Classic market represents Mississippi’s modern food culture

On a county road north of town, Chicory Market finds its home in a shed-like gray building with the market’s name painted on the front in huge block letters. The shelves of this farmer’s market-infused grocery store are filled with vibrant produce and fresh food options, complete with labels explaining just where the foods in stock were grown.

Chicory Market, co-owned by John Martin and Kate Bishop of Indianola and Greenwood respectively, functions as both a continuation and preservation of a 30-year-old local farm stand.

Originally from the Delta, Martin and Bishop pursued education and living in the Northeast and returned home 12 years later to take over this Oxford food space from its previous owners.

Chicory Market provides Oxford with local and organic produce. Photo courtesy Anne Marie Hanna

The market first opened in June 2017, with a public opening that October, in an effort to make healthier foods more accessible. Since then, Chicory has expanded its enterprise to encompass nearly 20 Mississippi-based farmers and food makers, including organic practice-based Native Son Farm of Tupelo, as well as Oxford’s Canebrake farm, Clear Creek Produce and Yokna Bottoms Farm.

The co-owners became interested in produce as a public health issue after observing the Delta’s current food desert crisis. Martin explained that the Delta has some of the richest, most fertile soil in the world, but most of the area’s farming and producing is commodity farming. The agricultural constructs leave little room to grow sustaining fruits and vegetables for low-income communities.

“There’s a public health component and emergency down there with people not eating as healthy as they should,” Martin said. “That puzzled us, because how do you fix that? We still don’t have an answer, but that’s what got us interested in food and in this business.”

The Chicory team is also working to promote unique Mississippi produce, and to expand locals’ current food palates beyond what foods are more easily found in restaurants. Martin said this mission is sometimes stifled by the conundrum of combining the state’s long growing season with new food pairings.

“You have things like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and bell peppers, that are part of the cultural diet, you know? But then there are things like eggplants that grow like weeds here, or kale, that aren’t part of the cultural diet,” Martin said. “A place like Oxford is unique because there are a lot of different dietary preferences, and we want to show how to use some of these things that aren’t really familiar to [people].”

A young boy picks out local produce at Chicory Market. Photo courtesy Anne Marie Hanna

The co-owners are working to curate monthly, seasonal menus and newsletters for their customers, utilizing foods residents are familiar with and introducing uncommon regional fruits and vegetables into their everyday eating.

“People might be interested in these crazy mushrooms we get from Memphis, but have no idea what to do with them,” Martin said. “This idea of putting together recipes really introduces our goals from a marketing standpoint and an educational standpoint.”

Along with fresh produce, Chicory Market fills its space with local meat and dairy options, organic grain and nut dispensers, and racks of organic oils and dry foods. The store also carries multiple brands of all-natural cleaning and household items.

A customer pays for their local produce. at Chicory Market in Oxford. Photo courtesy Anne Marie Hanna

Chicory Market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) and food stamps, a fact that Martin says is relatively unknown to most shoppers. He said he hopes that as the business continues to expand, the team can make a larger push to incorporate the wide variety of socioeconomic demographics found within the Oxford-Lafayette county.

“Everyone knows food, because food is a very traditional aspect of all life,” Chicory Market employee Katherine Flannigan said. “I think Chicory Market brings a new way of looking at food, and a new way of growing it and sharing it among your loved ones. I think it’s a beacon of hope [in Oxford].”

Managing Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance Melissa Booth Hall said Chicory Market and other markets make themselves available to all demographics by accepting EBT cards.

“The fact that both [Chicory Market and local farmers markets] accept EBT cards means that they’re providing produce to people across all income brackets is important,” she said.

Hall believes that projects like Chicory Market put “control of the food system back in the hands of the people.”

“The farmers markets plus Chicory Market is a really clear sign that lots of folks in the area are excited about this and engaged in the process,” she said. “You’re not eating the variety of food that’s easiest for Kroger to source and ship – you’re eating a variety of tomato that grows best in your area and is going to taste good.”

Apart from making fresh food economically accessible, the team behind Chicory strives to provide options for all ranges of food palate preferences, sensitivities and intolerances.

“As someone who was once a vegetarian, I really appreciate how Chicory Market is there for all different types of eaters and all different walks of life,” Flannigan said. “We have food that’s gluten-free, we have vegetarian meals, we have meat-eating meals. We hit all the marks when it comes to food and what you can make with the ingredients that we sell.”

A shopper at Chicory Market fills their basket with fresh local produce. Photo courtesy Anne Marie Hanna

In striving to make Chicory Market a communal space, the store’s managers operate a commissary-style kitchen, allowing local food makers to rent it out for cooking, curating and producing much of the space’s pre-made goods. Brad Hayden, owner and operator of barbecue business Oxford Smoke Shop, has rented the kitchen space before, working on his craft in the hopes of opening a food truck within the next year.

“One of the great benefits about working with the staff and the owners of Chicory Market is the fact that they’re trying to create their own niche,” Hayden said. “I think [they] appreciate the fact that I’m offering something that’s both authentic and not necessarily readily available in a lot of different places, and I appreciate the fact that they’re so kind, and gracious, and allow me space to work.”

The mutual appreciation between staff, shoppers and providers helps sustain an independent business with a growing network.

“We always say it’s like our avocation became our vocation,” Martin said. “And that’s kind of what happened.”

Chicory Market is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A worker at Oxford’s Chicory Market prepares chickens to sell. Photo courtesy Anne Marie Hanna