Posted By bbinns on March 19, 2009Oxford chef and restaurateur John Currence has a real pretty tattoo of a pig on the inside of his left arm. For various reasons, I know that such a place is one of the most painful places for tattoo application. To me, this proves that pork is very important to John. Therefore, he is my brother.
John never set out to take the legendarily literate town of Oxford by storm. And, to be honest, success after sixteen years of hard work and investment in a community hardly counts as a storm; it’s more like a strong and steady tide. Oxford is ranked as one of the 100 most live-able small towns in the country, and its laurels only get shinier from there. It’s home to Ole Miss (aka U of Miss, a big player in the civil rights movement), the Square Books bookstore (one of the most revered private bookstores in the country), a bunch of rowdy college students, and a small, important group of Southern authors (both living and dead—think Faulkner and Grisham).
In 1992, John had been burned out by a dysfunctional restaurant job in New Orleans; he drove up to Oxford to visit some friends. At that time, the lovely historic square was a place more of function than of form. Post office jostled with dry cleaner and residents visited often to do their quotidian business. Within a month, John had decided to leave New Orleans and make a long-term investment in this town: he and his partners took over the building that had once been the city grocery, and that’s exactly what they named their now-successful and widely acclaimed restaurant. The square it has looked out upon for myriad generations has morphed into a boutique and restaurant mecca, there are not many quotidian pursuits here, unless they’re of the shop- and snack-ortunity variety.
The bar upstairs at City Grocery—often called the “Elaine’s of the South”—has become a meeting place for the grown-ups in this exuberantly youthful town; authors who come to Square Books to do a reading are perhaps just as excited at the prospect of quaffing post-read cocktails with local and visiting elite (of both sage and page). Eventually, along came City’s brethren: hip BBB (Big, Bad, Breakfast), Bouré (the casual and family-friendly cousin), and, soon to arrive, Snackbar. “It’s our redneck version of Balthazar,” says John. Snackbar will be a relaxed drinkin’ bar-slash-oyster bar for adults. (You continue to hear these terms—grown-ups, adults–because in a college town, particularly here in the South, it’s nice to have a separate place for those who drink for civilized reasons rather than as a quick road to wastage.) But John passes no judgment, he aims to provide every demographic in this diverse community with a place they can feel at home and eat well too. Preferably, pork.
John’s famous pig passion made him an obvious get for The Pork Tour.
I start with dinner at City Grocery, where the bacon that wraps the frog’s legs commands my immediate attention. It is thick and meaty and pork-alicious, with a spicy undertone and just the right level of smoke. The pear-rosemary compote dip for the froggy extremity is wizard, ‘cause the sweetness of the pear and the grassy note of the rosemary tame the happy fattiness of the bacon. The upshot? My palate is primed, again and again, for that I’m-a-comin’-honey ‘nother bite. The lean, sweet-tea-brined pork loin sports just enough smoke to complement the brine, not the head-spinning campfire-killer smoke of yesterday’s hog wings. (Was it only yesterday?—I am adrift in a porky netherworld and have lost track of conventional time.)
The morning after my dinner, I meet John and his lovely wife Bess Reed at BBB to see the new smokehouse and get to bear witness to a momentous moment. They’ve been making the bacon, for awhile now and I’m in awe of the rustic, toothsome result I tasted last night. I also nibbled on their chunky-tasty sausage patties and a mahogany andouille. But coming up soon is a wider array of house-cured nummies: duck breast prosciutto, various cured sausages, and whiskey-cured tenderloin saucisson; these choice morsels are hanging in a cooler to achieve ideal dry-ness and maturity that comes with just hanging around for long enough to earn the true flavor of the place, ie the terroir of the Mid-Town Mall, just east of Oxford, home of BBB and the new drinkin’-raw bar.
Some people approach the art of salumeria armed with charts, calculations, humidity measurements—ie, the brain of an engineer. On the other side of the road, rural folks in Italy and elsewhere have somehow stumbled through, and made some darn tasty salamis along the way, by listening to the rhythm of their heart. After chewing over the pluses of each, John is going with the latter method (although certainly paying smart attention to hygiene and a coupla well-established rules). One of the sausages is scheduled for its spotlight this morning: it’s the first disrobing of the new crop.
I’m honored to be on hand when the cheesecloth is ceremoniously unwrapped: John and his Smokehouse Master Kirk Lovejoy evaluate, pinch, gingerly slice, and then lean in and scrutinize the little slices. There is a guarded sense of excitement in the kitchen of BBB. When you are as invested in the pork as these two, it’s like giving birth to a first child. The slices are small; moisture is lost in the hanging/curing process, but this results in concentrated flavor. The salumi is dark, limpid, and mysterious, like the river Styx. After a few moments of further study (and, it must be said, a few jokes about meeting later in the emergency room), all three of us take a bite. The cured meat is subtle, young, and the flesh itself is more supple than we are used to in cured meats. But there is a hint of complexity to come. “I want to up the cloves,” John says immediately, “I need more heat in there.” More silent chewing. Smiles. This is not a high-five moment, but these two will talk more, as men, about the pork, until the smoke, the cure, and the hang is just right. When your work and your passion are one and the same, those of us who stand by lamely and wait for the results are the truly lucky ones. I can’t wait to visit this young salumeria as it—and all its tasty goodies—grow into their britches. The operation is clearly in steady hands.
Go for the pork, stay for the other cool chow, chat, and atmosphere (chat-mosphere?). City Grocery.