Another local celebrity cook, New Orleans native John Currence, says that while Oxford has "some of the finest people I've met" and is "probably more liberal than anywhere in the state, but it's still conservative." Obama signs have disappeared from lawns; Currence recalls having a vehicle with a John Kerry sticker keyed and the sticker moved to the end of the key marks.
The biggest issue now, Gerlach says, is development — including loft-style condos in historic buildings. "It's getting overbuilt. A lot of people think so," says Gerlach, who formerly worked in the tourism office here.
She points visitors to more traditional attractions, such as Rowan Oak, a homey mansion where Faulkner lived and wrote, where an outline for one of his later books is written on the wall of his study and his riding boots still sit by a chair in his bedroom.
She recommends lunching at the Ajax Diner on the square, with old-style Southern main dishes and two sides and cornbread for $9.50 and folk art of blues musicians on the wall.
You might find her having a Harp Irish lager Saturdays on the balcony of Currence's high-rated City Grocery (don't miss the creamy, delectable shrimp with cheese grits). Currence was named "King of American Seafood" at a 2008 cook-off in New Orleans and also recently opened the whimsical, down-home BBB (Big Bad Breakfast) on the outskirts of town. Dishes are named for works of local writers.
Another Oxford must-do is a visit to Square Books, owned by city mayor Richard Howorth, which encompasses three stores on the square and has a reputation for smart, well-edited selections, including impressive Southern literature sections.
At 5:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, a prize-winning, black T-shirted poet named Richard Siken reads at Off Square books — another in the Square family — as a few dozen fans listen from folding chairs. Lines such as "your name like detergent in a washing machine" require mental gymnastics, but the audience is rapt.
A few blocks away, Ilean McGlarn is preparing for visitors at the white-pillared Oliver Britt House, a B&B renamed The 5 Twelve when French took it over a couple of years ago. Caretaker here for a quarter-century, McGlarn shows off the flat-screen TVs and platform beds that have replaced more traditional furnishings. But she still serves guests a big hot Southern breakfast.
Down at 208, diners include Mike Overstreet, a tall, cosmopolitan guy in jeans who has developed some of the condos selling for $300,000 and skyward. "Modern buildings aren't that popular in Oxford, but I travel and I see old buildings and new side by side," he says. "I favor allowing for progress with growth that's controlled."
Bryant — who calls 208 Oxford's version of the Cheers bar — tells a visitor it's absolutely impossible to understand the town without tailgating in The Grove before a football game and hearing the Ole Miss Pride of the South Band strike up Dixie.
"Call up your editor and tell him you've been kidnapped," he instructs. "You have to go to a game here!"
Hell, yes, other patrons agree.