The director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi recounts the past 60 years of Southern food traditions, their effects on the South’s culture, and vice versa.
As Garden & Gun contributing editor and Oxford American columnist Edge notes at the beginning, this book is a “sequel” of sorts to Nashville social historian John Egerton’s Southern Food (1987). Mixing deep scholarship, charming anecdotes, and his own extensive culinary explorations, Edge provides a chronological account by decades, starting in the 1950s. Throughout, as he entertains, Edge advances a multipronged thesis: that both the proud and shameful cultures of the Southern states can be understood through the socio-economics of cooking and eating; that the future of the South looks bright as cooking and eating evolve; and that Southern food cultures directly affect the rest of the country. The author’s scholarship is undoubtedly compelling, but what will stick with most readers are the vignettes about specific chefs, restaurants, food producers, food marketers, politicians, celebrities, and race-based relationships. One of the more memorable portraits focuses on Craig Claiborne, a Mississippian with an unusual character who became a bestselling cookbook author and an influential food journalist for the New York Times. Claiborne’s journalism helped lead to national recognition for two extremely different chefs, Paul Prudhomme of Louisiana and Bill Neal of North Carolina. The flashy Prudhomme not only spread the popularity of Cajun cuisine, but also successfully promoted the use of locally grown, fresh produce in restaurants. In addition to teaching chefs that superb cooking requires research, the more restrained Neal also helped cement the now-widespread belief that making food for the public involves an artistic sensibility.
Without question, this is a book for foodies, but it is also for readers who may be indifferent to the food they consume yet care deeply about regionalism, individual health, and race relations, among other themes.