John Currence Traces Bourbon's Popularity To The Southern Food Renaissance

In the coming months, we'll feature Q&As from our recent Food Republic Interview Lounge at the W Austin during the Austin Food & Wine Festival, featuring video excerpts of the sessions with host Richard Martin. Next up is John Currence, the chef and restaurateur behind City Grocery and other fine Oxford, Mississippi establishments, and the author of Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Favorite Three Food Groups.

I thought it would be very appropriate to start talking about bourbon, one of your favorite food groups. The last few years, there's been a crazy renaissance over bourbon in this country. What's behind it?

Right now, what we're seeing happening is that Southern food was really given a chair at the table in the conversation about food. And folks have realized that there's something more to it than fried, fried and fried. We've had an opportunity to really examine it as the most broad-ranging food canon in the entire country. And it's given folks the opportunity to dig into regional food in the United States. In Texas, there's now conversation about the German immigrants. Chefs are having conversations about chicken fried steak and the origins of it via schnitzel. And how hot links got here. And so whiskey was just a very natural part of that conversation. Bourbon is American whiskey. It is what scotch is to Scotland and Ireland is to Irish whiskey.

You're from New Orleans originally but how long have you been living in Oxford now?

22 years. I moved up there in 1992.

And how was that transition for you?

I say all the time that it took moving north from New Orleans to learn about my place in the South. And while New Orleans could not be any more southern than it is, it's just southern in a very different sort of way. In the same way that Charleston is, in a different sort of spirit altogether. My parents are from the Carolinas, so I spent a lot of my time as a youngster on my grandparents' farms in North Carolina and South Carolina. And oddly, I didn't take any of that with me as I got into cooking. It was one of those things that I just sort of eschewed. As a young chef, it's like oh, that's beneath me, you have to do something more profound. And it took years of really trying to reinvent the wheel to come up with the next Caesar salad, before I had my moment of epiphany and realized how important all of those foods that came from my grandparents' table, from my mother's table, from the Sunday supper table, were to me. And that's when I really began to cook, I think. And that's when our food really started to take shape.

There's a huge conversation about Southern food, but it's always centered around places like Charleston or Atlanta. You never would have heard Oxford come into the conversation until City Grocery came around. Why did you settle there and how has it been in that community?

Oxford really almost selected me instead of me selecting it. At 25 or 26, I was convinced that I was sort of in a dead end in New Orleans. And I was really in a job that had about forced me out of the business. I had helped a restaurant group open a restaurant in a French quarter and it was just a brutal six months. I worked seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner service for six months, without a break. I was literally going home after drinks by 1 in the morning so that I could put my head on the pillow and then had to be back up at 5, to go to work. And so, the first break that I got, Oxford was about as far as I could get away from New Orleans on a tank of gas — and be back in time to work on Monday. I went to visit a high school friend of mine. And so – unsatisfied with my situation, we of course started drinking and immediately figured out how we could change the world with a restaurant. And I like to tease him that the only smart thing that he ever said was when I said to him, Let's talk about New Orleans, and he said why the hell would we wanna go and get in that street fight? There's nothing going on here. And there really was nothing in Oxford at the time. And it was obvious on a second visit that there was a younger professional population that was growing, and they wanted something. And for me, it was a perfect combination, because I didn't have the experience really at the time to open a restaurant on my own. But I was able to go into a town where real estate was inexpensive, they wanted something, and I didn't have to over-reach my very limited abilities at the time. So I really got to go in and grow up with it. And I grew up with my food and I grew up with my clientele. And I was very lucky. I worked; I worked hard. But I loved it, and people responded very well.

But how did you get on the map though?

No. John T. Edge is the Jesus of southern food. Oxford was really blessed by John T. landing up there and being as hell bent on creating the SFA, the Southern Foodways Alliance, as he was.

So you were involved in Southern Foodways—

From the inception.

And can you talk a little bit about why it exists and what it's done?

Well, the history of sort of this renaissance of southern food pre-dates us. When you look at it, the chronology of it, Bill Neal opened Crook's Corner in about 1981 or 82. And Bill was from — his family was from outside of Charleston. And he was really sort of the first guy — with Frank Stitt following very shortly after him, in Birmingham. And in that time Birmingham was totally off the radar as well. But there's Bill in his little shop, and he was bringing cornbread for the first time to the fine dining table, and collard greens and catfish. And those are things that he grew up with. And Craig Claiborne recognized him on a road trip and became fascinated with him, and wrote an expose on Bill in the Sunday Times in about 1983. And that was a flag being planted, that Southern food was gonna become part of the conversation. And so years went along, and chefs got in lockstep with one another [and] guys of that generation really legitimized Southern food for us. They laid the field for then the next generation to come on and digging more deeply into it. And that's' when you started to see folks pulling apart Southern food and looking at all of the immigrant populations that were responsible for Southern food. In Appalachia, you have the Scottish population that settled there. You have the tradition of curing hams that really developed there. And the Italians in the Delta and New Orleans, and the French and so on. The layers are never ending. 

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