Every morning, the red booths are piled with locals and the Formica covered tables are full of eggs cooked to order, Delta Grind grits and homemade buttermilk biscuits.
But the food is almost an afterthought. The main attraction of B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley, Mississippi, is not the home cooking, but rather, the feeling of home that a friendship with chef de cuisine Dixie Grimes provides.
“Cooking is the way to symbolize family and love,” Grimes said. “The way to show love to other people and bring some happiness…food is the core of that.”
From a booth in the middle of the Dixie Belle Café, which operates within B.T.C., she waves a salutation to the handful of customers who strolled in as soon as the café door was unlocked at 8 a.m. The bespectacled Grimes, clad in her iconic baseball cap, jeans and a t-shirt that reads “We Have Made the U-Turn,” doesn’t meet a stranger. Her openness and acceptance has encouraged a bevy of Water Valley natives to do the same.
B.T.C., which is an acronym for the Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” has quite literally transformed the tiny Mississippi town and provided a place for conversations and relationships to spark. With Grimes as the ringleader, she’s more than a hometown hero. She’s become a surrogate mother for locals young and old.
“Why do I love B.T.C.? Dixie Grimes,” local artist John Forsyth said. “She’s real. She’s not pretentious. She’s a damn good cook, and she loves me, and I love her. That’s good enough.”
Grimes has also partnered with the nearby high school and given students hands-on work experience in her kitchen. She grins with pride as she sputters off the successes of her pupils, including a young woman who returns to the B.T.C. kitchen even as she completes her undergraduate degree at the University of Mississippi.
In 2010, Grimes’s business partner Alexe van Beuren opened the grocery in a period of resurgence for an abandoned strip of Main Street in downtown Water Valley. In 2011, B.T.C. took on Grimes, and with her culinary mastery came overflowing charisma. She was named official partner in 2015.
For Grimes, who served as executive chef at the now defunct Downtown Grill in Oxford, Mississippi, she came to Water Valley to kick-start the grocery’s new café and stayed for something more.
“One of the reasons I chose to stay here was to get to know the people,” Grimes said. “I found that instead of being in a hole in the back of the kitchen that I liked to engage with them, and have them tell me what they like, what they don’t like and build a friendship that also builds trust between us.”
In a town like Water Valley, locals are stubborn and change takes time. A few natives have been dubbed “town ambassadors,” charged with encouraging locals to accept new folks and new ideas. In this atmosphere, Grimes knew to develop her clientele’s trust early on. She eased into her position at B.T.C., churning out fresh home cooking every day without mentioning her past as a five-star chef in nearby Oxford.
“This is a little small country town, and they trust me enough that if I throw something out there that’s unusual, like roasted pear and zucchini soup, they will order just because they know, even though it’s so completely foreign to them, that it’s going to be good,” Grimes said. “Part of that is the friendship we’ve built.”
The kitchen door is more of a garden gate, providing a panoramic view of Grimes’s simple workspace. When the café opened, Grimes cooked on two $200 white electric stoves. Since then, the B.T.C. has acquired “Lola,” the chef’s industrial-sized stainless steel range, which inspired the name of the most popular item on the café’s colorful chalkboard menu, the “Lola Burger.”
Grimes’s relationships fostered something like an open-door policy to the kitchen, which sometimes proves a nuisance during the lunchtime rush.
“I’m always going to have a problem with [people coming in the kitchen], but it’s part of that openness. They don’t see it as a barrier,” Grimes said. “Everything back here is a dance and a rhythm, so it really only bothered me in the beginning.”
Still, the handwritten “Employees Only” sign on the kitchen door is more of a gentle suggestion, not a rule.
John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and James Beard award-winning food writer, has seen this drift towards consumer-chef relationships on a larger scale.
“You know, it used to be that the one you wanted to curry favors to was the front of the house guy, not the chef, right?” Edge said. “That’s the person that could get you a table, that’s the person that remembered your drink order, that’s the person that took care of you. And I think it’s kind of misguiding, because the chef should be back there in the kitchen. ”
The trend is marked by two changes in restaurant culture, Edge said. People are drawn to the charisma of the chef, but the rise in the smarter, more sophisticated consumer also plays a role in large and small cities alike.
“They’re smarter than that, and they’re going for good food,” he said.
The B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery’s small operation epitomizes the trend. Grimes’s old school fare is not elaborate, but it has attracted the attention of tourists from as far as Salt Lake City and Great Britain. In 2014, Grimes and van Beuren released “The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook,” a collection of the joint’s most popular recipes. With it, another movement ensued.
“What I’ve really tried to do with the cookbook is bring recipes that remind you of home, so that maybe you could have Sunday dinners,” Grimes said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, whatever. To sit down, catch up, it’s that camaraderie, even though everyone has a busy life, that keeps the family aspect going.”
Whether dining on Lola burgers at the storefront in Water Valley or whipping up her “Hoop and Havarti Macaroni” in your own kitchen, Grimes makes mealtime a family affair, just like your grandmother always wanted.
Sarah Bracy Penn is a student in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog.