Historic Dishes of Oxford, Mississippi Restaurants

Before Oxford became a locus of foodie mafia hype and exploitation, the city was host to a wide variety and considerable number of eating establishments that sprang up after dining out became a more frequent activity there sometime around the late 1950s. Oxford was distinguished among north Mississippi cities because a large number of people came to the town as a center of government and education, and the many visitors to the city fostered a vibrant business community dependent on food and (later) drink.

What with the advent of this new era when tastes in dining out are much more sophisticated (not to mention much more expensive), many of the dishes on this list, which was hammered out by a squadron of Oxford residents (current and former), might well seem hopelessly antique, perhaps even repellent to those professing a preference for deep-fried kale or quinoa vinaigrette, but they are still beloved in memory by the good people of Oxford, Lafayette County and north central Mississippi as well as thousands of alumni of the University of Mississippi around the globe.

The Beacon: Big Bubba burger, chicken and dressing
Busy Bee Cafe: oven-fried pork chop
Café Olé: cheese dip, chimichanga
Dino’s: salad dressing, pizza
Downtown Grill: Eli’s praline pecan ice cream pie
The Gin: fried mushrooms, Bernice burger
The Harvest: black bean chili, vegetable lasagna
The Hoka: hot fudge pie and cheesecake, Love at First Bite
Holiday Inn: grasshopper pie, hot fudge pie
Hurricane Landing: fried catfish, hushpuppies and fries
Jitney Jungle/James’ Food: chicken salad
Kream Kup: grilled chili cheeseburger
Marie’s Lebanese: Marie Husni’s Lebanese casserole, baklava
Mistilis: hamburger steak smothered in cheese and onions
Ruby Chinese: hot and sour soup, twice cooked pork and fried rice
Sizzler Steak House: steaks
Smitty’s: tuna melt, breakfasts
Starnes Catfish: fried catfish, hushpuppies and fries
Ruth & Jimmies: Southern “meat and three”
Pizza Den: muffuletta, sub sandwich, stromboli
Warehouse: snapper en Mornay, salad bar
Winter’s Store: hamburgers
Yerk’s: Philly cheese steak

Painting by Oxford artist Glennray Tudor
Painting by Oxford artist Glennray Tudor

Sylvandell: More than a Myth

Tucked away in the environs of our historic neighborhood is a bit of Greek mythology. A wooded area at the eastern end of Pinehurst Street was once the dream of Jackson land developer L.L. Mayes who saw in its forests, hills and streams a domicilable setting for young families to begin their lives. Mr. Mayes began the development of Sylvandell in the late 1920’s and many of its homes of varied architectural styles may be found in the 1400 block of St. Mary Street (east side) and around the southeastern corner of Laurel Street to Laurel Street Park.

Pinehurst Street (named for the Pinehurst subdivision) was cleared and developed around 1915 as an integral product of Captain William M. Gillespie’s land purchase prior to the Civil War. Captain Gillespie moved to Jackson from Tennessee and for $840 purchased a country place consisting of 40 acres along the “Canton Dirt Road”. The Gillespie Place, which was the origin of the Belhaven neighborhood, was later known to be comprised of portions of North State, Arlington, Hazel and Wells (Poplar) Streets. After the captain’s death the old Gillespie place burned, but was known to have been surrounded by beautiful woodlands so dense only the gables of the house could be seen from the road. It was said that Captain Gillespie left a fortune buried on the grounds of his homestead and thus the land became the clandestine haunts of a number of treasure hunters shovels in hand. That legend, however, is a tale for another day.

Prior to the mid-twenties, that portion of Pinehurst Street that developed east along the southern campus of Belhaven College and on to St. Ann Street was previously known as Harper Street. At its terminus at newly-developed St. Mary (‘s) Street, it dipped into hostile typography: ravines and ditches, hillocks and gulches, filled with a multitude of critters and cries in the night. Most potential developers viewed it as worthless terrain. But not L.L. Mayes, then living with his family in a neoclassical home designed by Emmett Hull, which still stands on the southwest corner of Peachtree and Pinehurst Streets.

Entrance to Sylvandell

Mayes saw a residential niche in the six acres he initially purchased in early 1928. He was sensitive to the needs of young families who either could not afford to buy or preferred to rent their starter home. Mayes described his acreage as a “beauty spot where one would expect to hear Pan playing on his reed pipes and to see fairies and wood nymphs dancing in the dells to his irresistible music.” He therefore commissioned Mr. Joseph Barras, sculptor, to design a concrete entrance of wide steps anchored by nymphs and leading down to the bucolic setting which became Laurel Street Park. Behind the homes on St. Mary and Laurel Streets there were woodlands to the west and a meadow to the east. A descending natural stairway led from the entrance to a simple bridge and winding walkways built of crushed gray slag with white borders which dropped down to ravines and undergrowth and a “babbling brook”. The walkways coursed through rustic walls emulating old English country sides. Interspersed were several benches and tables also designed by Mr. Barras and cast by the N.W. Wright Stone Works that also cast the figures for the main entrance. Homes were built of buff brick, trimmed in white and topped with light apple green tiled roofs. Both the front and rear of the homes were set in a forested atmosphere designed to be attractive from the street.

Each new home was comprised of a living room, dining room, one or two bedrooms, tile bathroom, kitchen, basement, storage attic, “warm air plant”, electric cooking stove and hardwood floors. They averaged 1,000-1,200 square feet and according to the 1930 census, rent ranged from $65 per month at 1466 St. Mary to $85 per month at 1436, with rates based on the overall structure and size of the lot. There was a screened side porch for hot summer evenings, later closed in by most when AC arrived in the late 40’s. Community garages were built at suitable points so as not to take space and esthetics away from the original building. The homes were furnished prior to rental for according to an ad by the R.E. Kennington Company in 1929, “it has been our pleasure to furnish the shades, rugs, draperies and furniture for the living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms of the beautiful Sylvandell homes.”

In addition to Kennington’s store, there were a number of local companies, firms and individuals who contributed to the ambience of Sylvandell. Among these were Enterprise Furnace Manufacturing, A.F. Nash, plumber, Eagle Lumber and Supply Company, Stephenson Brick Company, Jackson Lumber Company, Ricks Storage Company, McCleland, Addkison & Bauer Hardware, D.P. Denny, contractor, E.W. Cook Lighting Fixtures, Ray Wright Sheet Metal, Capital Paint and Glass Company, Moseley, Nelson & Smith Insurance, C.A. Hollis, builder, Ellis Stewart, painter and decorator and Planters Lumber Company.

While not directly in the Sylvandell plat, some residents remember a small building at the top of the hill on Laurel Street where some stone steps now lead to a vacant lot. The structure near this lot is reputed to have been a neighborhood library and careful examination of this garage building shows where this might have been possible. This was most likely a private effort on the part of a literary resident. It was a small but meaningful service to surrounding residents. But whose effort was it? Who cared enough to take the time? Who now knows?

Corinne Fox is a current resident of Sylvandell. As a former Jackson city planning director, she is professionally familiar with neighborhoods, architecture, codes and building policies. She has owned and lived in her home on St. Mary Street since 1971. Corinne knows the history of the development and remembers the remains of the alley dividing portions of her block and the community garage behind what is now an apartment unit on Laurel Street. For 41 years she has never regretted moving from other Jackson locations to Sylvandell and learning of its history since eye physician Dr. W.L. Hughes was her house’s first tenant in 1930. Other early residents in these homes according to the census were Bernard Lowe (fire insurance agent), P.R. Galbreath (automobile dealer), Donald Munroe (geologist and weatherman), Hamilton McRae (wholesale hardware), Freeland Gale (store clerk), Lacey Hughes (dentist) and Ernest Laird (bank cashier). “The people who settled this area were of some prominence,” she says, “and still are today through their myriad interests, achievements and gifts to this community.”

“I love being in this house,” she responded when asked of her home. “This is an area with an ideal mix of people – young, old, all income levels and interests in life. I feel safe here with furnishings of my earlier life and among friends who are part of my life today. My new neighbor is an FBI agent. No wonder I feel so safe!”

Special Agent Robert H. Ruby, who grew up in Starkville, came to Jackson from New Orleans about a year and a half ago. He kept hearing good things about “a small town setting (Belhaven), sitting in the middle of Jackson”. He at first considered building a new house on a vacant lot, but later decided to renovate an existing structure in Fondren or Belhaven. A Belhaven realtor told him about one of the Sylvandell homes which had fallen into serious disrepair. Upon first inspection of the property Robert said “no way”. But the more he learned of the neighborhood the more determined he was to live not only in Belhaven but that very house. His decision was made. “It took 13 months from the time I obtained the property to get the multitude of clearances from the city which had originally wanted to demolish the existing structure. I spoke with a builder who is college buddy and he told me he could make the house look like new while keeping the original appearance.” The task is now complete and Robert has moved into the house which is a showplace and he plans to have it as his “home forever”.

When resurrecting old structures one of the first things you want to know is if there is a ghost. “Of course there is a ghost,” Robert says, “one of a former tenant, and he welcomed me with sights and sounds the first week I lived here.” The first night, while Robert was sleeping, there was the sound of a picture falling from the wall. He turned on the lights, investigated but could not find where this had occurred. The second night he thought he heard a key turn in the front door. Again, no evidence. On the third night there was a ‘crash’. No motive could be found. Although there have been no incidences since, the new tenant feels confident he has been accepted by his ghost and there will be no further contact.

A garage in Sylvandell

You may now wish to pause for a moment and enter the heart and thoughts of the young couple viewing their new dwelling for the first time some 80 years ago. You can imagine their dreams of starting their life together in prosperous times, planning their family and roads to success. You might think of them walking hand in hand on the pathways along the stream, pointing out the hues in the foliage and discussing improvements and the larger home they would one day own. You can also see in the mind’s eye the development of this neighborhood and the foundations of its larger future.

The fairies and nymphs are gone now. Well, almost. The concrete foundations of Pan’s pipes remain crumbling at the dead-end of Pinehurst and the steps and little footbridge across the brook and into the park have returned to the soil. Sylvandell has given way to Greater Belhaven. Laurel Street Park is entered from the north. The remaining homes are now of varied hues and the woods have grown over the little footpaths. Driveways and garages have replaced the hidden community carports originally earmarked for resident’s vehicles. Pan and his music have gone back into the flocks and shepherds from whence they came. But a single nymph remains, hidden along a nearby driveway in the vicinity of her once statuesque beauty. She is quiet now and pensive, recalling her origins in folklore and proud of her singular role of helping frame one of Belhaven’s most classical neighborhoods.

The Nymph of Sylvandell

 

bill-and-nan-harvey-web
Bill and Nan Harvey

Nan Ertle Harvey is a native of Yazoo County, a graduate of Mississippi College and has lived with her husband Bill in the Belhaven neighborhood since 1994. She worked in a research position in the Department of Microbiology at UMMC, retiring in 2003. Nan’s hobbies are photography, nature study and family research. She is a volunteer at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Bill Harvey is a native Jacksonian, living most of his life in Belhaven. A MSU Bulldog, he has had careers in journalism, education and as development director of the Andrew Jackson Council, Boy Scouts of America. Bill enjoys photography, music, writing articles for neighborhood sources and sharing experiences with friends at a local coffee shop. (Text copyright Bill and Nan Harvey, used by permission of Bill and Nan Harvey)

Sources:

1) “Keith’s Beautiful Home Magazine”,  Jackson Daily News, March 3, 1929
2) Corinne Fox, Sylvandell resident
3) Robert H. Ruby, Sylvandell resident
4) 1930 Census (Hinds County, Mississippi, Beat 1; City of Jackson, Ward 5)

Queen Cakes

As denizens of the Lower South, we’re all familiar with king cakes (gâteau des Rois). These big, sweet rings of braided yeast dough appear in bakeries soon after Epiphany (Kings’ Day; in reference to the “Three Kings of Orient”) and proliferate up until Ash Wednesday. While most are cinnamon-y and iced, more elaborate commercial examples are festooned with beads, scattered with sugar sprinkles and impregnated with a small plastic baby (homemade king cakes usually have the more traditional bean, a symbol of fertility).

Less familiar to us are queen cakes, which are English in origin and not specific to any season. Queen cakes are basically small pound cakes; the only essential ingredient aside from the requisite eggs, flour, butter and sugar is currents. Recipes for queen cakes began appearing sometime in the late 17th century and early 18th centuries, after the Glorious Revolution (1688). During that time, with the exception of the six years (1694-1702) when William III occupied the throne alone, his wife (and first cousin) Mary II and her sister Queen Anne (1702-14) ruled Great Britain as queens regnant (sovereigns in their own right). Unsurprisingly, queen cakes enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the reign of Victoria, but not during the reign of Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, who is also a queen regnant. Queen cakes are traditionally larger than cupcakes, baked in ribbed patty-pans instead of cupcake tins.

Again, the essential ingredient in any queen cake is, unfortunately for us, currants. Currants (black and red; white currants are a relatively new cultivar) have been used in European cooking for centuries, and were popular in this country up until the early 20th century when currants, as vectors for white blister pine rust (WBPR), were banned under federal law in 1911 (a ban later relegated to state jurisdiction) as a threat to the logging industry (the same industry largely responsible for the illegalization of hemp because Cannabis sativa is a cheap, renewable source for the production of paper). In 1999 horticultural activist Greg Quinn of Staatsburg, New York, was instrumental in proving that currants, though a proven vector, were not the actual agent in the spread of the pine rust (turns out imported white pine seedlings were the culprits), and in 2003, the State of New York legalized growing currants; the legal use of medical marijuana began this past month in the state.

But because the currant production and shipment is still prohibited in many other states as well as in some specific local jurisdictions despite the development of WBPR-resistant varieties, you’re likely not going to find real currants (dried or otherwise) in stores; what you most often will find are Zante currants, dried berries of the small, sweet, seedless grape ‘Black Corinth’ (Vitis vinifera), named after the island of Zakynthos (Zante) which was once a major producer and exporter. In other words, Zante currants are raisins, but given they’re the best alternative you can usually get, use them without guilt, or for that matter any raisin you like.

Make queen cakes with your favorite pound cake recipe. Add your currants (such as they are) liberally, but toss them with a bit of corn starch first, since they tend to clump. You can flavor the batter if you like; vanilla or almond flavoring, for instance, but I wouldn’t range as far afield as citrus or cocoa. Cool completely  and dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with a glaze before serving.