Proud Alum: John Currence On Pounding Pepe Lopez And The Magical Grove At Ole Miss
Southern football traditions begin with the food
In Proud Alum, we talk with a chef about their memories of tailgates past, and ask for their best parking lot recipe.
If there were ever an example of a man who exudes the South in all its glory — the rich cultural identity, the warmth, the diverse foodways — that man would be John Currence. The longtime Oxford, Mississippi restaurateur was born and raised in New Orleans, but attended college at the tiny Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia. Where? “It’s in the middle of the woods, between Richmond and Lynchburg,” he says in an interview where he recalled his time on campus in the mid-'80s. But when it comes down to it, Currence — who operates the Oxford institution City Grocery along with a half-dozen other ventures — is an Ole Miss fan at heart. And as a fan of the “catastrophically civilized” tailgating that goes down at the Grove, a tree-lined space on-campus, we got him talking about his deep appreciation for football food.
What was it like to go to school at Hampden–Sydney College?
It had its own tailgate tradition. Once, the school paper did a poll of students leaving the second home game: 65% of them had no idea if the school has won or lost, and 90% of them didn’t even know who we were playing.
What were the unique tailgate dishes served at the games?
I always remember the Virginian ham biscuit — hard itty-bitty biscuits, more like crackers than biscuits, with just butter and country ham. And one of my favorite things to do regularly was an oyster roast.
With Virginia oysters?
They are a little smaller and a little brinier than Louisiana oysters, whereas Louisiana oysters are more plump and creamy. The Virginia oysters' muscles are also more transparent.
And what about drinking?
The national beverage of college football, for your average college students, was bourbon and coke. And I was a huge Bloody Mary fan, so I always made New Orleans-style Bloody Mary before the game. We were also drinking the cheapest beer you can get your hands on and Boone’s Farm wine. Also a lot of tequila. It was usually Pepe Lopez, and it was awful.
Let’s talk about the tradition at your restaurant in Oxford. You have Ole Miss alumni coming in every Friday at City Grocery and it's like the hardest table in the South. What’s that situation like?
At times it’s the best of the best. And at others it’s the worst of the worst. As far as what comes out in people. Some people come in and think they are the most important customers. On the other hand, some folks are just joyful to be in the dining room. We were booked up for football Fridays and Saturdays in 15 minutes this year.
Can you stand by for a cancellation?
Yes. And we do try to get everybody taken care of.
On a Saturday, what’s the Grove famous for food and drinks?
You don’t see a lot of barbeque in the Grove because they restrict open flame. Honestly, the food there is a little bit of white bread. They can’t cook anything out there. You see a lot of cold fried chicken, chicken tenders, paminna cheese, deviled eggs and seven-layer dips.
What do you think makes the school’s tailgate the most magical one in the country?
You have a 14-acre lush green space right in the middle of the campus, peppered with 200-year-old oaks, an ocean of nylon tents and overdressed alumni. It’s just like a giant cocktail party. Rather than spread out in the concrete parking lot, you have the green scenery, only one step to the stadium.
And it feels truly Southern. And in the Grove, people wear nice clothes.
Right, it’s just catastrophically civilized.
We asked Currence for his all-time favorite college haunt. There was only one choice:
They served little griddle cheeseburgers, different specials and a choice of vegetables everyday. At the end of the month, they just sent the bill to your parents. North Main Street Farmville, Virginia 23901
Here is a recipe from Currence's forthcoming ook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some. The book is out October 1 and looks to be a good one.
One of my favorite childhood memories was going downtown to Canal Street in New Orleans with my grandmother Lucy when she wanted to go shopping. I don’t remember anything about the shopping itself, but I knew it meant that we got to get dressed up like we were going to church and to ride the streetcar all the way down St. Charles Avenue, through the oaks and past the matronly architectural masterpieces that dot that trail. Those trips ultimately included a stop at one of the downtown lunch counters. Those counters, catalysts for the advancement of civil rights in the early 1960s, were always bustling and charged with energy.
It amazed me, even then, to see the throngs of people who would wait for the simplest white bread sandwiches, egg plates, griddled skinny burgers, and milk shakes. More often than not, I settled on a chicken salad sandwich. The construction of toasted white bread; cooked chicken with mayonnaise, celery, and basic seasoning; and a crispy leaf of iceberg lettuce was a monument to minimalism. And as much as anything else, I loved watching my grandmother, very deliberately, take off her gloves to eat when it arrived.
In this version, the traditional recipe is dressed up a little by smoking the chicken lightly. And in a nod toward the Southern tradition of adding something sweet, I use muscadine grapes when they are in season. There really is little more Southern than muscadines, and they add a unique flavor to the finished product.
Brining and Smoking
1 (3- to 4-pound) whole frying chicken
6 quarts Poultry Brine
1¼ cups soaked wood chips
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons Duke’s Mayonnaise
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup chopped roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons minced shallots
¼ cup minced celery and celery leaves
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1½ cups quartered, seeded muscadine grapes (see Notes)
To brine the chicken: Submerge the chicken in the cooled brine and let sit for at least 2½ hours, or overnight in the refrigerator if possible.
To smoke the chicken: Remove the chicken from the brine and let drain. Using a large kitchen knife, split the chicken down the breast and cut through the backbone, so that it will lay flat in the stovetop smoker. (If you are using a larger outdoor smoker, you can alternatively leave the chicken whole.) Prepare the smoker with the soaked wood chips and place on the stove over high heat. As soon as the chips begin to smoke, place the chicken on the rack and close the smoker tightly. Lower the heat to medium and cook the chicken to an internal temperature of 160°F, about 35 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the smoker, cool and dice into ½-inch cubes. You should have 5 to 6 cups of diced chicken meat. Set aside, covered and refrigerated, until you are ready to make the salad.
To make the salad: Combine the mayonnaise, mustard, thyme, rosemary, parsley, peanuts, shallots, celery and celery leaves, salt and pepper in a large bowl and blend together well. Stir in the chicken and grapes and toss to fully coat. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
Notes: There is a reason you so frequently see chicken salad served on toasted white bread or in a lettuce cup. That is because good chicken salad is so flavorful that it needs little more than that. As much as I love this chicken salad on plain white toast, I will freely admit that it is even more exceptional on a croissant.
Muscadine, or scuppernong grapes, are quintessentially Southern. Though rarely seen highlighted on menus, they certainly have a place in new Southern cooking. Muscadines have a unique flavor that I can only compare to what I smell in marigolds. It is a very “green” flavor, off-putting to some. When ripe, muscadines can be cloyingly sweet, but they make a nice accent to lightly cooked sauces and a bright sweet bite as an addition to chicken salad.
From Pickles, Pigs, & Whiskey by John Currence/Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC