By Elaine Warner
On my list of “Most Charming Small Towns,” Ocean Springs, Mississippi has to be in the top five. The list, of course, keeps changing with my travels, but my recent second visit to Ocean Springs confirmed its place in the top tier.
The French established a small colony in the area in 1699 – so the town’s been around a while. There are live oaks arching over Ocean Springs’ streets – trees which were saplings when the first Europeans landed.
The downtown area is chock-a-block with interesting shops. Although, if you look hard enough, you can probably find the usual souvenirs—tee shirts and post cards – most shops are full of unique items. One of my favorites is Hillyer House, which has been featured in Southern Living. With paintings, jewelry, glass and décor created by local, regional and national artists, the store is always full of things that are too big to fit in my suitcase – and I’m too cheap to have shipped!
Another favorite is Realizations, a tiny shop that shares the 1907 train depot with the Ocean Springs Welcome Center. This shop features art by American master, the late Walter Anderson – more about him later, and wearables with nature themes.
Interspersed between cool boutiques and galleries are some amazing restaurants. It’s hard to make a poor choice here. For a sampling of several eateries, take a Tasty Tour. While their usual walking tours last about three hours and include five restaurants, our group was on a tight schedule. We pretty much ran instead of walked and snarfed instead of savoring slowly but we hit all five spots and they hit our spots.
Here’s a run-down. First course: a cinnamon and raisin biscuit from Greenhouse on Porter, known for sweet and savory biscuits. Next Charred chef/owner Milton Joachim served fried oysters on a pillow of spicy red onion marmalade and topped with tarragon aioli and micro-greens. The oyster shell rested on a mound of sea salt – fabulous taste and beautiful presentation.
This was followed by a quick stop for donut holes at TatoNut, a nearly-half-century-old, family-owned business that gets rave reviews. TatoNut uses potato flour giving their donuts a lighter texture than typical. They’re doing something right, selling between 200 and 400 dozen donuts a day in a town of 17,000 people.
At Mosaic, we were treated to shrimp and grits – grilled shrimp covered by a tomato caper cream sauce topped a Southern-fried grit cake. We washed these down with a local craft ale and mojitos.
Switching from savory to sweet again, at French Kiss Pastries, we were offered King Cake or Strawberry Bavarian Cream Cake. You can gain pounds in here just looking at the pastry display.
An appetizer buffet was ready for us a Maison de Lu – fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce, goat cheese torte layered with sun-dried tomatoes and pesto with home-made pita chips, coconut shrimp with pineapple horseradish sauce and escargot-stuffed mushrooms.
We toasted our tour with a Cat Island Cruiser Cocktail at the Walter Anderson Museum. In case you’re wondering, the drink is made with run, mango chunks, cilantro/mint simple syrup, club soda and lime wedges. And, in case you’re counting, the biscuit and the cocktail were extras for our writers’ tour. A Tasty Tour will fill you up.
Travel writers’ tours are the human equivalent of stuffing geese for foie gras. And our tour was sandwiched between a lunch of boiled shrimp, jambalaya, salad and bread pudding and a more-than-ample buffet dinner!
Now a bit about Walter Anderson. Born in New Orleans in 1903, his family moved to Ocean Springs in 1922. His mother was an accomplished artist and his father encouraged not only her talent but that of Walter and his two brothers.
Walter’s formal art training was at Parson’s Institute of Design in New York City and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He also traveled extensively in Europe, finding particular inspiration in pre-historic cave paintings.
He returned to Ocean Springs in 1928 and began working in Shearwater Pottery, which had been established by his older brother, Peter. There he created some decorative figures and painted designs on a wide variety of pottery pieces.
Walter was versatile in many media: wood and clay sculptures; pencil, pen and ink drawings; watercolor and oil paintings; and linoleum block prints. During the Depression, he created several large murals for the Ocean Springs Public School through the New Deal PWA program.
The artist had severe mental health issues and was hospitalized several times in the 1930s. Although he had married in 1931 and fathered four children, he moved out of his home and into a small building on the Shearwater Pottery compound in 1947. He spent a great deal of time camping out in isolated spots in the area, particularly on Horn Island, a deserted islet off the Mississippi coast – often sleeping under his small boat. He was passionate about nature and local flora and fauna were inspiring subjects for his work.
When he was at Shearwater he lived alone in a small room, which he kept locked. After his death in 1965, his wife broke the lock and found thousands of paintings and walls covered with murals. Many of these works, including “The Little Room,” which has been moved in its entirety, can be seen in the museum.
The museum is connected to the Ocean Springs Community Center. The walls of this large space were painted by Walter Anderson in 1951. Themes around the walls include the history of Ocean Springs including Native American culture and French exploration, area plants and animals, and the cosmic connection of planets and regional climate.
The museum alone would be reason enough to visit Ocean Springs. But visitors will find much more here. And you’ll never leave hungry!
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