photographs by justin fox burks
When I met with John Currence in mid-November, I was lucky to catch him in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. He happened to be home for two days on a break from his book tour to check in on his newest venture, Fat Eddie’s, an Italian joint that just opened in his old Lamar Lounge. He wasn’t able to be there opening night. He was in Houston for that book tour or a food event or some such thing. It’s hard to keep up.
“I was in Houston with a chef buddy, and he said, ‘It’s killing you not to be there on opening night, isn’t it?’” Currence says. “I told him, hell, yeah. Not because I’m a control freak. It’s because opening night of a new restaurant is like sleeping with your girlfriend for the first time. It’s so intense and new and exciting. It’s this exquisite chaos. There’s nothing in the world like it.”
The feeling must be addictive. Currence now has six restaurants in Oxford, one in Birmingham, and more in the pipeline. I ask Currence about his seemingly bottomless source of energy and if he ever sleeps.
“No,” he answers. “Not really. You have to have a passion for this. You either have the passion to serve people or you don’t. For me, it’s boundless.”
Must be. Did I mention he was on a tour for his second book, Big Bad Breakfast, a companion piece to his restaurant in Oxford of the same name? He also opened a BBB in Birmingham in 2014 and has plans to expand further in the Alabama college town as well as units in Florence, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle in the coming year.
As Currence explains in the book, creating a breakfast spot that can be replicated and celebrated in other towns was the plan all along.
“I am telling you, Bess, this is the place that will put us on the map,” Currence writes in the book’s introduction, explaining how the exquisite chaos of opening day for BBB back in 2008 included family in town, a line of 200 people out the door, and standing by for the health inspector to sign off on the restaurant’s permit.
Bess is his wife, by the way.
The idea was always there, probably since he was a kid growing up in New Orleans and visiting mid-century diner spots such as Allgood’s, the Camellia Grill, and Woolworth’s. “The whole idea behind building Big Bad Breakfast itself was to re-create the breakfast places I loved going to growing up in New Orleans,” Currence says. “Those greasy spoons and lunch counters like Woolworth’s downtown that were such an integral part of the civil rights movement hold very powerful memories for me.”
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Plus, he noticed that breakfast remained largely unexamined by the world of the culinary arts.
“It really felt like breakfast had been passed off to Huddle House and Cracker Barrel and bad hotel buffet experiences,” Currence says. “I thought, what if you paid the kind of attention to breakfast that chefs do to lunch and dinner?”
Currence won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2009 for his flagship restaurant City Grocery, which set up shop in an old livery stable on the Oxford town square back in 1992, arguably the first of its kind in the state. But BBB is no recycling of old ideas. The Pylon is a fried hot dog with chili, slaw, cheddar cheese, mustard, chopped pickles, onions, jalapeños, and crackers, served on a waffle. On the menu, the dish is described as “a hangover’s worst enemy.” In the book, Currence calls it the “bastard child” of the Scramble Dog from Columbus, Georgia’s, Dinglewood Pharmacy (an open-faced chili dog with oyster crackers) and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles’ famous chicken and waffle drizzled with honey.
“We call it the Pylon because everything is ‘piled on,’” Currence writes in the book.
The more literary types will notice that Pylon is also a reference to the town’s literary hero, William Faulkner, and his novel about an alcoholic journalist living in a fictionalized version of New Orleans.
Opening night of a new restaurant is like sleeping with your girlfriend for the first time. It’s so intense and new and exciting.
In Big Bad Breakfast, these sort of references abound: The Last Gentleman, which is three pieces of Coca-Cola-brined chicken served with macaroni and cheese and cole slaw, summons Walker Percy (I really wanted to tell him my dog is named Percy); The Secret History, an omelet with seasonal fresh herbs, tomatoes, shallots, and Swiss cheese, calls to mind one of Barry Hannah’s darlings, Donna Tartt, who blazed through the literary world with her debut novel by the same name; The High Lonesome, a grilled, four-ounce steak with two eggs, house-made steak sauce, and toast or biscuit, is not about paying respects to Louis L’Amour, but the town’s other literary hero, Barry Hannah; and then the eponymous dish, the Big Bad Breakfast Plate, which is two eggs, a choice of meat, and toast or biscuit, pays homage to another of the town’s well-known authors, Larry Brown, and his short story, “Big Bad Love.”
There are more, but this is not Southern Lit 101.
Most of the menu is in the cookbook, and if not the whole dish, the makings of it. Both the restaurant and the book are “ingredient-driven,” in that, if he can, Currence makes his own ingredients — having his own corn grown and ground into grits, his own coffee blended, curing and smoking his own meats, and making his own jellies and jams from local fruits and berries and, I’m pretty sure I haven’t tasted jam that made me that happy since my last visit to Europe. I won’t repeat what I said to the waiter. Let’s just say my comment was salty.
I asked Currence about some of the recipes in the book that he thinks are worth a mention, and he points out his recipe for Shakshouka.
In the book it comes with a story, outlining a trip he took to Israel to visit chef Alon Shaya and the fascination he developed with the Middle Eastern gumbo of people, and, hence, food.
“I am driven by flavor and food and learning and sharing it with people,” Currence says. “It’s about sharing stories with people. Food tells our story and illustrates our history. It’s like sharing a piece of your life, and, to me, it’s one of the greatest joys of the entire world.”
You can pick up Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day at most bookstores, but I recommend making the drive to Oxford. Experience the friendliness of the staff, drink that special-blended coffee, and try that jam on a buttermilk biscuit after you polish off one the biggest and baddest breakfast dishes you’ve ever come across. Then walk away with a book to say you tried to conquer Big Bad Breakfast and you’re taking home the spoils.