Like the South itself, John T. Edge is complicated. He is part scholar and part kingmaker, a conscientious white man in a Billy Reid sport coat who makes his living wrestling with the food legacy of a region built on slavery.
Of the many voices that have risen in the past couple of decades to tell the story of Southern food, his is the loudest. With not much more than a few kind words over a bourbon, John T. (as he will remind you to call him; the T stands for Thomas) can fill seats in a restaurant, snag media attention for a promising chef or jump-start the academic future of a bright acolyte.
One would have to look hard to find some aspect of Southern food or drink he hasn’t written about and a media outlet he hasn’t written for, including The New York Times, food magazines major and minor, and NPR.
“The guy is a genius and I’ll tell you, there is always a method to his madness,” said Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” Much to Arellano’s surprise, a few years ago Edge tapped him to start a column about Mexican food in the South for the quarterly magazine Gravy, which is produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance, the organization Edge directs at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
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Edge has a new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” (Penguin). It spans 60 years, starting with the cooks whose food fueled the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 and ending with a South of new immigrants, where the fried okra might be sprinkled with fish sauce or the barbecue ribs doused in gochujang.
“It is the moment in our history I find most compelling,” he said. “I’m a hopeful Southerner who tells truths about the South. That’s at least what I intend.”
If you become the nation’s most quoted authority on Southern food, you are sure to collect critics, and 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.
“Early on, he treated the South and its food seriously and removed all the hokey-jokey stuff,” said Kathleen Purvis, the food editor of The Charlotte Observer, “but he has some blind spots.”
Edge took the name potlikker – the nutrient-rich broth left at the bottom of a pot of greens – from his dissertation, which he wrote in 2002 after he left a corporate sales job and headed to the University of Mississippi to study race relations.
He was an unlikely candidate to unpack the South’s rich but brutal history through food. A middle-class, small-town boy born in Clinton, Ga., the same year federal marshals had to escort the University of Mississippi’s first black student onto campus, Edge was a high school fullback who went on to pledge a fraternity at the University of Georgia. He dropped out because of what he calls “a lack of focus.”
Like many progressive white Southern men of his generation, he struggled. “I wanted to reconcile my profound love of the South with the deep anger that boiled in me when I confronted our peculiar history,” he writes in the book.
Marcie Cohen Ferris, a Southern food scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has watched Edge’s evolution.
“There are many ghosts and ancestors that tap on his shoulder, as they do particularly all white Southerners, and he has to learn to push them into place,” she said.
A new movement
Edge landed at Ole Miss in 1995, when farmers’ markets and the internet were gaining speed. A new Southern food movement was bubbling to the surface, lifted by cookbook authors like Edna Lewis and a group of academics pushing to better tell the story of enslaved Africans.
He found himself eating and drinking with cooks, food journalists and social historians like John Egerton and Jessica B. Harris, who were reaching beyond the one-note view of Southern food held by most of the country. He began to understand what Egerton, a mentor who died in 2013, meant when he said that Southern eaters had a responsibility to pay down the debts of pleasure owed to the enslaved African cooks and farmers who came before.
In 1999, 50 like-minded cooks, scholars and writers founded the Southern Foodways Alliance and made Edge the director. Based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the alliance has since collected nearly 1,000 oral histories and made dozens of documentaries and podcasts about people who cure, cook, gather, grow, fish for and serve food in the South. Okra, peanuts and pork are only a few of the Southern ingredients that have been elevated by its attention. Its budget has grown to $1.8 million, much of the money raised from corporate and individual donors swayed by Edge’s persuasiveness and good humor.
Nowhere is his personality better expressed than at the organization’s version of a Burning Man festival, a fall symposium whose themes have included barbecue, beverages and corn, all presented with a wry twist and academic scaffolding, and always with an eye on larger social issues. The Southern Foodways Alliance is sometimes jokingly referred to as the Southern food mafia, and Edge its boss.
“Being perceived of as ‘the one’ means there are 15 million people ready to take potshots,” said Harris, an authority on the food of the African diaspora, who encouraged Edge to court the poet and artist Blair Hobbs, who would become his wife.
Edge dedicated his new book to Harris, who was genuinely surprised. “This is the first time he claimed me as a mentor,” she said.
Last July, two Southern scholars took aim, calling for academic papers tailor-made to take on Edge. Their theme? “Against Cornbread Nationalism: How Foodways Partisans Misrepresent the South.” The telling of Southern history through food, they argued, simplifies history in a way that creates a distorted, unrealistically happy view of the region, without enough academic rigor.
“Think about the bodies that died in those South Carolina rice fields,” said Scott Romine, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “You don’t want to pay $12.99 for heirloom Carolina Gold rice if that’s the image you have behind it.”
Edge concedes that some of the organization’s early work might have been more celebratory and less clear-eyed than it should have been. But he pushes back against the charge.
“If you think the SFA or I exist to tell you confirming stories about Southern identity, that’s a misread of our intent and my intent,” he said.
Although his staff is mostly women, Edge has also been assailed over how he portrays the role of Southern women in the kitchen. Purvis, the Charlotte Observer editor, took the alliance to task in an article she wrote last year for the magazine Bitter Southerner. She posited that men were the new carpetbaggers of Southern food writing, calling them “a barbecue-entranced, bourbon-preoccupied and pork-belly-obsessed horde of mostly testosterone-fueled scribes from outside the region of my birth.”
Edge has also been chided for paying too little attention to the story of poor whites in the South, notably by Appalachian food writer Ronni Lundy, another founder of the alliance. He takes all of it to heart, and the alliance’s programming has improved as a result. But, as he says often, Southern food is first and foremost black food.
“If you are going to think and write about Southern food,” he said, “the first thing to apprehend is the debts of slavery and the imprint of slavery on this place.”
To that end, in June he shared the column he writes in the Oxford American magazine with Nigerian writer and cook Tunde Wey. It was called “Who Owns Southern Food?”
At the time, Wey had a little food stall at a market in New Orleans. Edge ate his food, then took him to a restaurant there featuring a “John T. burger.” Wey both delights in the attention Edge receives and takes him to task for it.
“White privilege permits a humble, folksy and honest white boy to diligently study the canon of appropriated black food, then receive extensive celebration in magazines, newspapers and television programming for reviving the fortunes of Southern cuisine,” Wey wrote in the column.
The article and Edge’s response – a pledge to listen more and talk less – generated waves of debate. And it helped Wey, who received a fellowship from the alliance this year and now considers Edge a friend.
“Yes, he is a polarizing figure,” Wey said. “Yes, he is a demigod. But people know my name because they read the John T. piece.”
Edge knows that like anyone else who has ideas about how to tell stories, he can be hardheaded. But he is always trying to learn more and to grow.
The best thing he can do, he said, is something he learned from his wife: “Be vulnerable and be open, and I’m not necessarily good at that.”
John T. Edge will talk about his book “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” with help from some Triangle restaurants. For more on the book and Edge, go to johntedge.com/potlikker-papers/.
▪ Tuesday, May 30: 7 p.m. A conversation with Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner. Quail Ridge Books, 4209 Lassiter Mill Road, Suite 100, Raleigh.
▪ Wednesday, May 31: 7:30 p.m. Andrea Reusing of Lantern and The Durham restaurant will introduce Edge at Fullsteam Brewery, 726 Rigsbee Ave., Durham. Regulator Bookshop is host.
▪ Thursday, June 1: 7 p.m. With food from Crook’s Corner. Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill