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Soul to Seoul: John T. Edge on the Evolution of Southern Food

Even as Southern food keeps changing, John T. Edge, who has spent a career chronicling those changes, is going back to his roots.

The Clinton, GA native—an author, New York Times, Garden & Gun and Oxford American columnist, Food Network judge, NPR culinary curator and head of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi—is giving a public lecture, “Grits, Greens and Gochujang: The Emergence of a Newer Southern Cuisine,” at the University of Georgia Chapel at 4 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26. (Gochujang is a popular Korean condiment made of red chile paste.)

You’ll be seeing his face around town a lot more, because Edge is adding a couple other jobs to his resumé. He’s editing a series of books published by the UGA Press and, starting next fall, will serve as a mentor in UGA’s new MFA program in narrative writing, which will bring him to campus a few weeks a year.

“Both of those things are homecomings for me,” Edge says. “I’m a Georgia boy. They matter.”

In a recent interview with Flagpole, Edge talked about how an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants has changed Southern cuisine and culture for the better. Because Southerners are more welcoming than we used to be, Korean short ribs and Mexican al pastor are taking their rightful place beside smoked, pulled pork at the Southern table.

Flagpole: Is your talk about Korean influence on Southern cooking?

John T. Edge: I’m using Korean food as an example of how the South is evolving. The talk won’t be about Korean food in the South, but a totem of the notions I want to explore.

I did a magazine piece for Garden & Gun about a year ago where I traveled exurban Atlanta. I went with Joe Kwon of the Avett Brothers. We’ve become friends over the past couple of years. Joe is Korean but grew up in small-town North Carolina, kind of like how I grew up in small-town Georgia. We realized over the course of that trip that we were both exploring Southern identity. We both see a South in transition and a South where, when you define the region, you factor in Korean food in exurban Atlanta. It’s part of the Southern story now. If you’re going to understand Southern food in 2015, you need to understand Korean barbecue as much as traditional Southern pit-smoked shoulder from Old Clinton BBQ [near Macon]. That’s the South I embrace, and that’s the South I’m going to talk about. I see a South in which we don’t define Korean barbecue as Korean food; we define it as Southern food. That’s a big shift, and an important one.

One of the things I’m going to talk about is Christiane Lauterbach, who publishes Knife & Fork in Atlanta. [Fun fact: Lauterbach is Flagpole restaurant critic Hillary Brown’s mother.] Her voice and her palate have driven this for a whole generation of Georgians. She’s been writing about Buford Highway and a whole range of other places where immigrants have made their mark and have been doing it for 30 years. Changed my perspective on the South.

FP: A couple of upscale restaurants in Athens that have nothing to do with Korean food are doing ramen night now. How does that factor in?

JTE: I think there’s newfound respect for the foods of Korea, Japan, China, a full range of Mexican, El Salvadorean. I don’t like the term “ethnic food,” because that’s ostracizing a community and their food. But I think what we’re seeing is a newfound respect for what we used to call ethnic food. If you’re a chef at a white-tablecloth restaurant, you’re interpreting regional foods. We’re at a point now where the regional foods of the South include ramen.

FP: The last time we talked, we discussed Weaver D’s closing [Dexter Weaver changed his mind, and it’s still open] and the decline in popularity of soul food. Does this trend of being more inclusive also apply to meat-and-threes?

JTE: Start by looking in the kitchen of a place like Matthew’s Cafeteria in suburban Atlanta. The cooks are Hispanic. If you go to a place like Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill [NC], which opened in ’82 and is a real leader in the new Southern food movement, all the cooks are from Mexico, most of them from one town in Mexico. Here’s a great way to think about it: To me, Taqueria del Sol, which is from Atlanta and has a location in Athens, is Southern cuisine for 21st Century.

If you’re a chef at a white-tablecloth restaurant, you’re interpreting regional foods. We’re at a point now where the regional foods of the South include ramen.

FP: Yeah, you can get tacos with a side of greens.

JTE: I think Taqueria del Sol is an honest reflection of who we are in the 21st Century South. The same way that the first time I first had watermelon sprinkled with cayenne was not in Mexico, where that’s a traditional street-food snack, but was at Hugh Acheson’s restaurant Five & Ten. There’s a reciprocity in the South right now between white tablecloth and working class, between Mexican taco shops and African American-owned soul-food cafes that you wouldn’t see before.

For Southerners and people who want to understand the South, the changes in the South can be quite threatening. One of the ways you can get a grasp on the changing South is at the table. You get a perspective, and you engage in conversations you wouldn’t have if you sat down and said “Let’s talk about race and ethnicity.” If you start talking about tacos al pastor as 21st Century barbecue, you might get somewhere.

FP: We think of the South as being this homogenous place, but there have always been pockets of immigrants—Italians, Lebanese, Greeks. Have they left their mark on the cuisine the way this new wave has?

JTE: I think they have. I now live an hour from the Mississippi Delta. The distinctive snack food in the Mississippi Delta is tamales. That’s a previous generation. It’s so mainstream now that people don’t place the roots in Mexico.

In New Orleans, one of the most widely adopted sandwiches in the latter half of the 20th Century was the muffaletta. That’s Italian dockworkers and grocery store owners in New Orleans.

It takes a moment, it takes a little bit of perspective to understand that waves of immigrants have driven what we understand as Southern cuisine and will continue to do that. What we’re seeing now is greater numbers. The South was once inhospitable to immigrants, and still they came. The South is now more hospitable to immigrants—with a little backsliding—and they’re coming in greater numbers. And that’s great. I don’t fear for the end of Southern cuisine. I welcome the evolution of Southern cuisine.

FP: Do you think people have become more welcoming because they enjoy the food, or do people enjoy the food because they’ve become more welcoming?

JTE: I think for a good, long stretch, there were good jobs to be had here, and immigrants came to take those jobs. There’s nothing romantic about that. I think native Southerners recognized that the taco shops the construction workers went to for lunch were better than Burger King.

FP: You wrote for Gourmet, which took a lot of people by surprise when it went under, and we recently lost Modern Farmer, too. What’s the state of the food-writing business?

JTE: I think this is kind of a boom time. I was a contributing editor at Gourmet. It was a good gig. It paid well, better than anybody’s getting paid to write for newspapers or magazines now. When Conde Nast shut down Gourmet, everybody was gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands and worrying about the future. The reality is, dozens of good journals and small magazines have popped up, and the quality of writing on the web has escalated.

What’s happening is a real renaissance in food writing. I’ve seen a move away from the precious and the chef profiles to more substantive writing about food, and I think that’s really welcome. This is kind of a golden time to write about food. The downside is, it’s not as remunerative as it was. People are building their own thing, gaining equity through effort, instead of working for the man. The end game for all those people is, hopefully, building something of their own that’s valuable, instead of working for someone else. That comes with its own responsibilities, as well as granting its own kind of freedom.

One reason food writing has gotten so good of late is there isn’t one dominant figure like Gourmet dictating what food writing is. There’s a whole generation of people who are finding themselves.

FP: Where are you looking forward to having a meal or a drink while you’re up here?

JTE: I’d like to check out Weaver D’s. I’d love to see Dexter. I know I’m eating at Five & Ten as part of this. You tell me where I should eat!

FP: [Laughs] I have a seven-month-old, so I haven’t eaten out in a while. I don’t really feel qualified to answer that.