John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South is no mere paean to peanuts, homage to hominy, and laudation to lard. Like the nutritive broth for which it’s named, this title is more substantive than it appears at a glance.
“One the primary aims of my book,” says Edge, a native Georgian who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, “is to take this seemingly soft-focused, romantic subject—simplistic subject—of food and bring to life the characters and the events that can offer us a new way of understanding racism and its impact on the South, class difference and its imprint on the South, gender discrimination. All those things are possible through thinking about farmers, cooks, waiters, and waitresses.”
Edge (who goes by “John T.”) has directed the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi since its founding in 1999. He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun anda columnist for the Oxford American. A James Beard Award winner, his work has graced 10 annual Best Food Writing anthologies.
The Potlikker Papers was conceived as a sequel to Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987) by the late John Egerton, his mentor and friend.
“No other man with the [exception] of my father has had a bigger and more beneficial impact on my life,” Edge says. “All of us who work in the world of food grasp for meaning in our lives...and [it’s through] Egerton’s writing, public service, and activism that I locate my own sense of meaning in my labors, writing, and thinking. I go back to John as an example as someone who was public-spirited and dismissive of folderol.”
In style and substance, The Potlikker Papers resembles those remarks: convivial, but no-nonsense; heavily researched, yet lively. It is a radiant reference, beginning in the 1950s and spanning six decades, that tackles the tangled relationship between Southern culture and cuisine.
“The journey from that original sin [the Civil War] to this multicultural present shows how and why food cultures matter and mean,” Edge writes in the introduction. “Over a long and strange and perilous evolution, out of a crucible of love and hate, in field, before stoves, and at tables, this book illuminates the South and its people, revealing where we have been, who we are now, and what we may become.”
The book guides readers from the bake sale activism of the black civil rights movement, which fed and funded the Montgomery bus boycotts; through the rise of pre-made and fast foods, the back-to-the-land movement, and the advent of celebrity chefs; to recent revivals in Bourbon and barbecue. Along the way, Edge introduces dozens of people who helped shape Southern cuisine: Fannie Lou Hamer, Georgia Gilmore, Harland Sanders, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Neal, Nathalie Dupree, Paul Prudhomme, and Emeril Lagasse.
Ultimately, The Potlikker Papers celebrates the momentous change needed to foment the modern Southern food scene and forecasts “an inclusive and delicious future for the American South.”
“The South is not a place that is tradition-bound,” Edge says. “The South is not a bulwark against change. The South has, arguably—and I hope this book helps make this argument—has been the region of our nation that has made more progress and experienced more progressive change than any other over those 60 years. So, with that notion top of my mind, I see progress over the 60 years and great hope for more progress and inclusiveness over the next 60.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.