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Cakes cooling in front of the air register at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City, MS

I don’t know what it is about gas stations in Mississippi. They are often some of the most interesting places in a small town. For an expatriate like myself I can always count on a convenience store as a place to overhear dialects that some people in New England might not understand, and stock up on some of my favorite regional foods:

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I know of convenience stores that serve up plate lunches (a meat and three sides for $5), Indian food, barbecue (sandwiches, brisket, chicken, you name it at B’s BBQ in Oxford), chicken-on-a-stick (Chevron, again in Oxford. If you are eating this you’ve likely been drinking all night.), or maybe even a red velvet cake, or chocolate pie, or a pound cake. There must be something to this; does it have something to do with gas stations replacing the general store? Or local business owners wanting to put their Southern touch on something so generic? There’s probably a more obvious business reason, something to do with overhead. Whatever the reason, convenience stores in the South are unique.

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The bakers at Mark's One Stop in Calhoun City

Perhaps my favorite of all is Mark’s One Stop in Calhoun City. A few years ago John T. Edge did a piece in the Oxford American on this place, but I knew about it before that, when I used to make the drive from Meridian to Oxford all the time. I stopped at this Texaco station once to fill up my tank and get a coke. While perusing the candy aisles I became aware that there was a sweet smell in the air, the smell of holiday baking, of birthdays. I looked around the corner and saw some women in a side room baking cakes. In the front of the store, right next to the pizza slices and fried burritos, was a display case full of cakes, sold whole or by the slice. I bought a piece of German chocolate cake for my roommate. After that I’d get a piece of cake every now and then, but this time we needed a whole cake. We were driving through Calhoun City to get to Oxford, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, and tailgating central. The ladies behind the counter were, of course, very  nice, and recommended the mandarin cake. It was a deliciously moist cake with pieces of mandarin orange and pineapple. The icing was a not-to-sweet buttercream (I think) which complemented the sweetness in the cake perfectly. Unfortunately I didn’t get the names of the ladies I met, but here they are showing off their workplace.

On our way to Oxford we stopped and got some boiled peanuts; I didn’t even really want them, I just had todsc02726 stop because, well, that’s just not something you ever see up here in New England. They were good, but really salty. Or am I just becoming accustomed to Northern food? Anyway, it was fun getting them hot from the kettle. Once we got to Oxford I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and see some local art, which was fun. My parents are huge Ole Miss fans and we got to sit through a 59-0 shut out, which was fabulous, since we were on the winning side.

I don’t think people from other parts of the country quite dsc027451understand the whole “tailgating” phenomenon as it takes place down South. People go all out for just a few hours of visiting with people. Overnight, tents go up all over the Grove on the Univ. of Mississippi (Ole Miss) campus, and with them come candelabras, vases full of flowers, flat screen televisions with satellite dishes, casseroles, bread, shrimp, jambalaya, you name it. Oh, and don’t forget the booze. Lots of that. My dad brought some scrumptious jambalaya (shrimp and andouille), and a friend made some “backyard ribs.” Apparently he’s a professional barbecue cook; he competes in professional competitions, like the one at Memphis in May. These ribs were outstanding. He’d taken them off the smoker at 1:00 in the morning; I don’t know how long they’d cooked, but it’s fair to say they were on for at least 12 hours. Probably more. He kept saying, “oh, it’s just backyard.” Whatever, all I know is backyard and this is some good backyard. It was a cold day, even for us New Englanders (we didn’t bring our winter coats!), but fun was had by all.

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We had such a good time, my homesickness may have only gotten worse after the visit. Driving all over Mississippi in your dad’s four-door Ford F150 will do that to you, I guess. I got to see old friends and family, go to a ho-down, listen to some damn good Cajun music, see some Mississippi art, and eat a lot of good food. What more can a girl ask for? Maybe fried pickles Katy? There’s always next time.

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