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A Q&A with John T. Edge on Southern food history, equity, activism and his new book

Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher


A Q&A with John T. Edge on Southern food history, equity, activism and his new book

Author John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, is a highly respected voice in modern conversations around Southern food. While traveling across the country to promote his newest book, The Potlikker Papers, he took time for a conversation about the history of Southern food, the continuing effort to drive progress through honest conversation and what he hopes readers will digest.

Edge has written or edited more than a dozen books throughout his career, contributed written works to publications including The New York Times and the Oxford American, and won multiple James Beard Foundation Awards, including the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for Excellence in Culinary Journalism for his 2011 Saveur magazine story "BBQ Nation." He's also a very friendly guy from Mississippi who has an infectious laugh and a sharp opinion on Southern history, and cares deeply about the region of America he calls home.

The book is scholarly, and sometimes shifts between being gentle and confrontational. Does that reflect how you felt as you wrote it?

As a son of the South, I felt a responsibility to write as honest a book as I could about the food culture of the American South, in a moment when restaurants and artisans and pitmasters and the like are rightly being celebrated. I felt a responsibility to craft a book that looks at both the tragedies of the South and the triumphs of the South. I tried to write a book that has a scholarly backbone but reads like narrative nonfiction, in hopes to draw people in. I care deeply about the people whom I write about and I want to, in the best sort of way, offer them the opportunity to tell their story and then get out of their way. That may be too long an answer to a simple question but those things matter to me.

Did you find that there were any issues of trust with the subject matter? Were there any people who were skeptical of what you were doing? Did you ever have to massage people more gently than other times you’ve written?

No; a lot of my work for this book was archival and it’s also reading the good work of other authors and journalists. Once I get to the more contemporary piece of this book, a lot of people about whom I write have become friends over the years. If not friends, at least colleagues. With most of those people they sort of knew my approach before I showed up to talk to them – they knew what I was up to. I didn’t feel tension in that way.

What do you hope a first-time food-book-reader is going to figure out when she or he reads The Potlikker Papers?

I like the question; it’s like you came for the fried chicken but you’re going to stay for the show. That’s kind of it. I hope to help people recognize that one of the reasons we – and I’m using the kind of American “we” in this – respond so strongly to dishes like fried chicken or barbecue, or a mess of collard greens and potlikker is because of the narratives embedded in those foods. That might not be top of mind when you pick up a cookbook or a food magazine to read about chefs and other folk, but I truly believe that what we’re responding to are those narratives embedded in those stories. That’s what I hope to do best: bring those stories into focus and tell stories about the complicated American South, where I live, and show that by writing about food and thinking about food, we can gain access to thinking about racism and its impact on the South. Class difference and its impact on the South. Gender inequities, ethnicity, identity and all that stuff. I hope a reader will come to those conclusions slowly. And if they came for the fried chicken and stayed for the show I might be able to help them understand that food offers us access to things that matter.

It feels like an American meal, and not everybody likes to eat the same thing so may be missed by some but loved by others. There’s certainly a lot of talk around some of the subjects you bring up here, particularly in terms of race. Where are you seeing real action happening to bring about some of the changes you say are necessary? Are you already seeing that?

It’s interesting; I published this book at a time when I think the American relationship to food is maturing. Part of that is the recognition that food and the people who grow and cook and serve food, have more value. Their work is more valuable and we as Americans understand that today. And the complement to that are this range of books entering the conversation. I think about Toni Tipton-Martin’s book, “The Jemima Code”. I think about Michael Twitty’s book, “The Cooking Gene,” and I think about Yvette Johnson, who just wrote a fine book called “The Song and the Silence” about her grandfather, who she writes was a waiter and an activist in Greenwood, Mississippi.

We’re in the early stages of progress, I think. We’re in conversation now. Out of that conversation will come progress; out of that conversation will come more purposeful discussions about equity. And I think we’ll move on from questions about cultural appropriation to questions about who has access to capital and can tell what stories, whether those stories are told through print journalism, digital journalism, film or restaurants. And those will be really important conversations as we move on. Food offers us that kind of prism to understand and focus on those issues.

Discussing the history of the South through food can stir emotions, to perhaps say the least, which may be the reason why mainstream publications don’t approach the stories very often, or with as much vigor as you have in The Potlikker Papers. How do you suggest people in media look at these topics? And would you say mainstream press has a duty to open up their channels to the discussion?

I think we all have a responsibility to grapple with these topics, whether it’s a conversation about what the media does and doesn’t do, and a new generation of food activists does or doesn’t do. I don’t want to tell anybody what to do because I don’t like it when people tell me what to do. What I would say is I’m hopeful that people connect the career of someone like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a voting rights activist first and a food sovereignty activist in the later stage of her career. I hope they can find in my book and the other books about which I’ve spoken, the way to connect that past with this present. To recognize that 50 years ago we were arguing about agitating for a better food system and a more equitable America, and the ideas that Miss Hamer prosecuted in the 1960s still seem bold. That’s both inspiring to see that it worked and a little bit sad that in the rediscovery of it we also measure not as much success as we might hope.

Food writing seems to be an area where there’s a definite lack of diversity of voices. How important is it to have people from the actual cultures communicating those stories, and how can the business of food journalism do a better job of finding talent not only on the culinary and beverage maker side, but the storyteller side?

Along with Toni Tipton Martin of the Soul Summit and Southern Foodways Alliance, we staged a conversation about cultural appropriation, and about how voices of color might become more prominent in food conversations. I hate to be so simplistic in my answer, but I don’t think enough white journalists have sat down across from an African-American journalist or person of color working in this world and literally talked through these issues. I think there’s a lot of talk when one person writes a piece, and someone else writes a response but those people never speak to one another. I think we feel genuine value sitting across the table and talking through these issues. There’s a wide range of publications who believe it is enough to write about people of color and their work, and perhaps write about them in a way that’s not bound by stereotypes. But go understand that the next, and perhaps most important part of this is people of color are writing about people of color, and then people of color are writing about pasty white people like me too! [laughs]

It’s not enough for subjects of people of color in mainstream media. It’s who’s telling the story and it’s to face that inequity down in a genuine conversation with the promise of progress to follow, instead of people arguing points and talking past one another. And I know it’s simplistic but I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet.

The story of Booker Wright, an African-American waiter who worked in an all-white restaurant -- and paid a severe price for his appearance in a 1965 NBC television documentary, where he openly described his poor treatment by customers -- is a particularly heavy part of the book. Also the photo of the sit-in that accompanies the Restaurant Theater chapter is one of those images that makes your heart drop. Is there a particular story from The Potlikker Papers that stuck with you more than the rest, whether it inspired hope or a sense of sadness that lasted longer than others?

The story that haunts me, the person who haunts me, the crystalline moment that haunts me is Booker Wright, before the television cameras in 1965. The courage in his words. It’s almost an act of self-immolation. He knows what he’s doing. He can’t step away from that truth. To watch that is almost as if a musician’s finest performance or a poet’s finest reading – a man who has struggled with these issues, through the hopes that his family and his future finally breaks the spell and steps out of it.

I was talking to someone about this the other day, after watching “Get Out.” It’s almost like Jordan Peele watched Booker – that film and that moment. Mr. Wright is linked to that film is such a horrific and beautiful way.

You’ve been doing this type of work for a long time. Did anything after this particular project change the way that you approach your regimen at Southern Foodways Alliance going forward? Did you find any kind of new energy since this book was finished that changed the way things operate at SFA?

Now that I’m on tour and talking to people about the book, it’s remarkable to me. I worried whether the food fraternity would say, “You haven’t written a book about food; you’ve written a social history that’s heavy on racism, food and heavy on gender. I wouldn’t change that but I wondered whether people would respond to that. The most gratifying thing about a book tour other than getting to see good friends and arriving in cities is that strangers come up to you and say “I read this and I either had no idea or I had some inkling, and this is changing the way I’m thinking about food,” or “this deepens my appreciation of this place I call home.” That sounds a bit self-aggrandizing but it’s genuinely the most affecting part of this.

At every stop along the way, one of the questions I get is that question of cultural appropriation. That question of whose voice can speak for the South. I’m glad this book in engendering that conversation. I certainly don’t offer answers but I hope that in some way I offer a new way of thinking about those issues – a different sort of frame. That kind of response is gratifying.

What’s next?

I don’t know – I’m really interested in the idea of hospitality in this very inhospitable moment in which we live. I’m not sure how I’ll get there but I’m interested in that idea and I’ve been spending a lot of time in the backs of Lyfts and Ubers thinking about that as I travel the country.

The one thing I know is that as the South realizes its demographic destiny and the nation realizes its demographic destiny, we become a majority-minority country. And as you watch the Trump travel ban come into focus, here I stand talking to you in Houston – this beautiful multicultural city. You can glimpse a better South on the streets of Houston at lunch at Cali Sandwich Shop, where I had beautiful banh mi yesterday. I looked across the room and there were Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Anglo American folk all eating banh mi as if it were their birthright. That is, for me, hopeful. Despite the political rhetoric of the moment, I really see the long arc toward justice and equity, as Dr. King would have it, in my book and in my South.

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Mike Jordan is Southern Kitchen's former associate editor. He was also the host of our podcast, Sunday Supper. His work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Huntsville Times, American Way, Upscale, Time Out, NewsOne, Fatherly and Thrillist, where he served as the founding Atlanta editor. He lives in East Point, Ga., with his amazing wife and daughter, and loves writing, playing alto saxophone, cooking, craft beer, and cocktails. He is admittedly much better at these things than basketball, so never choose him for your pickup team.