-pit barbeque that always leaves the stomach full and the hands messy, Oxford is a microcosm of the larger Mississippi food scene and hosts dozens of establishments that do justice to our common culinary heritage.
Restaurants featured below represent three different established food traditions that are all staples of Oxford. Each has a different history, food genre and atmosphere, but they all are united in their quest to use food to bring people together.
One of the most beloved soul-food joints in town is Mama Jo’s, a diner whose character is a reflection of its owner, Mama Jo herself. Mama Jo Brassell opened the restaurant 15 years ago after working on campus as a cook for the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. She made the decision to open her own business after realizing that if she had the chops to run a kitchen, she should own and run a kitchen herself.
When asked what kind of food she cooks, Mama Jo called it classic “soul food.” What is soul food?
“I would describe soul food as the fat, the fresh turnip greens, the neck bone, the chilies and the ribs. That’s the ‘soul’ part in soul food because most other restaurants sell healthy food, so when I cook ‘country cookin,’ I’m cooking like mom did at home and the stuff that the children grow up on,” she said.
Much of the soul food that Mama Jo describes is reminiscent of the food that her mother cooked at the Lafayette High School cafeteria for over 40 years. Cooking as a skill passed down through family has the power to bring families together, but in Mama Jo’s case it has the power to bring together an entire community.
“I see that it brings people together because when they come here, they enjoy the environment,” she said. “Lots of them, they don’t just come in to eat, they come to say, ‘Mama Jo, I love you,’ or ‘Mama Jo, Happy New Year.’”
Mama Jo prides herself on being a strong Christian and hopes that her restaurant maintains a strong atmosphere of fellowship for her customers. Regardless of how often you frequent either the health-food or the soul-food joints around Oxford, Mama Jo’s is one of the town’s staples and a living example of a living tradition of food that stretches back generations.
Tucked away down South Lamar and separated from the bustle of downtown and the University, Phillips Grocery is an Oxford favorite when it comes to burgers and fries. David Ross, the present owner and the son of the restaurant’s original matriarch, stated that the 22-year-old institution is a replica of a restaurant with the same name out of Holly Springs.
When asked what kind of food is served at Phillips Grocery, Mr. Ross said that “the hamburger and the homemade French fries are the core of the business.” He described the food as “southern American,” a label which is further reinforced by the décor of restaurant, laden with pictures of Elvis, ancient Ole Miss yearbooks, and old photographs of a bygone era.
Mr. Ross’s mother originally went in to help with the finances at the location in Holly Springs on the condition that the owner would help her open her own restaurant in Oxford. The owner of the Holly Springs location, Larry Davis, came to Oxford and helped her to convert a house that had been in the Ross family since the 1920s into what is now Phillips Grocery. The sheer history of the restaurant and the family that built it makes it an important example of entrepreneurship and of how a family-owned business can flourish throughout the decades.
When asked how he thought the restaurant brings people together from different backgrounds to the same table, he stated that “food is a great topic and item that can bring everybody together… everybody likes to eat!” Whether it’s the fried okra, the many kinds of quality burgers, or the bottomless sweet tea, Phillips Grocery has the kind of food and atmosphere that make customers feel like family.
Although it’s known to some Oxonians as “Secret Tacos,” tables at lunch or dinner at The Taco Shop are typically packed with both Spanish and English speakers alike. The walls are crowded with brightly colored piñatas, Mexican ingredients, seasonings and sauces, and fútbol, or soccer, is characteristically playing on the TVs, broadcasting games from all over the globe.
Pedro and Betty Leyva opened the authentic Mexican taqueria 11 years ago, and the zesty flavors from Zacatecas, Mexico, have kept customers coming back ever since. The shop started out as a grocery that sold tortas and tacos on the side, but today it is primarily a restaurant that also has groceries, clothing, wire services and trinkets from Mexico on the side.
“We serve cabeza y lengua [head and tongue], which is a little more exotic, but I think that it is good for people to see what we eat and taste what our food is like,” said Selena Leyva, Pedro and Betty’s daughter who also works at the shop. “I enjoy [working here] and talking to all different people, and making their day with the food—my favorite is the tacos!”
Cilantro and lime flavor the tacos, burritos, quesadillas, milanesas and more that make up the unique menu, which can all be washed down with a Mexican Coke from a glass bottle. The homemade chips and spicy pico salsa compliment a meal, and the affordable prices make the Taco Shop a routine part of many customers’ lives.
This article was originally written for The Ole Miss 2017: “Mississippi Magnolia”. The yearbook will be released on April 24, 2017.