Written by Julian Rankin
If you grew up in the provincial borough of Edwards, Mississippi – as Nick Wallace did – the capital of Jackson would have seemed a bustling metropolis. While he’s been a chef in the city for years now, only recently has Wallace put down residential roots in Jackson’s creative aortic valve of Fondren. Here, as in the kitchen, he honors his rural influences in an urban setting.
“I grew up in the woods and on the farm, shoes off, walking through the blueberry bushes,” Wallace often tells. “I ate dirt as a kid. When I tell you I live off the soil, I mean it. Because I know what it tastes like.”
Not long ago, harvesting sweet potatoes in his father’s field, Wallace bent down and ripped a spud from the earth. He looked at it knowingly, brushed it against his leg to shake off the dirt clods, and took a bite of the raw root vegetable.
As it turns out, there’s dirt in Fondren, too. Wallace’s backyard is a cultivated and blooming garden, from which he sources a wide variety of vegetables – greens and kale and okra and bell peppers and jalapeños and cayennes. Soon, he’ll be planting a dozen lemongrass bushes out front, which he’ll share with fellow chefs and neighbors. His chicken coop in the back is almost done, too. As a child, the chickens in Edwards pecked and ran amok at his feet; now they’ll do their scratching here in town. Potbelly pigs, too, are on the way. They’ll live in the “playpen,” a structure adjacent to the coop. (These won’t be for eating, he assures.)
“I’m going to treat them like human beings,” Wallace says. “They’re going to have somewhere comfortable to lay and play. I’ll get them when they’re small and let them play with my Chihuahua. They’ll have names. If they have names you can’t eat them.”
“What about Tina Turner?” I ask, referring to one of the late family chickens from Edwards who got the name because of the spiked grouping of feathers on her head.
Wallace pauses. “I think someone did eat Tina Turner,” he concedes.
The fusion between the home place and the possibilities of urban activity is something Wallace explores as Executive Chef and Culinary Curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art. In back of the museum – just as it would be back in Edwards – he has tilled the land and planted a diverse plot of produce that provides both ingredients for his dishes as well as an outdoor classroom to educate the next generation of up-and-coming culinarians about the value of the authentic food. And his monthly ‘sipp Sourced pop up dining experiences at the museum feature products from Mississippi purveyors in innovative and playful preparations.
Fondren is a perfect fit for the chef who has such passion for collaboration, camaraderie, and community. He sets aside a hefty portion of his income to spend in local restaurants, including neighborhood landmarks like Walker’s Drive-In and Fondren standouts like Saltine. Patronizing his colleagues is a form of tithing, as Wallace sees it. A cross pollination that raises the tide for the city and state at large. In this neighborhood, he finds a representation of what rural farm-and-family life looks like when transplanted into a growing city.
“This neighborhood is powerful,” reiterates Wallace. “When I first moved in, people were celebrating in their lives what I saw as that same farm spirit. They were growing things and had gardens and pets. It reminds me of Edwards in that way, but it also has the energy from the awesome chefs and people who live here. It inspires me to always be thinking about something new to create and how to continue to push the envelope.”
Sitting outside in the early morning, Wallace sips his coffee and gazes into his garden. He gets up and walks around the plants, touching the peppers and internalizing the aroma of the herbs. He begins to form, in his minds-eye test kitchen, his next plate of Mississippi food, connected to the places he came from and to the place that he now calls home.