John T. Edge has served as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, since its founding in 1999. Winner of the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation, he is author of “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South,” named a best book of 2017 by NPR, Publisher‘s Weekly and a host of others.
We chatted with Edge about cooking, history and the changing food culture of the South.
Q: You grew up in the South. When did you start to become interested in Southern culture and history?
I grew up in the very small town of Clinton, Georgia, about a half mile from a barbecue joint called Old Clinton Bar-B-Q. That’s where my interest in and knowledge of food began. A second beginning came here in Mississippi when I moved to Oxford and began studying at the University of Mississippi in 1995. In those two moments, in those two places, I began to understand how and why food mattered to me.
Q: When did you realize the significance of the relationship between food and Southern history and culture?
Here at the university, taking classes for master’s in Southern Studies, I met a broad range of people studying the South from a wide variety of perspectives. I realized, listening to them talk about their projects, that I could fuse my interest in the South and my love for barbecue and my dawning recognition that food bespeaks culture.
Q: In “The Potlikker Papers” you explore Southern food culture. What are some myths about Southern food?
One myth is that the South is a land populated exclusively by West African and Western European people. If you regard the south closely, if you look openly at the history of the region and use food as a way of doing it, then you come to understand the story of Greek immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama who arrived to claim jobs in the steel mills and ancillary industries and stayed to open restaurants. They defined what Birmingham food culture is. From barbecue joints to hot dog cafes to seafood diners – Greeks from the Mediterranean have dominated restaurant food culture in Birmingham. That diversity plays out all across the South. The South has long been more diverse than we think.
Q: Tell me about the work being done at The Southern Foodways Alliance. Are there any upcoming projects or focuses you guys are working on?
We document and study and explore the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Those words diverse and changing are important. We are a storytelling organization, focused on telling the stories of all Southerners, and in doing that, we pay down debts of pleasure owed to farmers and cooks and waiters and waitresses whose stories have long gone untold. For 2018, SFA focuses our attentions on food and literature and how creative folk have long employed those cultural forms to weave narratives of place. Through a May symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, and an October symposium in Oxford, we will bring those stories, supplemented by great food and drink, to the stage.
Q: Is the perception of Southern food changing?
In the broad marketplace of ideas people often think of the South as a bunker of tradition where change is anathema, but the reality is something different. Not that long ago, in Gulfport, Mississippi, I ate lunch at a Mexican cafe that was selling tortas, stuffed with carnitas, as Mexican po boys. That’s what the future of the South tastes like. I think we can embrace the old traditions and old ways and we can at the same time embrace what the South is becoming. Here in Mississippi, we can embrace Vietnamese boiled crawfish and Mexican po-boys as symbols of the contemporary South. We can do both. I think Southerners are beginning to recognize that duality is possible, and I think the rest of the nation will catch up soon.
Q: Do you have a favorite type of food to cook or eat?
I love cooking beans, because they transform before your eyes. They start out as a bag of rocks, and, cooked long and slow, they transform into something supple. Beans and rice is a totem of frugality. And in this moment when we worry about the impact of raising pigs and cows on our environment, the impact of growing vegetables is much less. They’re also versatile. They can go high or low. For that reason and many others, I love to cook beans. They deserve a white tablecloth.
Q: If you had to choose something to eat as your last meal, what would it be?
Fried chicken — a leg and a thigh — mustard greens, Hoppin’ John, and hot water cornbread, fried hard. Those are all dishes that are deeply rooted in the South and they’re also simple dishes that are not simplistic. They’re hard to execute well and they span all cultures.