John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a James Beard Award winner. He recently released The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. His book examines food in the South over six decades and explores how working-class Southerners have shaped contemporary American cuisine. Edge reads from and signs the book at Garden District Book Shop at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 25. Edge spoke with Gambit about his book.
Why did you write this book?
Edge: My book is about food as a political instrument and as a social expression and I think at no other time in our history have we, as Southerners, understood that and attempted to grapple with that and with those realities. ... In many ways, this book is my own attempt to grapple with why I obsess over Southern food culture and why others seem to, past and present, and what truths are at the bottom of this obsession. What do the narratives embedded in New Orleans food culture and Southern food reveal to us about ourselves and about the history of a region? We're in the midst of a regional renaissance and in those moments of renaissance you recognize the triumphs of recent history and the ongoing struggle that's all part of the process. New Orleans is a great place to talk about all that.
One of the things that (happened in) New Orleans in the 1970s is the work of people like Rudy Lombard, who was one of the drivers of restaurant desegregation in New Orleans. (He) also, by way of that great book Creole Feast, framed the import of the old guard of African-American chefs who ruled the kitchens at restaurants like Antoine's and Galatoire's and Arnaud's. New Orleans' understanding of the import of food culture led the nation.
How have working class communities shaped our understanding of modern Southern food?
E: I think the dishes of the South that we valorize are oftentimes born of working-class creativity. There's almost a subversive creativity evident there. For instance, think about a pan-Southern dish, like shrimp and grits. That (dish) has its arguable origins in the Lowcountry of South Carolina as a working class fisherman and fisherwoman's dish. (The dish) was elevated in the 1980s by Bill Neal, a chef in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and when Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times, very quickly that dish of shrimp and grits metastasized across the South. (The dish) was quickly embraced by chefs and restaurateurs in places like New Orleans, where you see chefs using tasso or the cured meats of Louisiana. So you see these working class dishes being adapted by white tablecloth chefs, and New Orleans is one of the laboratories where that begins to happen.
How are new generations of immigrant communities helping to shape modern Southern food?
E: The region today shows very much the imprint of newer Southerners. I think of new arrivals to the South as very active Southerners — people who actively claim this place. I was born in the South. The birthright was given to me, whereas immigrant Southerners have had to endure adversity to claim this place. ... I think of those people as active Southerners and myself as a passive Southerner. There's a whole range of active Southerners — from Vietnamese men and women who have reinvigorated the fisheries of Louisiana to Guatemalan and Central American workers who came into New Orleans post-Katrina and stayed to operate restaurants. There's a new vitality that shows throughout the South that is the result of these active Southerners claiming the South as their own and reminding us that culture is a process and not a product.