As I write this, it is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and therefore I believe it is fitting to wax poetic about the little coastal town of Ocean Springs. But before I do, I want to share some of the stops along our five hour journey through Mississippi, to the shore. I am still not used to living in such a big and rural state and find it fascinating that in all my years in New England, I rarely traveled more than 2 hours from home, yet here, I think nothing of picking-up and driving five hours to the coast for the weekend. What I also find interesting is the varied personality of the regions across the state, which is certainly not novel to Mississippi, but intriguing all the same.
Our first stop, was a large farm stand just south of Jackson on route 49, called Wright's. The produce was beautifully displayed in baskets and in keeping with the southern hospitality, adorable teenagers follow you, taking whatever you select and bagging it for you, while offering tips and advice. On the way down we bought peaches, which turned out to be the most juicy, sweet, drip down your chin and arms, deliciousness. On the return trip, we made sure to stop for more peaches, and lady peas, which are a very small green pea, similar to a black eyed pea or purple hulled pea, but seemingly more tender. Cooked up with chicken stock, shallot, bacon and butter, they were a real treat.
Upon reaching Hattiesburg at dinner time, we followed a recommendation from Miss Lila and detoured into town to patronize the Walnut Circle Grill, described as "New York style Italian and Continental cuisine." Sadly, Hattiesburg seems to be one of those towns where the "strip" is happening, but the historic downtown, undergoing a gentrification, is empty, making our choice all the more meaningful. The ivy covered entrance into the glass roofed bar was beautiful and from there we entered a classic, yet modern dining room.
I ordered a glass of red zinfandel and for the first time in my life, I had to send the glass back as it had oxidized. Thankfully our server was most gracious. With our drinks, we were served fresh baked bread with homemade nutty, robust, roasted garlic, smothered in olive oil for spreading. Hailing from the northeast, I didn't realized until now, how much I missed Italian food and this very simple accoutrement, brought that home poignantly.
Our meals arrived piping hot, a real bonus and one for which I am a stickler. Mark was served the Sweet potato crusted snapper, pan seared, topped with crab meat and lemon butter. The fish was sweet and incredibly light. I received the Red Fish pan seared and covered in crawfish, tasso, and mushroom Cajun cream sauce with fried eggplant. Both were served with haricot vert. I asked for double instead of a starch. My red fish was rich and spicy with a full bodied tasso cream flavor, that made the choice of ordering fish seem like a carnivore's dream. The haricot vert may have been the best I have ever tasted, crispy and garlicky, perfectly salted and tossed with a few pine nuts for good measure. Equally amazing were the fried, sweet eggplant. Try as I might, I cannot replicate Mark's Mom's Italian eggplant mastery, but these would surely pass the test. On our way out, we took in a few songs in the glass roofed bar by John Wooten and his band. The steel drum, a favorite of mine since I saw it on a Sesame Street episode, made it hard to leave for our final stretch to the coast.
There is something vacation-esque about arriving at night to your destination and upon awaking, almost like looking for Santa, heading out to explore what the town held in store for us. My first trip to the coast occurred right after the oil spill in May and on that trip we stayed in Biloxi and explored Gulfport and other towns to the west on our way to New Orleans, the final destination. Little did we know that just five miles east of Biloxi sat this town, oozing charm; the village of Ocean Springs, known for its beauty, resilience and artistic culture, immediately felt right to us. On this morning we traveled to the scenic, downtown, which was just hip enough, yet small and quaint making me feel immediately at home. The streets were shaded by trees, inviting you to walk the streets lined with boutiques and a plethora of restaurants. Breakfast is a favorite of ours and while it is typically not as diverse as other meals, I still love seeking out a special place.
At Paige's recommendation, we dropped into Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine, a Greek restaurant right downtown. Already feeling comfortable Zen in this town, we were greeted by our very Italian waiter, named Rocky, who it turns out grew up a mile from Mark in Providence, RI. While he and Mark proceeded to banter back and forth in heavy Rhode Island Italian accents, we were treated to two different eggs Benedict, one with artichoke bottoms and spinach and one with filet mignon and hollandaise sauce. Both amazing we agreed that the artichoke spinach won the prize. The artichoke and spinach sauce reminded me of that classic dip, so often served in my house in a pumpernickel bread bowl. The eggs were each nestled atop an artichoke bottom instead of the classic tomato. Almost showing up the main entrees, however were the asiago cheese grits. I should preface this by saying that while I appreciate grits, I really have only considered them a vehicle for other flavor like syrup or jam, until now. These grits had a creamy texture and tangy cheese flavor that elevated them to the top of my breakfast list.
After breakfast, with our friends Slade and Amy, we visited the Walter Anderson museum, a must see. In my two years in Mississippi, I had heard about this famous artist from the coast, but was unfamiliar with his work or story. Upon entering the museum we were reluctantly encouraged to watch a movie about Anderson in a small, somewhat uncomfortable room and I am thrilled I did not balk. Anderson's story is beautifully heart-wrenching and poetic. His water colors, wood sculpture, oils and even crayons, depicted coastal scenes so beautiful, you felt a part of his world for a brief few hours and even after, as we explored his town.
Our trip was wrapped around Mark playing a Thacker Mountain Radio show in the historic downtown Mary C. O’Keefe cultural center. The show was outstanding, featuring such Mississippi talent as, the Yalobushwackers with guest Carl Massengale, Caroline Herring, Homemade Jamz and New Orleans author/writer for Treme, Tom Piazza. Following the show, we joined our friend Candice for a cocktail with none other than Walter Anderson's grandson, Chris Stebly a local artist. This is where the Ocean Springs vibe really began to show for me, as it is not until you begin to really meet the locals do I feel that you understand a town. Chris and Candice were interesting, funny and immediately warm.
We took leave of this great gathering in order to make it to the Thacker Mountain party at the nationally renowned BBQ dive called the Shed. We were told it was a little ways outside of town and that we will know we have arrived when we see a building made of junk. They were not kidding. I had my first and likely only "red carpet" experience at the shed, which says an awful lot about my life. Thacker Mountain artists were directed to a private "room" (seeing as most of the restaurant is outdoors, it was really more of a partitioned area) where we could serve ourselves every kind of BBQ imaginable from the baby back ribs to brisket and beans. While not the Memphis dry rub I have been accustomed to, it was all sweet and tender. New to me was the dessert, "Nanner Puddin'". The waiter bragged on it as it was made by his wife and apparently the best around. For those of you unfamiliar, as I, it is a delicious banana pudding, chock full of banana chunks, topped with Nilla wafers, resplendent in a Styrofoam cup. Did I mention this was served with keg beer, all on the house? I don't know about you, but it has been a while since I have had keg beer and surprisingly it goes down just fine with nanner puddin'.
Later that night, although this story does not involve food, it must be told as it really sealed the deal for my love affair with Ocean Springs. We returned from the Shed to town to meet up with friends at a hole-in-the-wall bar, lacking a name, but situated directly next to the Phoenicia. This bar possessed all that a good dive should. It had flashback in-time decor, including a cushioned bar, the kind with a bumper around the edge that is reminiscent of its cousin, the cushioned toilet seat. Mr. Mack, a complete sweetheart, was behind the bar, watching his big screen TV and taking care of the customers. The music was loud and jazzy, the beers were two dollars, we had the pool tables all to ourselves, and most importantly, we had great laughs with new found friends. In a town full of beautiful restaurants, this establishment had the perfect grit to end the night.
We fit in one more breakfast with our friend Candice, who after taking us on a quick tour of a few Carroll B. Ishee crafts-style houses, brought us to Bayview Gourmet Restaurant. A quick review the menu, made it clear that it would be insensitive of me to travel all the way to the coast without ordering oysters and thus I did my share to support the local gulf fisherman by shamelessly ordering the fried oyster, eggs benedict, served with tomato, spinach and grits. While the oysters were not as juicy as I normally like them, they made for a decadent meal, but for a second time this weekend the grits stole the show. These were just plain grits, but they were silky and creamy and altogether memorable. I should mention that you know you ordered well when another customer approaches the table to find out what it was that I was eating, so he could order the same thing!
Since arriving back home I have found myself daydreaming about a vacation home in Ocean Springs. Having grown up in a small town a few miles from the coast, I do find myself missing the water on occasion, and therefore the idea of all the attributes I love about Oxford, the great food, the warm people, the artistic culture, combined with a coastline - it all just felt right!