How to Be The Change: Dixie Grimes and the B.T.C. Cafe

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

In a typical Mississippi small town, in downtown Water Valley, there stands a building that’s two stories high. Nobody’s quite sure how old it is, but they know it dates back at least 130 years. Across its lifetime, the structure has served different purposes. It once housed the town’s utility company. It’s been a drugstore and,  as local lore goes, it may have even been a mortuary during the Civil War.

“It’s weird, it’s funky, it’s quirky,” said Dixie Grimes, co-owner and chef.

Whatever the building was in its past lives, it’s now home to The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery and the B.T.C. Cafe – Be the Change. 

The building is unassuming and old-school. Coca-Cola decor gives it that inexplicable old southern feeling only those red-and-white coolers can lend. Crazy-colored, scratched pleather diner booths sit on either side of a table – the kind of table that seems like it would wobble after years of use if not for a stack of napkins stuffed under a shorter leg. Ketchup cans, salt and pepper shakers and a few other condiments are arranged around a napkin dispenser. Aretha Franklin teaches the most important letters in the alphabet over the speaker, one “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” at a time. 

“We have this quirky furniture that we decided to keep because it was the original furniture,” she said. “Even though it’s raggedy and doesn’t really go together, it’s part of what made the B.T.C the B.T.C.”

But there’s something comforting about the building’s predictability.

“I do think people walk into this building and have like this funny-little-sort-of-almost an exhale,” said Alexe van Beuren, co-owner on the Grocery side. “People just want to be inside the building.”

Grimes attributes it to the building, which she says has a spirit of its own.

“I can promise you that there is a rhythm and a spirit here,” Grimes said. “I can promise you the building, as odd as it would sound, was not happy during the pandemic – no happier than the rest of us were. This is a structure that, for the last 11 years, has been packed and filled with life. This is the one place in the community where everybody, from all different walks of life, can come together here and share a meal and there’s no hatred. There’s no judgment. It is a space for everybody, and there are very few spaces left that can do that.”

 

•••

 

Dixie Grimes grew up in Oxford, where she was raised by her grandparents on her mother’s side. Her grandmother taught her to cook.

“My grandmother cooked three meals a day, all from scratch, and I was on her apron strings a lot, and it’s really what motivated me to want to cook at all in the first place,” she said. “It is very much a part of who I am.”

Grimes’ grandmother taught her to make an egg custard pie by the time she was 8 years old. 

“I’ll never forget that experience,” she said. “She also taught me to make chicken and dumplings, which I kind of think is what you’re supposed to do as a southern woman.”

Obviously, Grimes learned how to make cornbread from her grandmother, too; in fact, she still uses her grandmother’s skillet at her own home whenever she makes cornbread. She learned a lot about food and taking care of others through her grandmother.

“God bless her,” Grimes said, “I don’t remember her ever having a hot meal.”

Right before Grimes turned 16, both of her grandparents died, “pretty much within a year of each other.”

“I kind of got thrown into the world,” she said. “It was a rocky ride for a minute.”

Eventually, she found herself working as a line cook in downtown Oxford’s then-Downtown Grill. When the executive chef left, Grimes “was basically the line cook with the most heart,” and was asked to step in. 

“I worked a long time to build a reputation in Oxford as one of the top chefs,” she said.

Eventually, she would do what a lot of Mississippi-raised people do: She left.

“I felt like I was in a rut and I needed to try something, I needed to get out of small-town Mississippi,” she said. 

She moved to Houston for a while.

“It was honestly too big for me there, and I hated it,” she said. “I hated it.”

She came back to Oxford during football season, and with all the hustle and bustle of game weekends, she found it was too busy. She went to Water Valley to assimilate back to small-town life and to wait out the rest of the season. 

It was supposed to be temporary.

While she was there, she figured she might as well find work. Her friends in the area had heard the B.T.C. Grocery owner, Alexe van Beuren, was looking for someone to start serving breakfasts on Saturdays.

Grimes walked through the back door of the B.T.C. At the time, she already had a be-the-change keychain on her keys – “very unusual, as these things go,” she reflected.

“It was a Saturday, it was super, super crazy,” Grimes said. “And she was like, ‘Do you know how to use a meat slicer?’”

On the spot, Grimes, an executive chef, got to work, slicing deli meat.

“I don’t even think she knew my last name for probably two weeks,” Grimes said.

It would be a little while longer, but eventually, the jig was up and van Bueren finally discovered she had a chef in her cafe, but the plan was never for Grimes to stay. 

Grimes was in a place where nobody knew who she was, there were no expectations and she fell in love with getting to know her customers, while taking their orders on a pad of paper, standing by a barn-like door to the kitchen.

“They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them,” Grimes said. “It allowed me this freedom to just cook really good food with zero pressure, and then we kind of started building a relationship with each other as a community. They just thought I was this girl at the B.T.C. that made really good soup.”

So, Grimes decided to stay on at the B.T.C. Cafe. 

She started creating menus. They change every couple of months, but there’s usually a theme. One time, she dedicated the menu to Water Valley, where every option was named after a person or a business and had “a lot of small-town pride.” One year, for a whole year, she offered three never-before-seen, never-to-be-seen-again specials every day.

“It was way harder than I thought it would be, to be honest. At the end of it, that year was probably the most beautiful food that I’ve ever created, but it took a lot out of me mentally,” she said. “It was probably my shining star in my culinary career.”

She crafted the Lola Burger, a B.T.C. staple with a very secret sauce recipe she only shares with her sous chef.

“That Lola sauce recipe is top secret,” she said. “I have it in a lockbox at my house.”

In fact, whether she’s whipping up something new, or just making a standard classic like a club sandwich, she always tries to serve big portions (“I am the opposite of ‘small food,’” she proudly claims) with a “sexy sauce.” All the dressings and sauces are “scratch-made.”

It’s not uncommon for customers to ask Grimes to just make them something that tastes good. The small town’s residents put a lot of trust in Grimes and let her get creative. Being a town staple, she finds she rarely gets bored, and gets to make things all over the map.

“It’s not uncommon for me to cook lobster on Valentine’s Day,” she said, “And then the next day have a good bacon cheeseburger.”

She admits that while there may be a lot of burger eaters, she has just as many experimental eaters, too. Because of that, she’s able to take base recipes, like her grandmother’s chicken and dumplings, and put crazy twists on them to create something like red curry chicken and dumplings, for instance. 

“I don’t get bored, but it’s very hard to find anything new these days because we have all these cooking channels, we always (have) cookbooks, we have all these social media. (It) allows you to have access to 90 restaurants in Thailand if you want it right now, so it’s hard to figure out something to do that no one has done before,” she said. “I like a challenge, and I also like to be original. I try really hard.”

Every aspect of The B.T.C. is a labor of love, from the Grocery to the Cafe. 

“I try to stay true to my roots, where I came from, things that got me here. I work very hard,” she said. “My grandmother taught me you should always give more than you take in the world, and I feel like I’m in a really good position to do that now.”

Grimes, whose wife owns Mississippi’s only feminist queer bookstore right next door to the B.T.C., wants to create an environment that accepts everybody, and she has Pride and “Together We Stand” flags to make everyone feel welcomed.

“I think in Mississippi, it’s very hard to be a gay kid,” she said. “The suicide rate with young gay kids in Mississippi is staggering, and that is why they feel like they’re not welcome by the churches that they grew up in; for the most part, everybody goes to church. When they come in here and they see that, everything’s okay.”

Grimes knows that not everyone in Water Valley shares these feelings; but while they may differ, and while Grimes admits she’s “probably tested them over the years,” they have mutual respect.

“It’s mutual respect and trust,” she said. “While they probably didn’t like it, they’re also like, ‘That’s just Dixie.’”

There’s a lot about the B.T.C. that doesn’t quite make sense for a small town in the deep south, but that’s exactly what Grimes and van Beuren have worked so hard for. 

“None of these things should exist here in Water Valley. It’s not because (Alexe) and I have planned it that way, it’s just the way that it’s been,” she said. There’s just a lot. We shouldn’t have organic food here. The baptist minister shouldn’t sit at the next table to the pink-haired transgendered individual, but that is the kind of thing that happens. Both Alexe and myself, for whatever reason, the universe has entrusted us.”

•••

 

So, when the pandemic hit, the B.T.C. Cafe put the booths away and transitioned to carry-out only after shutting down entirely for about a month.

Slowly, little by little, the B.T.C. came back. Grimes and van Beuren admit that every day felt like, “Is this it? We’re tired. Broken.” For the past year, as van Beuren was hustling to bring groceries to the community, and as Grimes was doing whatever she could in the kitchen, neither knowing if the B.T.C. would make it, they worked with the goal to one day reopen its doors.

“Step by step, we were trying to do that, because this is our community that we live in, and people needed that hope,” Grimes said. “And for whatever reason, they seem to think that the B.T.C. being closed would have taken that little bit of hope away.”

The B.T.C. Cafe started back with carry-out comfort foods.

“This is not the time for sea urchin,” Grimes said. “This is the time for club sandwiches.”

While trying to get their feet back under them, the business partners decided it was time to welcome back their dine-in customers around April 2021. Bringing the B.T.C. back to life is still a work in progress. They both admit they’re unsure if it can ever be back to its fullest glory and business-as-usual pre-pandemic. Grimes said “we’re rebuilding step by step.”

When it opened its doors again and brought out those old, worn booths, the B.T.C. brought back hope to Water Valley. And in turn, Water Valley brought back life to the building. 

But maybe most importantly, it brought life back to the women who put their lives and souls into making the building what it is today.

“One day last week, I had enough people out here that I could hear the chatter,” Grimes said. “And I could hear people out here just cackling. I can’t tell you how good it made me feel.”

1 Comment
  1. I love this story—and the BTC! And (especially) Dixie and Jaime! Thanks for lifting up my day.

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