Oxford, MS is a fascinating town. Just an hour or so south of Memphis it is the home of Ole Miss and, like many towns that owe at least a degree of their popularity to the SEC, is the object of many a fall pilgrimage to join the crowd at football games, tailgate parties and reunions with children who have gone away to college.
The University of Mississippi, however, is far from being the only draw in town. Even for those unaffiliated with Ole Miss, Oxford has a reputation as a hospitable weekend destination. There is just enough diversion in this small southern city to keep visitors from wondering why they came without intruding on a general ambiance of genteel southern charm and relaxation.
Travel guides celebrate the literary ambiance of the town that has counted William Faulkner, John Grisham and other fine authors among its residents. Those who enjoy looking at Oxford through that lens can relax while exploring the grounds of Faulkner’s residence at Rowan Oak, visiting his grave, or looking through a collection of his work (and those of other Mississippi authors) at idependently owned Square Books.
Those who prefer still a different perspective on Oxford are welcome to find diversion in the unique boutiques and galleries that surround the old-timey town square, consider the architecture, browse historic markers or sample from a diversity of southern cuisine. Home to Southern Foodways Alliance, Oxford is also known for an abundance of quality restaurants offering everything from southern home-cooking to upscale fine dining served with imagination and charm.
A Beautiful Meal
Last winter we made a brief day trip just to get our bearings. Though it was a cold day the square was bustling and filled with game-day conversations. My husband and I walked briskly from shop to shop around the square. After browsing through fashion, art, and literature we made our way around to Ajax Diner where we hoped to eat a late lunch. It was only by huddling and chatting with the other folks in the line that stretched out onto that sidewalk that we stayed warm enough to brave the wait. I had heard it was worth it though. The late crowd seemed to attest to the fact that it should be.
Finally inside we lucked into the perfect table, at the front, just inside the window. Service was brisk and I ordered a predictable southern meal of catfish, sweet potato casserole and collard greens.
What came to the table a short time later was a beautiful southern meal that was far, but not too far, from predictable. The catfish was fried crispy and flavorful. The sweet potato casserole was smooth but not sticky, and garnished with (not buried in) little marshmallows. It was fragrant with a flavor that was well balanced and bright, rather than weighty. The collard greens were tender and nicely seasoned.
A Little Closer to Home
On a return trip to Oxford last weekend we were open to more of a leisurely visit, complete with sight-seeing and a brief stay at a popular B&B. We hoped to expand our culinary horizons and try a few more of the restaurants in town. However, I did insist on another lunch at Ajax Diner. While I have enjoyed a good bit of southern cooking over the years I can’t say that I have eaten southern style home cooking at any restaurant where I enjoyed it more.
While Ajax Diner was crowded when we arrived, with every table taken, we did not have to wait but a few moments before seats opened up on this visit. Still summer season in Oxford there were no game-day crowds or conversations, but also no luck finding a table with a view of The Square. This time we sat in a rather shabby booth at the back of the diner, with views of the artwork and festive lights. While darker and somewhat less comfortably inviting than the area up front the service remained brisk and friendly.
This time I ordered a little closer to home. My first time at Ajax Diner I had ordered southern classics that are not a part of my personal kitchen repertoire. I can’t even imagine frying crispy flavorful Southern Fried Catfish in my kitchen. I do however make Chicken and Dumplings quite often, from an old family recipe. And I rarely cook Turnip Greens at home but I do cook southern style Green Beans that my family loves almost as much as I do. This time at Ajax Diner I ordered their Chicken and Dumplings, along with Green Beans and Squash Casserole.
When my lunch arrived I was glad to see that the dumplings at Ajax were the flat (or slick) kind, the kind we always ate when I was growing up and that I make at home. The broth was thicker than in my version, almost like gravy, but well spiced and with chunks of tender chicken. Though I couldn’t eat nearly all of my serving I enjoyed it.
The Green Beans were also well spiced and flavorful. They seemed a tad sweet but nicely balanced with a lingering taste of pepper. And the Squash Casserole? It was amazing! Made with lots of squash in bright yellow skins that were substantive but tender without being mushy, and just the right amount of crumb to bind the casserole. There was nothing cheesy or complicated about it, just well executed home-style cooking. No wonder I couldn’t finish the Chicken and Dumplings. I ate every last bite of that Squash Casserole.
Finishing up a fine lunch at Ajax Diner we were ready to find our way to Rowan Oak for a visit with Faulkner’s legacy before coming back to The Square for dinner at City Grocery.