“Southern history encompasses migrations from Africa to the Americas, from farms to factories, from the rural South to the urban North and back again,” writes John T. Edge in his book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. In this book, John T. reports on 60-plus years of Southern food histories—from the innovative use of traditional dishes to advance the civil rights movement to today’s more modern attempts to demonstrate that Southern cuisine is more beautiful and complex than stereotypes suggest.
The book begins with acknowledgment that much of Southern cuisine is a direct product of African and African American influences. As he explained to Arts Atlanta, “For so much of the South’s history, when you hear certain segments of the population talk about the region, they’re implying somehow that word South means white South and that the word southern means white culture,” he said. “That’s just demonstrably disingenuous. [The title of my book] is a metaphor for boiling down a pot of greens to its essence. If you boil down Southern culinary culture to its essence, the most defining trait, the most defining cultural trait in Southern cookery and culture, are the contributions of African-Americans. I don’t say that with guilt as a white man. I say that with a pure-eyed vigor.”
John T. begins his examination of the civil rights movement with a section on Georgia Gilmore—cook, midwife, and mother of six—who set up a restaurant in her own kitchen, hosting leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott and serving them chicken sandwiches and pork chops. She also headed up fundraisers, selling cakes and sweet potato pies to raise money for alternate forms of transportation for the black citizens who relied upon buses as their main form of travel. Gilmore helped the black women she organized as fundraisers to see that what they provided to white households as domestics held power in the movement. He writes, “Georgia Gilmore inspired black citizens of Montgomery. And she worried whites, who clung to the idea that, through daily intimate exchange, black cooks and maids became members of their family. Domestics worked for love, whites came to understand, but that love was for their own black families.”
The book also delves into the controversy surrounding soul food, which both connected African Americans with their history and became almost fetish foods for whites looking for something exotic. Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, began to focus on health problems widespread in the African American community and started a national conversation on democratizing food access and worked to convince black Americans to reclaim their connection to the land as a way to combat poverty. She founded the Freedom Farm and Pig Bank which, in her mind, was a strategy to subvert the past. “Hamer preached the differences between the white-owned plantations where she was raised and the interracial cooperative farm she operated… To many blacks in the Delta, though, the land that Hamer farmed was tainted. And so was the labor required.”
John T. explores the 1970s and 80s through stories of The Farm, a commune founded by Stephen Gaskin in Summertown, Tennessee. He was a pioneer of the back-to-the-land movement embraced by a generation of disillusioned hippies. In contrast, he delves into the story of Colonel Harland Sanders who, in franchising his company and its secret recipe of herbs and spices, became rich and recognizable—and eventually realized he may have made a deal with the devil, serving as a conflicted “living mascot” for his democratized version of Southern fried chicken.
The Potlikker Papers reveals the clash of subcultures, of the old-school innovators and the new breed of chefs who combine provincial cooking with experimental techniques. It also attempts to tackle some of the thornier aspects of Southern cooking, including cultural appropriation and the romanticism of ingredients and dishes that were the direct result of brutal slave labor. The book is a primer on the changes in perception of Southern food and the brutal underbelly of its provenance. It should inspire the reader to dig deeper into food histories—being proud of what we have achieved despite hardship, but keeping in mind the struggles and horrors of Southern history.
John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance (of which he is the director) are fresh on our minds. John T. MC’d our Friends of the Café Dinner with John Currence in August, and we always visit his hometown of Oxford for the SFA’s Annual Symposium.
We’ve also been digging into our research for Project Threadways which has partnered with the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Mississippi. John T.’s truthful and challenging work, as seen in The Polikker Papers, has set an extraordinary example for us as we begin our project.