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Cooking with Chef John Currence at the Music To Your Mouth Festival

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Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock
Chef Currence Tamales / Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

Chef John Currence says that his interest in food originated when he was a boy, eating from his grandparents’ garden while visiting their rural South Carolina home every summer. He’s pretty quick to de-romanticize the idyllic image that is conjured of formative chef-shaping years on the farm by relaying that the enterprise was comparable to “indentured servitude.” Fortunately, there were perks. One such perk? The abundance of pickled products his grandmother stored in her basement pantry for winter consumption, walls of colorful jars creating a sort of stained glass mirage that drew him in like a beacon. He admits, with a touch of pride, that he’d swipe a jar here and there. His thievery was fun and games until an ill-fated pursuit involving a targeted jar of top-shelf peaches ended with him sprawled on the floor amidst broken glass, passed out in a veritable pool of preserves and pickles.

This was the point in the class on Mississippi foodways when it became apparent that Chef Currence is a bit of a mischief maker.

But what an engaging teacher the mischievous man made. This particular class was held as part of the delectable days that comprise the Music to Your Mouth Festival at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina. It is a top-notch affair from beginning to end and any person invested in Southern food and Southern food culture, and/or those possessing a proclivity for pork products in general would do well to check it out.

The topic for this cooking class was “The Modern Foods and Farms of the Mississippi Delta” and it was part of their “food of place” series. These classes were facilitated by John T. Edge, the Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, making for more of an engaging Q&A/cooking demo than a traditional hands-on cooking class. In fact, it was more of a “watch me cooking while you keep eating my delicious food” class. Which was obviously pretty cool.

So the two food experts, who are clearly good friends, bantered back and forth throughout. John T. did a dogged job of keeping Currence on his toes, prodding him to offer details and history at appropriate points and in response to attendees’ questions and interests. The knowledge stored in Currence’s head could rival a college professor, and like a seasoned professor, he wove personal anecdotes in to keep things engaging. He’s certainly not unfunny, Chef Currence. Though be warned that he is not shy about profanity.

Having grown up in New Orleans, Currence calls the food landscape of the Crescent City “arguably the greatest culinary identity in the country.” By contrast he notes that there are almost no foodways at all to the Mississippi Delta. His home, by the way, is in Oxford Mississippi where he runs a bit of a restaurant empire, including the City Grocery, for which he is best known, and Bouré, his newest outlet. He’s been awarded a James Beard Best Chef: South award, as well as enough other accolades to make your head spin as though you’ve just self-concussed while trying to thieve pickled peaches.

The one foodway that is identifiable to the delta is tamales, a rather unlikely signature food to be sure. But, yes—tamales. After reconstruction, migrant workers brought tamales to the delta and the dense little logs acted as a “kitchen sink” way to utilize whatever was on hand, since they can be stuffed with just about anything. Incidentally, Currence stuffed his with cumin braised delta pork, set them atop a spicy tomato sauce (the way they do it at his favorite tamale spot in Rosedale, Mississippi) and covered with them with a buttermilk crema. I don’t know about your kitchen sink, but mine sure could not have conjured something this good.

Currence cares so much about his local farmers and vendors, relaying that there is a farm with which he has a standing agreement to take anything they have left over on any given day. He loves this place so much, and relies so heavily on their quality products that he personally massages the shoulders of the woman who delivers his food because he is so scared of her quitting and him losing access to the farm food. It’s possible that part of his willingness to act as masseuse could be due to this farmer gal being rather cute, but that’s only a hunch and whatever, he also sounds devoted to the cause. He wants to reward, celebrate, and utilize all the small purveyors in his Oxford region and happily talks about some of his favorites like The Brown Family Dairy Farm, where he tells a chuckle-inducing story about the owners literally churning butter while watching Law and Order at night in order to catch up with their work load.

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Others involved in the cooking that day: Woodsen Ridge Farms supplied the turnips for the turnip salad Currence plopped atop his seafood gumbo (yes, I am serious and yes, it was awesomely good). Lauren Farms in Leland supplied the prawns for that very gumbo and Old Thyme Farms is where he sourced the heritage hog for his pork fat fried beignets. The beignets were also drizzled with honey from Currence’s own hives (he is obsessed with the diligence of bees—who isn’t?) and smothered in powdered sugar because how else would a New Orleans boy serve a beignet? So that’s how the class ended—with a marvelous plate of pork fat fried donuts. Music to your Mouth indeed.