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An Activist Chef in the Time of Trump

John Currence is using his fame for more than just food

John Currence Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

It’s late July in Oxford, Mississippi, and John Currence is slicing heirloom tomatoes from his backyard and recounting a verbal spat he had with a stranger. The bald, brash 52-year-old celebrity chef, who has spent the summer in and out of town to tend to new branches of his ever-expanding Southern brunch empire, was waiting to get off an airplane when the screen on the seat in front of him flashed a headline. It was about the Senate’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was refusing to testify.

Currence had been following the story closely. And so had the 60-something woman next to him, who expressed visible delight at the news. The moment she reacted, he couldn’t help but engage. “Without thinking, I said, ‘That’s what people with something to hide do: They take the Fifth,’” he recounts, now disassembling the tomatoes even faster. “She kind of mumbled something, and I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ Then she just goes, ‘Fuck you.’”

That, he says, was his last memorable encounter with a Trump supporter. (If you don’t count his brother, or the people he engages with on his Twitter account, which is filled with insulting nicknames for Donald Trump like “ass-nacho” and “Dorito With Merkin.”) And now in about an hour, a group of Trump supporters would arrive at his antebellum home, sit down at his dinner table, and consume the heirloom tomato salad he was making. These were guests of Michael Joe Cannon, a longtime conservative Christian and the owner of a handful of car dealerships across the state. He’d bid for and won the private dinner, which was auctioned off to benefit Square Books, a local independent bookstore dear to Currence’s heart. Despite Currence’s tendency to dive head-first into heated political debates, he knew that furthering his cause would mean showing restraint that evening. Besides, after so many public and online venues have morphed into political battlefields since November, he wants to preserve what he believes is one of the last safe places for constructive conversation: the dinner table.

“Food just plays such an important role in our lives that it should be something that’s considered deeply when we’re talking about getting folks to the table to talk,” he says, as he uses a rolling pin to flatten out dough for pork buns. “You have to find commonalities with your adversaries in order to begin a conversation. Otherwise, it’s just a, ‘Fuck you; no, fuck you,’ and we’ll just agree to disagree.”

All that talk about commonalities might seem insincere coming from someone who once tweeted that the president is the “Biggest, dumbest, wobbliest, umpa loompa, frat boy ever!!!” But it’s how Currence earned his reputation as an activist celebrity chef. In 2014, the James Beard Award winner was invited to cater the Mississippi Picnic, an annual event in New York that serves as an opportunity for Mississippi politicians, businesspeople, and state officials to solicit tourism and business. A few months before it took place, however, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill called “The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The law decreed that the words “In God We Trust” be added to the state seal and that the state can’t “burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.” Its supporters, including Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, argued that it would protect freedom of speech. Its critics, including Currence, saw it as a sneaky way to let Christian-owned businesses discriminate against LGBT customers.

John Currence
John Currence
Courtesy of John Currence

“More than anything else, the law sends a terrible message about the state of consciousness in the state of Mississippi,” Currence told The New York Times that spring. “We are not going to sit idly by and watch Jim Crow get revived in our state.”

As the summer picnic approached, it became apparent that Currence, the outspoken chef who opposed the new law, would be making lunch for Bryant, the red state politician who signed it into being. Rather than pull out, Currence banded together with a handful of other chefs — including Kelly English of Memphis’s Restaurant Iris and Art Smith, a former personal chef to two Florida governors and Oprah — to organize a dinner the following evening, the “Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table.” It was backed by the Southern Food Alliance, a group based out of University of Mississippi that’s focused on surfacing unsung players in the Southern food scene, past and present. If being a talented, straight, white chef in the South inherently meant that he had the power and platform to challenge the influential people of his home state, Currence would not skip the chance to denounce laws that essentially keep others down. The controversy soon became a national story. Currence invited the governor to attend, reasoning that if the bill was truly about free speech, he shouldn’t feel uncomfortable dining with the gay community. “Just show up,” Currence told Bryant at the time, per a BuzzFeed News play-by-play. “Show the world that we’re not going to accept discrimination on any level. That’s all you have to do. Just show up.”

The governor would not attend the Big Gay dinner. But Currence had kept his word at the previous day’s luncheon, assembling plates of pimiento cheese sandwiches and trout-garnished deviled eggs for guests. When the emcee introduced him to the crowd and handed him a microphone, he politely stuck to a description of his grandparents’ Sunday supper table.

Two years later, Bryant signed a similar bill, “The Mississippi Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,” which stated that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” In turn, the organizers of the interstate picnic canceled the event. Currence was so incensed by the law that he immediately mocked up a sign to put outside all of his restaurants in Oxford. It welcomed everyone, he tells me, “with the exception of any son of a bitch that signed or sponsored that piece of legislation.” His wife, Bess — who is often a calming force during his fits of political passion — talked him out of it: “She was like: ‘Think about this for a second. Do you really want to create an adversarial relationship with people before they’ve even walked in the door?’” he recounted to me. “And you know, she was absolutely right.”

Under Trump, who can discuss the possibility of military conflict with North Korea with alarming ease and can threaten an entire group of people with a military ban via Twitter, these types of small-town disagreements over who will serve whom catfish might seem insignificant, silly even. But they are deeply rooted in the history of the Southern civil rights movement, and commonplace in increasingly divided states like Mississippi. Even as Currence is frequently caught between his desire to help his home state and his bitter disdain for its politics, his hope is to use food as a universal equalizer. By first appealing to people’s taste buds, Currence aims in part to also reach hearts and minds — whether by fundraising for nonpartisan issues, highlighting immigrant cultures via the chefs and food he champions, or — at the very least — starting a conversation that doesn’t conclude in insults.

When I first meet Currence in his Oxford home, he is dressed like a sitcom dad: classic 1950s browline glasses, left wrist wrapped in prayer beads, comfortable tennis shoes, and a burnt-orange T-shirt with the word “Mississippi” spelled out phonetically. Despite past health problems — including two bouts of pancreatitis and a torn left meniscus — he’s filled with a boundless, frenetic energy, something that is on full display the day I visit, as he juggles planning an upcoming Southern Foodways Alliance symposium with the responsibility of preparing dinner for eight.

Though Currence now calls Oxford home, he was born in New Orleans. His dad was a supplier to offshore oil rigs and his mom was a high school history teacher. When he turned 18, he registered as Republican because his father told him he could “either do that, or move out of this house.” At the time, he was less interested in politics than in being the lead singer of a band called “Chapter Two …” and touring in a janky van the band referred to as “Cruel Eugene.”

It wasn’t until 1986, when the band broke up and he found work washing dishes at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that he began to fully focus on food. Currence’s interest in cooking had been piqued long before, when he worked the kitchen of one of his father’s tugboats. But it was at this college-town restaurant that he began to hone his skills.

In Chapel Hill, Currence worked under Bill Neal. Neal was a trailblazing, self-taught prodigy of a chef who had recently written a book on the many intersectional cultures of Southern cuisine. Neal was making a name for himself elevating traditional regional dishes like boned quail and shrimp with grits using classical French techniques. He took what he’d learned under Neal and ran with it at a handful of other positions across the South, experimenting with cuisines ranging from traditional Italian to new American to unmistakably Southern. When it came time to branch out on his own, he followed a friend to Oxford, reasoning it’d be much easier to establish a name for himself in a lively, culturally rich college town than it would be to wedge himself into the French Quarter. In 1992, he found a Reconstruction-era livery stable downtown, and opened City Grocery, where he served dishes that combined Deep South flavors with Creole cooking to Ole Miss students and a growing class of young professionals. Since then he’s expanded his local reach to include Bouré, a Creole-leaning joint that serves dishes like pecan-crusted catfish lafitte; the French bistro Snackbar; and Big Bad Breakfast, a modern, Southern-steeped brunch spot that has become so wildly popular that it has inspired a cookbook and branches in Alabama and Florida. Along the way he has also become one of network TV’s many Southern cooking ambassadors, making cameos on Top Chef Masters and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. In September of last year, he appeared on ABC’s The Chew, where — in what one can only assume to be an eager attempt to insult Trump on national television — he made a forced comparison between his monkey bread and the then-candidate: “It’s kind of nutty, it’s totally phony, it seems like it’s going to be good, but it’s a terrible choice.”

Exterior of the City Grocery restaurant
Currence’s City Grocery in Oxford
Courtesy of John Currence

Food in the South — harvesting it, making it, serving it — became a motivating topic for civil rights organizers in the early 1950s. Fighting for basic rights often meant that black people needed to challenge discriminatory farm labor practices, protest segregated dining, and rely on their own culinary traditions as support systems. “During the civil rights movement, restaurants were battlegrounds and bunkers, places of conflict and communion,” wrote Southern author John T. Edge in his recently published book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. “Lunch counter sit-ins, which ignited at a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store in 1960, demanded the nation’s attention and foreshadowed the twenty-first century embrace of food as creative expression and political activism.”

The systematic racism and segregation that activists fought against have left large swathes of the South — and especially Mississippi — undereducated, underemployed, and impoverished. As Currence will tell you, the state has the second-worst education ranking in the nation, just above West Virginia. It is tied for the sixth-highest jobless rate in the nation. And at 22 percent, it has the highest overall poverty rate.

Currence has taken an active role in improving these disappointing statistics from whatever angle he can. And it’s worth noting that in a state where racism runs so deep that its flag still displays a Confederate symbol, he’s able to do that both because of his celebrity chef status and because he’s white. The South’s civil rights movement earned black people the legal right to dine and work among their white peers, among many other significant accomplishments. But some 50 years later, it does not guarantee that politicians in the South will lend an ear to the black community’s modern-day leaders. That is especially true of anyone in the food-service industry, where, for decades, talented black chefs have often been waved off as the source of a delicious, down-home meal, and nothing more. In that respect, Currence’s privilege has allowed him access to audiences that a chef of color might have a harder time gaining, and therefore the ability to challenge high-profile donors and politicians.

Along with a brief stint heading up the Mississippi Restaurant Association, he has trained his fundraising efforts as frequently as possible toward the issues dear to him. In 2015 he founded Move On Up, Mississippi, a nonprofit focused on fighting childhood hunger and other similar problems. This spring it hosted a “Mexissippi Supper” in response to the Trump administration’s increasingly strict immigration policies. (Currence’s career has often involved highlighting immigrant cuisine, as evidenced by Snackbar’s executive chef, Vishwesh Bhatt, who mixes the flavors of his home country, India, with classic Southern dishes to make concoctions like garam masala home fries and okra chaat.) Recently, Currence cooked for an event to raise money for a local library in Tupelo, the largest city in the very conservative Lee County. When it came time to offer some remarks to some 500 attendees, he pleaded with the audience to reconsider their party loyalty in local elections.

“I knew what my crowd was like, and I knew the water that I was wading into,” he says. “But I also realized that there was a way to bridge the two worlds. This is not to ask anyone to change political parties, or to blame parties. This is about looking at the individuals that we’re voting into office.”

More than anything, his philosophy as a chef has been influenced by his 20-year involvement with the Southern Foodways Alliance. The day I visit Currence’s home, the group’s director, aforementioned Potlikker Papers author John T. Edge, pops into the living room holding a rough itinerary for the organization’s upcoming fall symposium in one hand, and a bag of flour made from chapulines — Oaxacan crickets — in the other. “Is that gluten-free?” Currence quips. He brings Edge, who is also his friend and neighbor, an obligatory glass of sweet tea from his bottomless reserves and settles into his couch. The annual symposium’s theme this year is “El Sur Latino” — a particularly relevant topic given the looming question of whether the Trump administration will really build that wall. In an effort to ensure representation, every speaker and chef at the three-day event will be a person of color.

“If you want to understand the South, you gotta understand Latino life in the South,” Edge says. “It’s the future of the South.”

Just before the fundraiser winners arrive at the Currence residence, Bess zips into the kitchen on high alert, reminding her husband to change as she does one final survey of the places she set on the dinner table. A few minutes later, Currence returns to his post in a white button-up jacket and blue leather shoes with red laces — no longer a man lounging in his own home but a chef, willing and ready to serve his guests.

Soon enough, the four couples arrive and immediately break off into groups. The women, taut and fit in ruffley summer tops and festive wedges, gather around Bess for a tour of their home. The men, in khakis and pastel polos, congregate around the kitchen island as Currence makes them margaritas. They are mostly local business owners, and their topics of conversation range from the most recent Ole Miss football scandal to the time Currence made moonshine in the giant copper sill that sits in his living room.

The moment the guests are seated, Currence and his City Grocery–borrowed sous chef begin to assemble and plate the courses with a relaxed focus. The red-and-yellow heirloom salad takes its final form with black-eyed peas, shaved onions, and a sesame tahini dressing. It’s followed by squash soup, steamed pork buns, a smoky shrimp bisque topped with pico de gallo and crème fraîche, chimichurri-slathered steak served alongside maitake mushrooms, buttery mashed potatoes, and a slice of tasty pecan pie.

Currence is gracious each time he visits the dinner table with the next serving. Between dishes, he sips water from one of his beloved styrofoam cups and chats with Bess, who has taken on the unofficial role of sommelier, enthusiastically refilling everyone’s glasses.

When I spoke to Currence earlier that summer, he’d floated the idea of introducing topic cards at his dinners to get people talking about issues without explicitly bringing up the politicians behind them. But tonight, as he pops in and out of the room to describe each course, it’s clear that he would not be meddling in the conversation. After all, Cannon paid for a private dinner, and Currence’s old-school chef’s instinct is to provide that service without antagonizing his guests. It’s only until after the plates have been cleaned, when a remaining couple hung back in the kitchen, that Currence loosens up. The issue of the Middle East comes up, and a sarcastic aside about Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, slips out.

“Dammit!” he says, catching himself mid-rant. “I lasted the whole night.” His audience, it turns out, is more sympathetic than he expected — secret Trump critics who were equally as cautious to bring up American foreign policy, among many other things, at the dinner table that night. After Currence finally sees them off, he pours himself a glass of whiskey. It is nearing midnight, but he isn’t ready to call it a night. He retreats to his favorite chair in the living room, where Bess and their babysitter have already posted up with some wine. His fluffy family cat has managed to find her way inside, and is patrolling the area for attention.

“There you go,” he says, gesturing toward the door. “There’s a wonderful illustration of how close it gets in Mississippi. That at the same table, you have folks that are best friends but they couldn’t be more divergent in terms of political views.”

It has been a long day of work, largely dedicated to the causes that Currence believes in. He provided all he could to facilitate a constructive conversation — a dinner table and a delicious meal — but some things you just can’t force. There would be plenty more meals, and plenty more chances to find common ground. Besides, the evening’s discussion is far from over. This, he insists as Bess pours me a glass of wine, is when we can finally talk politics.

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