Mar 24, 2017

The Potlikker Papers, by John T. Edge

The Potlikker Papers is an extensively researched, albeit a bit scattershot, work of culinary and cultural history. John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and devoted Southern son with an interest in documenting how the food culture of the South has echoed, and at times preempted, major cultural, social, and political shifts. Though not long, the book covers a wide swathe of modern American history with great depth and attention to detail. It's impressive, both for the work that went into it and its execution, but it feels a bit more like a doctoral thesis than a coherent work.

Edge starts us out right in the thick of it, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. This section is brutal; we hear of the incredible violence and indignities suffered by black (and some white) Southerners who had simply had enough. He minces no words, but then, neither did the racists he quotes. It's almost viscerally painful to read what white people said to and about blacks; more so because their sentiments have recently been echoed at Trump rallies and on the platforms of the self-labeled "alt-right." He chronicles the work of Georgia Gilmore, who turned her home kitchen into a center of revolutionary foment and inspired a whole group of black home chefs to sell their food in support of those striking the public buses of Montgomery, Alabama. These entrepreneurial women fought one side of the battle, while Freedom Riders took their fight to the lunch counters of popular downtown diners. Their simple desire was to, quite literally, have a seat at the table.

From this explosive, emotional beginning, Edge moves us rather abruptly to the hippies and communes of the 1970s. While fascinating in its own right, the subject utterly changes the character of the book. What I thought was a much-needed exploration of black involvement in and influence on Southern food culture turned into a broader discussion of the various elements that make up Southern cuisine. We later move to the celebrity chefs of the 1980s and '90s, then the reaffirmation of local ingredients and the immigrants who farm them and have made them their own. All of this is interesting, and Edge clearly knows his stuff - he's a prodigious culinary name-dropper. I suppose it's unfair to judge Edge for not writing the book I wanted, when I'm sure he is happy with the book he wanted to write, though I do think it would have benefited from a slightly narrower focus. Also, how come he barely talks about potlikker?? A possible editorial suggestion would have been to take this one dish and follow its development in Southern kitchens through all those years. There needs to be some other thread to piece the narrative together besides just "Southern food." All told, though, it's a testament to a lot of hard work and the love Edge has for the South, and a thoroughly informative read. Now excuse me while I go scrounge up some BBQ.

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