“The South” always sounds so monolithic to me, and I have hated the way people refer to it like it’s this inflexible place that is exactly the same in all areas. So I became determined to unpack it and allow every region, every county, every piece I could discover, to show me what it is and what it isn’t. Because truly, why not? And Mississippi, which probably garnishes the least attention of all 50 states, was by far the most intriguing to me.
And that Gulf Coast, well, that felt like the perfect away from the usual exploration.
So I orchestrated a road trip across Coastal Mississippi with my friend Sue. If we wanted to understand a little more of America — the different and the same — we needed to road trip through this great state. We started (out of state) with a wild weekend in New Orleans for her birthday, which ended with us crossing the Twin Span Bridge from Louisiana into The Magnolia State.
Our first stop was Biloxi — I was told it had three syllables, so I had to slow my pronunciation right down. BI…LO…XI. A beach town with large casinos, plenty of surf and even more shrimp. That’s where we had many a shrimp fix, kicked off at this gorgeous restaurant, White Pillars, where the chef Austin Sumrall pummeled us with shrimp, done a million ways, right off the boat.
Of course, no trip to the Gulf is complete without time on the water, so we hopped a shrimping boat with captains Brandy and Mike Moore, who own the Biloxi Shrimping Trip and, from my silly vantage point, were born to be on these muddy warm waters. They told us my now favorite Mississippi story: Mike just bought a boat and came home one day to tell Brandy, “We’re starting a shrimping trip.” Her response: “Who the heck wants to see someone shrimp?” Mike took Brandy on one ride out on the water and she loved it so much that she immediately registered to do her 100-ton boat captain license, and will be passing this down to their daughter in 10 years or so.
Back in the day the casinos were on floating barges — for gambling prohibition loophole reasons — but today they are all on the beach. Sue knows how to gamble. In Mississippi they have “crapless craps,” a craps variant in which the player cannot lose a pass bet on the come out roll. I don’t know what that means — but it was fun (and profitable) to watch Sue make a couple of thousand dollars within minutes. We hung out with Kristian Wade, the Executive Chef of Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, who grew up in Coastal Mississippi — and he turned us on to the prevalent Vietnamese culture in the area. A surprise to me but actually the Gulf area has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside Vietnam.
The town also boasts the Frank Gehry-designed, Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, dedicated to the mad potter of Biloxi, George E. Ohr.
“Many artists, including Ohr, adopted the Mississippi Gulf as their muse,” says Pamela Cevallos, the Education Director at the museum. “Like me, they were enchanted by its amazing natural diversity, the kindness of its people, and its mystic sunsets,” In the late 19th century, pottery was taking America by storm, usually French floral or Japanese minimal, but good old George had other plans: wondrous pots in anatomical shapes, a hole filled coffee mug that required you to drink in a specific way to avoid a spill. Long after his death, the art world caught up with him, and Andy Warhol, for one, became a collector.
Right next to Biloxi is Ocean Springs. A sweet little town with incredible chefs and young people who are from the area and revitalizing it with an entrepreneurial spirit. Here it feels less like hipsters moving in and shaking things up by kicking locals out, and more like natives rebuilding a defunct part of the state.
In fact, the whole coast fell under disrepair with weather disasters and people moving away. But the Ocean Springs community, albeit small, pulled together to create a place for progressive people to come live a healthy, creative lifestyle. “The oak trees hooked us, but everything else made us stay.” shares Roxy Condrey, who owns The Roost Boutique Hotel. According to her, “Music and art are part of the fabric of Ocean Springs and one of my personal favorite weekends each year is The Mississippi Songwriters Festival and Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) week”. An incredible lineup of talented artists do a show every year at the Community Center, where artist Walter Anderson painted murals of the “Seven Climates” on every wall. WAMA is this magnet for art lovers and travelers from all over the world.
I wanted more fun and games so I entered us into the Greenhouse On Porter’s (a local hangout and coffee shop) Southern Biscuit Competition, where town folks compete every Thursday. With no family recipe, it’s no wonder my sneakily store-bought biscuits lost to the savory “Bless Your Heart” bacon and cheese entry.
When I asked Kait Sukiennik, who owns Greenhouse, what she loves about this little corner of the world, she told me “that salty humid air”, and even I was sold.