Last month, Mississippi arrived in Manhattan. The initial meeting place was Butter, a Midtown restaurant where the booths are lined with dark leather and polished wood, the ceilings are high and the lights dim. The first to arrive was John Currence, dressed in chef’s whites and a ball cap that read “Make Cornbread, Not War." In the morning hours, he sautéed okra in a low, wide pot until the tough, green hulls were ready to be stewed with tomatoes and chicken stock. He let a pot of field peas simmer for hours, slowly growing thick with smoky pork fat.
For the past 35 years, Mississippi has been hosting a Saturday summer picnic in Central Park, a small affair of white tents and fried catfish and country music meant to promote the culture and heritage of the great, misunderstood state of Mississippi. Over the years, it has grown into a somewhat official pilgrimage. Every governor of the state has attended. This year, the Mississippi Development Authority hosted events stretching over three days including an exhibition of emerging artists at the National Arts Club and a night of short films in Brooklyn. Currence was here to cook not one, but two very different meals.
This morning’s private luncheon, held annually, was largely aimed at attracting what are known as “site selectors,” corporate employees typically based in New York who determine where their companies should place their next manufacturing plant, call center, or distribution warehouse. With an unemployment rate tied for fourth highest in the nation, Mississippi needs those jobs. They began to arrive around 11, in sharp, black suits, and were one-by-one greeted by the name-tagged executive team of the Mississippi Development Agency — here was the “Director of Tourism” and there was the “Chief Marketing Officer” and so on — and a glass of sweet tea.
As Currence began sending out boards of pimiento cheese sandwiches spiked with Tabasco and deviled eggs garnished with bright orange bursts of trout roe to the dining room, a black car escorted by a New York State Trooper arrived outside. As he walked in, Gov. Phil Bryant waved to the crowd, now about 60 in number, and took a seat.
Brent Christensen, executive director of the MDA, turned on a microphone, made a few small introductions to the room, bowed his head, and said a prayer: “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and us to thy service. Amen.”
When Christensen raised his head, it was time to introduce the chef who had flown in to Mississippi to cook this meal. He said a few polite words about Currence's celebrated restaurants in Oxford, about his James Beard Award, about how happy they were to have him. Currence was called in from the kitchen and the crowd clapped politely in return. The mood remained polite, perhaps because of what Christensen politely left unsaid.
This spring, a Mississippi state senator and Baptist pastor named Phillip Gandy sponsored Senate Bill No. 2681, better known as the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill called for something simple, adding the words “In God We Trust” to the state seal, but also for something harder to understand: “to provide that state action shall not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion.” Some say the bill simply protects freedom of speech. Others have suggested that it could sanction religiously oriented discrimination, namely that a Christian business would no longer need to serve gay customers. Unlike similar legislation in Arizona, which was vetoed under intense scrutiny, the bill passed in Mississippi with little national notice. Bryant gathered lawmakers' who sponsored the bill for a small private signing ceremony with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank that “believes that homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large.” The bill will go into effect on July 1, 2014 — the day before the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Of the many Mississippians who voiced opposition to the act, Currence has been among the most prominent. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, “The law sends a terrible message about the state of consciousness in the state of Mississippi. We are not going to sit idly by and watch Jim Crow get revived in our state.”
Of course, people who speak out openly against the governor’s policies aren’t typically hired to cook for him. Currence had been booked months before Bryant signed the bill. Currence considered cancelling, but then he and another chef, Kelly English of Memphis, hatched a plan they thought would get more attention: On Thursday, they would prepare this luncheon for the governor and on Friday they would hold a protest dinner called the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table. The ploy was simple. The same weekend that the state’s ambassadors would be wining and dining in New York, Currence would be there to send a message.
The response from the governor’s office was swift. The morning the news broke about the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table, Currence said, “I got a phone call, a dressing down by the governor's office — they wanted to know why I would embarrass the governor like this. And then it fucking dawned on me: You assholes don’t fucking talk to me like a sixth-grader in the principal's office, I’m a 50-year-old man. More to the point, I’m on the right fucking side of this thing. All you assholes have to do is come to dinner.”
Currence extended an offer to the governor: If the bill wasn’t about discrimination, if it was simply about protecting freedom of speech, then all the governor had to do was come to the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table. “Just show up,” Currence said. “Show the world that we’re not going to accept discrimination on any level. That’s all you have to do. Just show up.” If this weekend was about sending a message to the rest of the world about Mississippi, then why not that message? The governor declined, but Currence promised to save him a chair, anyway.
Both the offices of Gov. Bryant and the MDA declined to comment for this story, but it is not hard to imagine what was in their minds as Christensen finished his prayer and invited Currence out into the dining room to say a few words about the food. Would he bring up the bill? Would he raise his voice at the governor? Would he say those two words — “Jim Crow” — that so many in Mississippi would like to never talk about again?
Currence walked up to the microphone and described the menu that they would be eating. Behind the scenes, even that had been a battle. Currence had wanted to serve a family-style meal of summer vegetables, to push the metaphor of sharing, of communal plates. In the bickering that followed his stand against the bill, his idea for the meal got axed. “The menu ended up getting dumbed down to plates of fried chicken and sides,” he said. Currence didn’t talk about that, nor did he mention the bill. He talked instead about his grandparents' Sunday supper table. His voice was nervous and he stumbled over a few of his words. He apologized for rambling about the food. He said, “I hope you’re going to enjoy it. Thank you for having me,” and walked back into the kitchen.
After the fried chicken was served, Bryant picked up the microphone and gave a pitch to the site selectors in the room, listing the companies that have moved operations to the state: Toyota, Nissan, Elon Musk's SpaceX. (“I tell people that a man’s going to go Mars one day and he’s gonna have to pass through Hancock County to get there.”) By the end, the pitch started to resemble something closer to pleading. “If you need tickets just call me, I’ll get you there. We’ll send a plane or a helicopter. People come from all around the world to see what Mississippi’s all about and they like what they see and they’re buying into it.”
It is still unclear what kind of an economic impact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could have on Mississippi. Before Jan Brewer vetoed similar legislation in Arizona this spring, companies as large as Delta, Marriott, and AT&T threatened to relocate their business from the state. While those same companies operate in Mississippi, they’ve yet to threaten Mississippi with a similar boycott. When contacted for comment, AT&T spokesperson Kim Allen wrote, “AT&T is proud to work in Mississippi. We do not believe that Senate Bill 2681 will have an impact on how we do business in the state. The Governor and legislative leaders worked hard to ensure this legislation mirrors national law to protect the individual religious freedom of Mississippians of all faiths from government interference.” (Delta and Marriott have not yet responded to a request for comment.)
If that was the kind of protest that Currence wanted to support, talking about discrimination at this luncheon could have been an opportune forum. Instead, he held his tongue. It is, perhaps, the decision of a person stuck between loving a place and fighting to change it.
Later on, I asked Currence why he hadn’t said anything, why he hadn’t mentioned the act or the Welcome Table dinner. “Had I felt like being there and facing off with the governor would have made a positive difference, I would have,” Currence said. “I had a job to do. I did it."
Currence is 49 years old. His hair is mostly gone. In the past five years, he has been hospitalized with pancreatitis twice. The meniscus in his left knee is torn. One doctor has suggested surgery, but Currence is hoping that it will heal. Standing in the heat of the kitchen line, streaks of sweat stream down his face. His body is evidence of what a lifetime of work in a kitchen will do to someone.
Currence was not born or raised in Mississippi, but down the river in New Orleans. His father made his living in the oil business, first as a landman, then running supply boats to offshore oil rigs. It was on one of those boats that Currence had his first kitchen gig. He bounced around colleges in North Carolina and Virginia, more interested in being the lead singer of a band, Chapter Two, than finishing his degree or holding a steady job. Eventually the band broke up and he found himself washing dishes in the back of a restaurant called Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. Currence had come to Chapel Hill in 1986 looking for a music scene that exploded in Athens, Ga., instead. What he did find was Bill Neal, a temperamental self-taught chef who was doing something very few other chefs were doing at the time: taking Southern food seriously.
“There wasn’t a moment of being around Bill that you didn’t realize you were in the presence of someone important,” Currence said. “Everything he did was way beyond his years.”
Neal’s first book, Southern Cooking, had just been published by UNC Press. The New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne visited Crook’s Corner not long after and came back to tell the world about Neal’s shrimp and grits. At a time when Southern food was largely considered to be unsophisticated, provincial cuisine, Neal engaged deeply with the Western European, African, and native American traditions that he described as “meeting, clashing, and ultimately melding into” what we know as Southern food. In other words, Neal wrote of and cooked a deeply international, deeply complicated food shaped by the beauty of an agricultural region and the horror of the Atlantic slave trade, a food that borrows a palate from Sierra Leone as much as Lyon, France. It was out of this spirit — both of academic rigor and pride for the region’s food — that Currence began his culinary education.
After cutting his teeth under Neal, Currence returned to New Orleans to work as the sous chef of Gautreau’s. Currence mostly remembers that time as a haze of long hours and bourbon, but also as the turning point in his career. “There was this moment of rapture after service one night, drunk and stoned, I was sitting in the dining room and I realized, ‘This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’”
Three years later, he was lured by an old friend to Oxford, Miss., a place that he hardly knew, with the idea that a little university town with no culinary scene to speak of might be an easier place to make his mark than in the packed, competitive French Quarter. In 1992, he opened City Grocery on the town square.
Oxford occupies a violent place in the history of the civil rights movement. In October 1962, James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Riots broke out. White supremacists and segregationists drove in to join the fight. National Guard and U.S. marshals were called in to keep the peace and protect Meredith, who endured ceaseless torments. The campus became a battleground of Molotov cocktails and rifle fire. Hundreds were injured and two were killed. If you know where to look, you can still find a few bullet holes on campus.
Oxford is now a town that prides itself as an epicenter of culture, where the literary pedigree stretches from William Faulkner to Barry Hannah to Donna Tartt to Jesmyn Ward; where the local record label, Fat Possum, puts out records by R.L. Burnside and the Black Keys; where the bookstore, Square Books, is the biggest destination. Today, Oxford is considered one of the state’s most liberal enclaves, a place that Dwight Gardner now calls “America’s best small city.” In a list of the country’s most desirable college towns, Travel + Leisure quoted one resident as saying, “I was surprised to learn Mississippi could be so progressive.”
In the 20-odd years since Currence arrived, his restaurants have become the culinary complement to that culture in Oxford. He owns five restaurants in the city. A sixth just opened in Birmingham, Ala. His menus explore Southern food as a diverse, international set of traditions continuing to be shaped by immigrants today. While City Grocery still serves the shrimp and grits Currence once learned to make in North Carolina, his chef du cuisine Vish Bhatt is just as likely to be serving shrimp saganaki or catfish kathi rolls down the street at Snack Bar. The work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, he was named the Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation. While his success has coincided with the rise of Southern food's stature, Currence has become known for complicating the kitschy and oversimplified image that folks like Paula Deen have been selling.
“The American South is where American food as we know it came from," Anthony Bourdain told me. "It has angered me, as it has angered Currence, to see it dumbed down and represented as this novelty state fair food. Guys like John Currence, Ed Lee, and Sean Brock are at the forefront of a very interesting place in history. They’re asking these questions: What were we? What was American food? What was Southern food? And what can Southern food be in the future?”
The Southern food resurrection coincided with the ascent of celebrity chefs as part of pop culture. Historically, our image of a chef has been hidden away in a closed kitchen, drinking and swearing with cooks like a captain among sailors. In this era of celebrity chef, they are among television’s most common talking heads. They are flown around from fundraiser to festival to award show. They check in with their kitchens via text message. Such is the life of an ambassador, a person who is so often away from his home that he becomes a representative of a place more than a person in it.
“The dirty little secret is that you get completely pulled away from doing what you love when you become successful,” Currence said. “But if you’re given this little bit of attention, you have a responsibility to use it.”
So, in between shooting episodes of Top Chef Masters and flying around the country to sell copies of his cookbook, he’s written about the need for immigration reform and a clearer path to citizenship. He opened a barbecue joint that donates all proceeds to Mississippi-based nonprofits. He’s become deeply involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance, an Oxford-based nonprofit led by writer John T. Edge.
In the face of an increasingly clichéd and narrow understanding of Southern food, the SFA holds symposiums and produces books and documentaries that insist the story of Southern food is an inclusive one, that one cannot understand a fried shrimp po' boy without talking about the Vietnamese immigrants in south Louisiana who do much of the shrimp boating these days, that a soul food joint serving $5 plates of collards and black-eyed peas and cornbread can be as important of a culinary destination as any restaurant that John Currence will ever open. The phrase embroidered on Currence’s hat, “Make Cornbread, Not War,” is the SFA’s unofficial motto. In other words, Currence has tried to be a good citizen and ambassador of Mississippi and has found more than a few neighbors who are doing the exact same thing.
Yet, Currence feels that the state today is largely misunderstood. Not long after moving to Oxford, he said, “I noticed that whenever Mississippi made it to the national news, the backdrop behind the talking head was always a Klan hood or a rebel flag or a burning cross. The whole state just became this stock footage, this convenient repository for the nation’s racial guilt.”
If that perception of Mississippi’s reputation seems paranoid, consider Currence’s most recent television appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Before Edge and Currence led the cameras to Mississippi’s historic eateries, Bourdain opined about his perceptions from outside of the state: “Much of Mississippi history is ugly, from slavery, which was pretty much the backbone, the foundation of industry here from the get-go, to Jim Crow, lynchings to church burnings," he said. "That was all I knew. And it hadn't occurred to me to look further.”
Not everyone was pleased with the show. “Somebody in town came up to me after that show aired and asked me, ‘Why keep talking about it?’” Currence told me. "'How many times do we have to have this conversation?’ I told him, ‘Well, you know what? We have to have it forever.’”
Trying to inform that conversation with an understanding of Mississippi today is a complicated balance that troubles even Mississippi’s most sympathetic supporters. After the episode aired, Edge, who might be the most articulate observer of Southern food today, wrote a column for the Oxford American that criticized himself for not pushing Bourdain’s cameras on the immigrant chefs whom he sees as redefining the region’s food.
“I didn’t complicate anyone’s idea of anything,” Edge wrote. “Instead, when the cameras turned my way, I reflexively dug into our troubled past and served Bourdain warmed-over neckbones and rice, instead of focusing some of the attention on a bright and curried future.” The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act could endanger that bright future. At the heart of the bill is a broad, noble-sounding statement that “state action shall not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion.”
The phrasing isn’t exactly new. In 1993, President Clinton signed the first Religious Freedom Restoration Act, largely in response to concerns that the federal government could interfere with Native American rights to sacred land and peyote use, stating, “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” A few years later, when a Supreme Court case curtailed the federal legislation, a number of states began ratifying similar legislation at the state level. Mississippi is the 19th to pass some version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
What’s new is the push from conservative groups to get these acts into state law with the language tweaked to be as broad as possible. Over the past couple of years, similar legislation has been proposed in more than a dozen states and largely failed. The problem with the act’s noble-sounding language is that defining a “burden” to one’s religious practice is a legally vague territory that usually requires a court to sort out. To Eunice Rho, Advocacy and Policy Council for the ACLU, that’s exactly the point. “The supporters of this law are trying to open the door for as many legal challenges as possible on the question of burden of religious practice,” she said.
Supporters like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been quick to illustrate what they think could constitute a burden: a “wedding vendor” who does not want to do business with a same-sex couple, an employer who does not want to cover the insurance costs of birth control for employees. As the recent decision in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby shows, the Supreme Court apparently agrees with him to some degree.
While the federal Civil Rights Act and Housing Discrimination Act protect most individuals from that kind of discrimination, sexual orientation is not among their criteria. Many states have resolved that problem by passing laws that protect gay and lesbian individuals from workplace and housing discrimination, but Mississippi has not. Those with the least protections against status-based discrimination may be affected most. “Is the government telling you that you can’t discriminate against a customer a substantial burden to your religious practice?” Rho asked.
All of which is to say that the law creates a kind of open-ended interpretation that leads down a rabbit hole of potential discrimination. Could it be a burden upon a lunch counter to serve fried chicken to a lesbian couple? Could it be a burden upon one’s religion to serve a Muslim customer who prefers a plate without bacon? Could it be a burden upon a landlord to lease an apartment to a gay couple? Or, for that matter, an unwed mother? These questions might seem more absurd in a place where the violent history of state-sanctioned discrimination didn’t feel so recent, a place where so many people have worked to end exactly that.
But, Currence suggests, the threat of a major company leaving the state could be the thing that changes lawmakers' minds. “Nothing finer could happen at this point than a big guy standing up and saying that they would take their business elsewhere,” he says. “That’s a game of chicken, and when the big guys start threatening, the chickenshit politicians are going to crater every time.”
Whether the law actually has popular support is up for debate. For someone like Currence, who plays an essential role in supporting a culture that the state can be proud of and brings in outsiders and admirers like Bourdain to try to better understand the place, this act seems to evoke a kind of anxiety, the possibility that the place might not be so misunderstood, that the past isn’t as far away as he would like it to be.
The next day, Currence arrived at City Grit, a converted schoolhouse in SoHo. The kitchen, originally designed to serve children lunch in the cafeteria, has been retooled for multicourse prix fixe affairs. In the dining rooms, once used as classrooms, elaborate menus are drawn on the chalkboards and the desks have been replaced by long, communal tables.
Around 10 a.m., other chefs began to trickle in. Aside from Currence and English, there was Art Smith, who spent 10 years as Oprah’s personal chef before opening Table Fifty-Two in Chicago; Virginia Willis, the cookbook author from Atlanta; Bill Smith, the chef who took over Crook’s Corner when Bill Neal died; Aarón Sánchez, the macho guest judge of Food Network’s Chopped; Jamie Bissonnette, the spectacled chef of Toro, perhaps New York’s hottest new restaurant; Bryan Petroff, the charming, shorter half of Big Gay Ice Cream. Among them, there were about a half-dozen James Beard awards and enough tattoos to cover a milk cow.
They set to doing what we hear celebrity chefs never do anymore: cook. Willis rolled out little angel biscuits while Bill Smith stirred a shellfish stew to pour over them. English braised rabbit legs and Art Smith chopped collards to lay under them. Currence floated around, lending a hand here, stirring a pot there. As the air grew thick with the scent of shrimp shells and pork stock, the conversation turned to politics.
Every chef in the room had some little political project going. In February, when a state senator in Tennessee, Brian Kelsey, proposed legislation referred to as the “Turn Away the Gays” bill, English, who owns two restaurants in Memphis, had been quick to step up against it. Along with a campaign of petitions, English put out a statement: “The offer is on the table: I will host a political fundraiser for this guy's opponent in the next election. What a piece of garbage.” Kelsey withdrew his sponsorship of the bill only days later, effectively killing it.
Bill Smith talked about the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina last year. The state, which has seen an influx of Republican legislators after a contested redistricting, has been pushing through laws at the forefront of the conservative agenda: restricting abortion rights, complicating voter registration laws, cutting social programs. In response, hundreds of protesters have been arrested for peacefully entering the legislature to stop the proceedings. Smith, well-known as both the chef of Crook’s Corner and founder of the rock venue Cat’s Cradle, decided to join in. “It was funny,” he said. “I had to put on my best suit and clear my schedule for the week so I could get arrested.”
Art Smith, who recently adopted four children with his husband of five years, talked of a recent coup. At a James Beard event, he had asked Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, to do something to acknowledge LGBT parents. Emanuel responded by announcing that June 20 would be Parents Equality Day in Chicago. He said all of this in the most casual way, speaking of “Rahm” as one might an old friend.
“You have Rahm Emanuel’s ear?” I asked.
Art smiled and said, “I have something better — his stomach.”
Standing around and listening to this kitchen talk, an update of Percy Shelley’s defense of poets came to mind. Could it be that chefs are now the unacknowledged legislators of the world? That may be a stretch, but chefs do have a kind of access that other celebrities don’t necessarily have when it comes to courting politics. A songwriter might have a crowded club of fans to yell opinions at nightly. An actress might have tabloid cameras asking her for quotes. But a chef has a restaurant, a place where politicians and business leaders and powerful folks go. A table at a restaurant is a place where business, pleasure, and politics can mix as easily as dry vermouth and gin.
By 7:00, the food was ready and the 80 guests began to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingling around City Grit’s classrooms and ogling the chalkboards. One woman introduced herself as Miss Ole Miss 1967. When Morgan Freeman arrived, the rest of the room tried not to turn and stare. Freeman, who lives in Charleston, Miss., and owns a blues club in Clarksdale, has dabbled in politics himself, including a failed campaign to have the Confederate battle flag removed from the Mississippi state flag. Later on, he mingled about the room, taking pictures with whoever asked. Stickers with the slogan “I AM MISSISSIPPI, I DON’T DISCRIMINATE” were distributed all around. The logo for the night’s event, a Mississippi state flag crossed with a pride flag, was drawn in great detail on the dining room’s chalkboard. It had to be explained to a few diners that the logo was based on the Mississippi state flag, that the official flag actually still contains a Confederate saltire. Eventually, everyone found a seat at the table.
Before the food was served, the chefs gathered in the dining room to say a few words. Art Smith thanked all of the sous chefs who had helped. Petroff explained that the dessert was named for Stormé DeLarverie, the New Orleans-born bouncer who, according to some accounts, threw the first punch in the Stonewall riots. Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign explained a little about Project One America, the Southern-focused LGBT rights campaign that would benefit from this dinner. Currence spoke with more confidence than he did at Butter. He ended with a simple message: “Mississippi will not sit quietly and allow discrimination to return to the state.”
More than once, Currence told me, “I guarantee that the majority of people in Mississippi want nothing to do with discrimination.” It may be true. Cities across the state have passed resolutions distancing themselves from the measure, reaffirming anti-discrimination protections for everyone in the city, including the LGBT community. Hundreds of business owners have started a sticker campaign that lets customers know, “If you’re buying, we’re selling.”
When Currence first took a stand on the issue, he was afraid of a backlash. “I didn’t know if there would be shit spray-painted on the side of my house and whether it would have an effect on business,” he said. But that fear has abated. “A day doesn’t pass that I don’t hear something positive from someone.”
The image of a shared table is a powerful one in American history. It is a symbol of crossing difference, of bridging culture through the simple fellowship of food. Currence came to New York do just that, to send a message, to invoke a symbol, to set a shared table. In the end, that’s all one chef can do. After the table is set, the people sitting at it are the ones who make the decisions.
Bryant never arrived to take the seat that had been saved for him.
On Saturday, Mississippi had its picnic in Central Park. On a strip of asphalt running between Sheep’s Meadow and the Naumberg Bandshell, a row of white tents offered trinkets of the state’s affections: sticks of lip balm branded with the state logo, tote bags printed with Tennessee Williams' face, brochures encouraging visits to Corinth and Clarksdale, round stickers emblazed with “Ole Miss” and “Hotty Toddy.” The line for plates of fried catfish and coleslaw stretched for several minutes. Children put their toes on a line, trying to win a watermelon-seed-spitting contest sponsored by Beech-Nut Chewing Tobacco. Nearby, people mingled on picnic blankets, drinking beer from coolers and talking about college baseball. On a small stage, Marty Stuart arrived with a band of men in blue Nudie suits and sang “Tempted” for whoever would listen.
Somewhere in the air, Currence was headed back to Mississippi on a plane. Down on the ground, you could hear a quiet message, maybe a plea, to come stay awhile, to listen to some music, to eat some food, to try to better understand the great, misunderstood state of Mississippi.
A couple weeks later, just before the law went into effect, I asked Currence what it would take to make him move his business out of the state. “You mean something that’s ugly enough to say, ‘Fuck it? Let’s fold up shop and get out of here?’” He paused for a long time. “I’m too deeply rooted. My instinct is to stand up and fight rather than run away. I can’t imagine saying, ‘Fuck it.’ It’s not that simple for me.”