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Southern Dexterity

Whether as an author, editor, anthropologist or chowhound, John T. Edge looks at food from every angle.



John T. Edge is too prolific a personality to be pegged by any of the titles that regularly herald his name: director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), cookbook writer, essayist, civil rights advocate, father, husband, editor, chowhound. A series of titles do not a man make, and most definitely not this one. Edge is, more accurately, a soft-eyed, round-humored man of many angles.

From one angle, he's Southern hospitality personified. During SFA's annual weekend-long symposium in Oxford, Miss. (held each year in October), he's the genial provider of spare bedrooms, the democratic arbiter of discussions, the unremitting distributor of bourbon and the martyr extraordinaire, sacrificing everything for the weekend's cause -- including his voice. From another angle, Edge is an aging fraternity pledge: He still looks youthful in his amiably casual uniform of blue jeans and checkered shirts, but there's perhaps more forehead revealed than there once was.

Edge is a folklorist whose writing voice echoes his speaking voice; slow and easy and colloquial. Alliances with the top names in food writing -- Calvin Trillin, Corby Kummer, Jessica Harris -- betray him as a strategic careerist; his resume suggests a workhorse, and his acquaintances describe a good friend.

Perhaps the most interesting angle of Edge is that he traverses the boundaries of so many classifications without falling prey to any one in particular. To call him merely a food writer, the classification that asserts the strongest claim during his current book tour, is like calling his latest works simply food books. Fried Chicken and Apple Pie (G.P. Putnam's Sons) are the first in An American Story series that will wrap up next year with Hamburgers & French Fries and Donuts.

Like the author, these books are more complex than a surface reading might imply. They can teach the willing how to fry chickens and bake pies, and their Little Black Book directories can be used to find some of America's finest purveyors of the foods in question. But don't ask Edge for his ultimate fried chicken or apple pie haunts. Contrary to lazy assumption, that's beside the point. "I don't think there's some universal best fried chicken out there. That's absurd!" he yowls during a phone interview, recalling one reporter's recent transgression. "I have to take care not to pretend I know America," he continued. "No one can. But I can write about specific stories and specific places Š assembled, those portraits can be like a mosaic of America."

In his Apple Pie forays, Edge sets out to learn what it means when Americans claim an indulgence of fruity goo between two baked crusts as a symbol of our collective identity. The answer is presented not with global summaries or tidy theories, but in those promised stories -- some of them prettier than others. A Brooklyn-based artist turns apple pie into performance art and thusly tickles the imaginations, and the tummies, of one urban community. A New Mexican pie visionary, Senor Pie, dares to spike his apple pies with green chiles, and succeeds.

Then comes the dark chapter titled "Freezer Piejinks," in which the reader tails Edge on a self-funded junket to judge the National Pie Championships in the Disneyfied town of Celebration, Fla. Following half a day's fasting and an apparent clerical error that cheats him of his free ticket, Edge finally tastes his first pie. It's frozen, a freezer-case fake with "the mouthfeel of slush and rock salt shoveled from a mid-winter roadway." True to form for this genteel-to-a-point Southerner, his second taste in Celebration is a beer. Then another. He's not the first writer to self-medicate in the face of crumbling ideals.

Edge doesn't often play the cynic; in fact, after clocking a rock star's allotment of air miles in the hunt for America's most emblematic foods, he's optimistic about the resilience of American foodways. "Those that believe the homogenization of America is a fait accompli are full of hooey," he says, colloquial tongue in check.

Still, it's dark travel moments like the ones in Celebration that allow him, as a lyrical anthropologist, to reflect upon the deeper purpose behind his quest: "If I am to understand how apple pie functions as an icon of American culture, if I am to ponder why it often serves as a proxy for the American ideal, I need to plumb the bad as well as celebrate the good. After all, where is it written that a meditation on apple pie need to be an exercise in easy adoration?"

Certainly not on the pages of his latest books, whose premises ask the most challenging questions: Who are we? What are we doing? "The unexamined pie is not worth eating," Edge writes at one point, effectively pinpointing -- if only momentarily -- his own sharpest angle.

Jacques-Imo's Austin Leslie, featured in a chapter of Fried Chicken, will be an honored guest at the Beaucoup Books event.

John T. Edge is optimistic about the resilience of American foodways. "Those that believe the homogenization of America is a fait accompli are full of hooey," he says.
  • John T. Edge is optimistic about the resilience of American foodways. "Those that believe the homogenization of America is a fait accompli are full of hooey," he says.

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