You know why Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen chain doesn’t have an apostrophe? Because when founder Al Copeland started the fast food franchise, he couldn’t afford one. How about this one: Think those hockey puck-shaped industrial biscuits are a Northern invention? Wrong. You can thank Lively Willoughby of Louisville, Ky. for popularizing the “pressurized foil sleeve for storing park-baked quick breads” in 1931. Oh, and tempeh? Hipsters may love it, but it caught fire after some hippies in Tennessee began producing it on a commune in the early ’70s.
These are the kinds of Southern food factoids John T. Edge’s newest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South is full of. Like tchotchkes lining a Ruby Tuesday’s, the founder of Southern Foodways Alliance’s book is a packed catalog of interesting tidbits and curious circumstances culled from years of research. But don’t get it twisted, combing the archives from 1955 to 2015 hasn’t produced some kind of Southern food Cliff’s Notes. Rather, The Potlikker Papers is an insightful, refreshing, and at times revealingly ugly examination of food and its place in the South that just so happens to come with a hearty helping of food trivia.
It begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott only this time, the protagonist isn’t Rosa Parks. Instead, Edge introduces us to Georgia Gilmore, a woman who sold sandwiches, fried fish, and stewed greens to raise money for the Montgomery Improvement Association, a committee that drafted the demands of the boycott and fought for equality. Illustrating the power of Civil Rights protest through plates of pork chops, Edge writes, “if women like Georgia Gilmore, who had so much to lose speaking their minds, were no longer willing to accept the lot they inherited, then change was surely on the horizon.”
It’s this anecdotal storytelling approach that sets Potlikker Papers apart and it’s a choice Edge says he made after falling in love with the characters.
“I got to know them personally through the archival record,” he says. “I recognized the best thing I can do as a writer is to give them a chance to speak and get out of their way. I don’t know if my ego allowed me to do that completely, but that was my intent.” Edge adds that the goal was to set 16 different scenes that would build some connective tissue between moments and people. “The story of Southern food — this will sound almost hackneyed, and I hope it didn’t — it’s the story of people and place. I didn’t want to write about the grand sweep of history. I wanted to write about people and place.”
And indeed he has. The Potlikker Papers examines all kinds of interesting characters, some you’ll be more familiar with than others. In the chapter “Poor Power” the forgotten faces of Southern hunger are exposed when Edge takes us back to Robert F. Kennedy’s 1960 trip to Mississippi. In a Delta shack, Kennedy meets a two-year-old so malnourished, the child chases bits of rice and cornbread crumbs on the floor. So appalled by the scene, Kennedy turned to a reporter and said, “My God, I didn’t know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow this?” It’s a shocking moment not often told in Southern food history that all too often draws on classic tropes like chefs learning to cook at their grandmother’s knees.
In another chapter Edge writes about Fannie Lou Hammer, a woman who grew up the child of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. She went on to form Freedom Farm in 1969, a kind of African-American co-op designed to halt the steep decline of black farmers. Writing of those who joined Hammer’s movement, Edge says, “Facing down poverty and hopelessness, they, too recognized that the first step to feeding their people was the acquisition of land.”
Edge tackles fast food too, and its Southern rise from the aforementioned Popeyes to the lesser known Mahalia Jackson’s Chicken System, the first national fast food franchise operated under complete “colored management.” There’s space given to acclaimed daughter of slaves Chef Edna Lewis and Charleston’s own Chef Nathalie Dupree as well as New Orleans’ well known “Cajun Buddha” Paul Prudhomme and Appalachia’s Ronni Lundy. And there’s the good and the bad exposed in between.
“If you’re going to tell the story of Southern food over 60 years of dynamism, where the South changes fitfully, but changes, then it’s incumbent upon you to grapple with the beauty of the South and the horrors of the South. It’s naturally and honestly inclusive when you do that,” says Edge. “When you write about the Civil Rights movement era, it’s one thing to write about the murder of Goodman and Shwerner outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, but it’s also important to claim the life of Fannie Lou Hammer, the voting rights activist, to claim her as a Southerner too. When we use the term Southern, we’re not speaking of the white south. That’s the biggest error I find. Especially in moments like this, especially in moments like this when we’re debating monuments.”
Which raises the question, what does Edge think of the latest shift in Southern thinking, with cities like New Orleans reevaluating the place of Confederate monuments in the modern day landscape. Given that in so many ways food is politics and politics is food, I couldn’t help but ask the preeminent voice in Southerly food journalism.
“It’s complicated,” Edge says. “In a kind of theoretical concept, I believe in contextualization for monuments. I don’t believe in erasure of a period in our region’s history when any white southerners commemorated the Civil War as a lost cause that was valiant and just. And yet, I recognize even when you step on the University of Mississippi campus and there’s a Civil War memorial at the top of circle and there’s a plaque alongside, that plaque’s awful small. So, it’s that soaring monument and the minor key plaque alongside that seeks to offer context — it’s not a fair fight.”
Edge continues, “Conceptually I’m in favor of contextualization and not removal, and yet the other thing I think about too is about a month ago my wife and our dog marched in the gay pride parade in Oxford, Miss. Thousands of people marching in this parade for gay rights and you come up on the square and people are cheering from the balconies and its this beautiful scene. People are cheering and standing on the pedestal of the Confederate memorial in the square. So that’s its own kind of contextualization of South in the current day and Oxford in the current day. Those things accrete just like history accretes. Frames are important. At the same time, watching footage of the removal of monuments in New Orleans, there’s a frisson of excitement that runs through me because of the bold leadership of someone like Mitch Landrieu. And the loud voices, persistent and intelligent voices, of those folk who agitated for the removal of those sculptures. Like so many things in the South, it’s complicated.”
Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from Edge’s book, that the story of Southern food, just like the story of the South, is complicated. And for those who endeavor to tell it, they’re bound to get tangled up in its complications along the way. Edge has had his fair share of that as of late.
As The New York Times writer Kim Severson wrote in her profile on Edge earlier this month, “If you become the nation’s most quoted authority on Southern food, you are sure to collect critics, and Mr. Edge, 54, has his share. Even some fans find his take on Southern history wrapped in too much romance, his style too ego-driven or his perspective sometimes skewed by his race, gender, and power.” Edge has tried to address his critics, among them Kathleen Purvis, the food editor of The Charlotte Observer. Purvis called out Edge’s blindspot on including women in the SFA-produced “Cornbread Nation,” in a Bitter Southerner story last February, and for his part, Edge appears humbled by the experience.
“I recognize that I’ve had a certain amount of imprint on how people think about Southern food culture,” says Edge. “What I’ve tried to do over the last couple of years as a writer and thinker, and it’s somewhat engendered in this book, is to recognize the power I wield and to try to both divest myself of some of that power and to also to be more cognizant of the ways in which my presence in a room sometimes affects the dialogue in the room.”
I mention to Edge that with such a big microphone to shape the story of Southern food, it almost feels like Potlikker Papers could have used a closing chapter about the author’s own influence on the topic. His response?
“I learned a lot from John Egerton and one of the things I learned less well is get stuff done and don’t get your picture in the paper. I think there’s a lot of good work to be done in the margins away from the spotlight. I may be learning that a little too late, but I certainly see value in it.”
He adds, “Everybody’s got an ego, but I hope to be a force for good rather than evil.”
And that’s the bottom line. Say what you will about the author, but Edge’s writing speaks for itself, and in the evolving story of Southern food, The Potlikker Papers is a must-read force for good.