New approach requires local twists for festival dishes
By Tad Wilkes, Nightlife & Lifestyles Editor
Oxford’s hallmark spring arts festival has redefined the kind of food it wants vendors to present this year, with the intent of guaranteeing all dishes have local ties. But this first year of the new vendor specs has sparked a dialogue about what exactly “local” means.
Even though Tate Moore grew up in Ohio, he’s lived in Oxford for about 20 years. As leader of beloved Oxford music group the Kudzu Kings, Moore, many would suggest, has earned his local stripes. His Square Pizza restaurant is inspired by the pies of the Ohio Valley; he opened a few years ago excited to introduce this, his favorite style, as a unique offering among other styles of pizza in town. More often than not, Moore is the one making and baking the pies, ringing up the orders, pouring the Cokes, and conversing with the patrons. It’s not a chain.
That’s why Moore says he was taken aback when, after applying to be a food vendor at the Double Decker Festival Presented by C Spire, to be held April 26 and 27 in Oxford, he received the following letter:
Thank you for applying to be a 2013 Double Decker Arts Festival food vendor. As you know, Double Decker has formed a food vendor committee to improve the selection process, revamp the food vendor guidelines, and help make Double Decker a food-lover’s festival, just as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is now as renowned for food as it is for music. To do that, we need your help.
We encourage you to submit a revised application. We want to make sure that food served on Saturday is unique to Oxford. What’s more, we want to showcase foods that are unique to Double Decker.
Here’s how we put it in the initial call for vendors: “Does your dish use local goods? If you’re serving a burger, do you use ground beef from a local farmer? Does your dish leverage local recipes? If you’re serving a hot dog, do you cap it with chow chow, made from your Aunt’s recipe? That’s what we want.”A number of vendors rose to that challenge. A pizza franchisee developed a pizza topped with Mississippi Gulf Coast shrimp. A corn dog vendor decided to use sausages, made with pork from Lafayette County pigs. A cake company pledged to use butter from Lafayette County cows. A hotdog vendor, accustomed to selling ketchup- and mustard-slathered dogs, developed a homemade chow chow. The goal of our committee is to encourage and enable food vendors to sell unique dishes that are not available elsewhere. After reviewing your application, the committee asks you to take another look at what you plan to serve. We encourage you to develop and serve Double Decker-only dishes that reflect the unique culture of Oxford and Mississippi.
A number of businesses have submitted applications to sell pizza and we’re encouraging all to do something special, something that will be different, something that will be exceptional for Double Decker. What can you do? Use locally raised spinach on your pie? Incorporate locally-made sausage? Try a pimento cheese calzone?
We have enclosed another application with a complete list of guidelines. To be reconsidered for the festival, please return a revised application to us by Monday, April 1. Please feel free to call the Oxford Tourism Council if you have any questions about the guidelines or the application.We know that these changes present challenges for some vendors. And we thank you for working with us to showcase foods that will make Double Decker a destination for culinary tourists as well as music tourists.
Thank you for working with us. We are confident that the end result will be worth it.Sincerely,Double Decker Food Vendor Committee
John T Edge
Soon after receiving the letter, which was dated March 25, Moore aired his frustration on Facebook, posting, “Looks like Square Pizza will not have a booth at Double Decker this year. Clearly I’m not unique enough to Oxford.”
One comment to Moore’s post was by Oxford-raised Lamar Lounge Chef Charles Owens, who said, “funny……chicken and pork and catfish and many other products that we purchase from sysco or us foods ARE raised and packed here in mississippi for logistical reasons.”
Dish as Narrative
The changes in what decision-makers are looking for in Double Decker dishes are aimed at making sure festival-goers get a true taste of the town, the area, and the state. “We’ve overhauled our food vendor process this year in an attempt to make this portion of the festival better reflect Oxford’s culinary story,” read the cover letter applicants received from Double Decker organizers in February.
Only 25 vendors ultimately will be selected in the final lineup for Double Decker food, the form application states. The panel of five, which has been vetting the applications and sent the letters, includes John Currence (City Grocery), Liz Coppola (Farmers Market), Shannon Adams (Honeybee Bakery), Richmond Smith (Oxford School District), and John T. Edge (Southern Foodways Alliance). The application advised aspirants to “Think of your dish as a narrative. Does it tell a story of Oxford? Does your dish spin a tale about Mississippi?” The mission stated in the application is to showcase “the dishes that define this place.”
When a Letter Gives You Lemons…
Though local businessman and mayoral candidate Jason Plunk recently closed his Taylor’s Pub, he continues to operate a mobile hot dog stand with the name Taylor’s Pub Dogs in the downtown area and applied to include his stand among Double Decker’s food vendors. Like many food and beverage purveyors in Oxford, Plunk says he depends on the crowd the festival attracts for a big chunk of his spring revenue. But he opened his mail on Wednesday, March 27, to find the same letter Moore got.
“I’ve got three days to revamp my menu, and I have no choice,” Plunk said Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to, because that’s a huge payday.” He added that the letter “confused” him, since on the music side of the festival, organizers enlisted a Memphis firm to book and produce the live music, rather than employing local management. Plunk also questions why John Currence, owner of four restaurants in Oxford, including two on the Square, is on the committee—and thereby, in Plunk’s view, is in a position to “pick his competition.”
But Plunk has chosen to take the open-ended letter as not so much a rejection but a challenge and an opportunity. Already having planned to refurbish his hot dog stand, he said that after he received the letter, he sat “staring at the computer” screen brainstorming. A lifelong Oxonian, the outspoken Plunk is seldom at a loss to “tell a story of Oxford,” and a new idea came pretty quickly.
“The interesting thing for me that has come out of this is I have renamed the hot dog stand and will have a new logo and everything out by Double Decker,” Plunk said. “I’m renaming the stand ‘the Double Decker Dog.’ That’s one of the ways I’m going to keep it local. I’m going to keep that name year-round.”
Beyond a new marketing angle and cosmetic updates to his cart, the rest of Plunk’s plan is in line with the mission stated in the vendor application instructions, as it likely will “reflect the vitality of the local food economy”—per language from the application—when put into action. But executing his vision won’t be without feeling the adjustments that must be made, at least for this one event.
Despite that Plunk typically buys his hot dogs from local merchants, the items aren’t from local farms—though Plunk boils the franks in Oxford tap water from the city supply. Sourcing instead now from local farms and purveyors, “My costs will skyrocket,” Plunk said. He interprets the requirements as not dictating 100 percent use of local ingredients but to simply add some local flair into the menu. “If that’s the case, my thought is to get some local brats or sausages—or what I’m able to find—and add them onto my menu along with my regular menu. So, I’m expanding the menu to meet the criteria … The letter came yesterday. I’ve got one day, and then Good Friday, and then a weekend to figure this out—basically two business days.”
“I need the money, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure the Double Decker Dog stand is set up.”