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John T. Edge Tackles Southern History, One Bite at a Time

The history of the South is a tumultuous one, riddled with conflict between races, classes and those with differing political leanings. While many find it difficult to talk about that history, in his book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, out now via Penguin Press, author and Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge seeks to make the topic more palatable by portraying the history of the South since 1960 through a seat at the dinner table.

“For the last 60 years, the span of this book, the dishes we have cooked and the meals we have staged have served the region and the nation as emblems of Southern struggles,” Edge writes. “Conversations about food have offered paths to grasp bigger truths about race and identity, gender and ethnicity, subjugation and creativity… Like the Black Power fist and the magnolia blossom, fried chicken discloses, cornbread suggests, potlikker tells.”

The Potlikker Papers is steeped in a tradition of storytelling, making the vast subject matter approachable and vivid. Edge portrays the civil rights movement through the eyes of Georgia Gilmore, who fueled planning meetings for the Montgomery bus boycotts with fried chicken sandwiches and funded the alternative transportation system with fried fish and sweet potato pie. He highlights Booker T. Wright’s momentous 1966 television appearance, which discredited the notion that the submissive black waiters at Lusco’s in Greenville, MS were happy in their jobs serving condescending white patrons. Elsewhere, Edge juxtaposes restaurants that served as a hotbed of KKK activity with lunch counters that served as the focal point for the desegregation movement.

The book tells of Fannie Lou Hamer, whose faulty attempt at cooperative land ownership and farming sought to feed the hungry in the Mississippi Delta, while the Black Power movement leveraged the negative impact of desegregation on black businesses to develop its own back-to-the-land movement. As soul food was rejected as oppressive and vegetarianism was embraced, Edge explains, cooperative farming was one of the many branches of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a network connecting black-owned businesses with black-owned suppliers.

Edge fleshes out the 1970s and ’80s through a glimpse of life on The Farm, a commune led by Stephen Gaskin and made up of hundreds of followers eager to escape the toxicity of the city and live at peace in Summertown, TN. In sharp contrast, he takes us behind the curtain to meet Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who sold himself along with his business, starting a fast-food revolution. Finally, we look on as Jimmy Carter is elected president, the South becomes the country’s darling and Americans everywhere begin craving grits and peanuts overnight.

The stories Edge tells in The Potlikker Papers have parallels throughout the South, including in Athens, and Edge, who went to UGA for undergrad and now serves as a nonfiction mentor in the low-residency MFA in narrative media writing program, references Athens throughout the book, from a now-shuttered restaurant with a dark past to an iconic photo of Athens musicians against the backdrop of Civil War paraphernalia.

In a South that still suffers Paula Deen’s racial slurs, struggles with animal welfare and looks the other way at the lack of workers’ rights on tomato farms in Florida, these stories inspire us to create a better future. Moving forward, Edge predicts that Southern food will embrace the flavors and techniques of the immigrant populations that are beginning to call the South home, as we form a new definition of what it is to be Southern.

“New peoples and new foods and new stories are making their marks on the region,” Edge writes. “In those exchanges, much is gained. What was once a region of black and white, locked in a struggle for power, has become a society of many hues and many hometowns.”

For those of us who were raised in the South, this history is our history, and it is important to reflect on where we have come from, where we are today and what we can do to make the future of our communities brighter for our children.

In addition to his reading and signing at Avid Bookshop Sunday, Edge will appear as a special guest at the Athens Chefs Dinner at Heirloom Café on Tuesday, May 23. All profits from this event will benefit Community Support for Families in Crisis, an organization that helps immigrant families affected by deportation.

Editor’s note: Jessica Rothacker is a co-owner of Heirloom Café and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.