By Emma Kent
Locally-grown produce has been sold at 274 County Road 101 in Oxford for nearly 30 years.
According to John Martin, it’s always been a place where all of Oxford’s communities converge, shopping together for fresh tomatoes, greens and whatever else farmers bring to the spot to sell.
Martin and his wife, Kate Bishop, took over the business in 2017. It’s been about a year since they reopened the County Road 101 establishment – which has been a farm stand and a grocery store over the years – as Chicory Market, a grocery with a focus on local food makers.
“This market has been a market of some form or fashion since the early 1990s,” Martin said. “It’s this place that everyone in the community would come to – all socioeconomic levels, backgrounds, races – so we’re trying to preserve that.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, that spirit is alive and well at the market as a diverse group of customers shop for produce, meats and dry goods.
Chicory Market sells items from well over 50 local farmers and food makers including Native Son Farm, Brown’s Dairy, and Clear Creek Produce, to name a few.
On this particular day, there are fresh bundles of kale, chard and arugula as well as summer squash and zucchini to choose from. Several varieties of specialty mushrooms, fennel, tomatillos, bell peppers and other produce fill the shelves of a cooler.
Beyond the produce, the bulk foods section features grits, polenta, all types of rice, beans, lentils, quinoa, barley – you name it, they’ve probably got it.
A lot of the grains are sourced from the Mississippi Delta, according to Martin.
“We’ve really worked hard to expand the local offerings,” he said.
One of Chicory Market’s most popular items, frozen local peas, can also be bought in bulk.
“People love their peas,” Martin said.
Martin emphasized that Chicory Market isn’t just a place to buy produce or meat, but rather a place where people who care about eating good, fresh food can pretty much get whatever is on their grocery list.
That means things like coffee – from local roasters Heartbreak Coffee and High Point Coffee – as well as breads, honey and house-made nut butters.
The market also works with grocery distributors to get what they can’t find locally.
Distributors also fill in the gaps with produce that can’t be grown locally, like avocados and pineapples. Martin said he felt it was important to stock those things, despite having to have them trucked in from elsewhere.
“We try to do it seasonally, that’s kind of the standard,” Martin said.
Outside of Mississippi, Martin said they focus on sourcing regionally. You can find a number of products from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama at the market.
Market with a mission
Behind the business is a mission: Support the local food system.
Although Martin and the whole team at Chicory Market are deeply interested in the value of local, organic food in terms of taste and quality, they’re also interested in supporting the local economy.
“Farmers hire people in the community, and they keep money in the community,” Martin said.
They also see the local food movement – and their role in it – as a safeguard against problems that stem from industrial agriculture.
“We think that by diversifying our food shed we can avoid things like the e coli outbreaks in spinach or like what’s happening now with romaine lettuce,” Martin said. “We think it’s a healthier way to eat from a public health standpoint, and it tastes better.”
But in order to build a support network for local farmers, Mississippians must first understand how to cook with and eat locally-grown ingredients they may be unfamiliar with.
That’s another component of Chicory Market’s work, and something Martin hopes to do more of.
“I think that education piece is very important, because there are so many things that grow here that aren’t part of the native diet,” Martin said.
As for the future, Martin said he hopes to continue expanding local and organic offerings as well as adding to the market’s home and health section.
The market’s kitchen opened in early April, and with that development, more ready-made meals are also on the horizon. Right now, Martin said they’re keeping things simple with homemade hummus, dips, roasted chicken and other take-home items, a lot of which are Mediterranean-inspired.
“It’s a style of food that uses healthy ingredients you can find locally,” Martin said.
Laurie Stirrat, general manager at Chicory Market, has been drawing on her Louisiana roots, cooking up jumbalaya, gumbo and creole salad since the kitchen opened.
Stirrat runs the kitchen at the market and used to own Tallulah’s Kitchen, a New Orleans style restaurant in Oxford.
“This is all just the very beginning,” Martin said. “Our goal is to have a dinner you can take home every day.”