Georgia Magazine - August 2017 - 26
PHILLIP VULLO / PHILLIPVULLO.COM
John T. Edge promotes his latest book, "The Potlikker Papers," at
Star Provisions in Atlanta.
these books, "A Gracious Plenty" is a compendium,
drawing on them as sources for some of the best and
most-iconic dishes of the South.
Edge is passionately eager to deal a death blow to
the bigotry and racism that have tainted the region he
so dearly loves. In "The Potlikker Papers," he describes
the link between race and food from the days of slavery through the civil rights movement to today, when
Southern cooking is being influenced by newly arriving
immigrants, even as their traditional dishes have been
influenced by Southern food. And in "The Southern
Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook" (University
of Georgia Press, 2010), he points out more examples of
shared foods, such as okra, which is important in both
Southern and Indian cooking and was brought to the
American South from Africa. (See the recipe for Mississippi Madras Okra Gravy on page 21 of the cookbook.)
Edge laments the lost legacy of many black Southern chefs, although one should mention a few notable
exceptions-such as George Washington's slave chef,
Hercules, and James and Peter Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson's slave chefs-from the South's past. But in the
modern era, he notes the contributions of African-American chefs to American cuisine, perhaps especially Edna
Lewis, James Beard Living Legend award-winner and
author of four books on traditional Southern cuisine,
including one, "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (Alfred A.
Knopf, 2003), with noted former Atlanta chef Scott Peacock. Lewis disliked the term "soul food," because, says
Edge, "she found it too limiting," but she drew much
of her inspiration from the foods she grew up eating in
Edge observes in "The Potlikker Papers" that "the
South never was monochromatic," with people of African ancestry, Native Americans and people from everywhere. He points out the presence for more than 100
years of a Chinese community in Augusta, for instance.
Even so, he believes the South "was less welcoming
to people who weren't white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,"
so cooking Southern food was a way for newcomers
to fit in. Thus, many Greek immigrant families cooked
Southern food at the restaurants they owned, although
the cuisine they cooked at home may well have been
different, he says.
"It was a pathway to belonging, to becoming American," he says of immigrants' adoption of Southern
cooking. "That [becoming American] was the ultimate
The recipes in "A Gracious Plenty" illustrate the
diverse demographics of the South's past. This book includes Natchitoches Meat Pies from "Cane River Cuisine,"
a recipe for moussaka out of "The Grecian Plate" from St.
Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Durham, N.C., and
hot tamales from "Festival Cookbook" by Humphreys
Academy, a private school in Belzoni, Miss.
Among Edge's books are a series on single subjects.
In "Fried Chicken: An American Story" (G.P. Putnam's
Sons/Penguin, 2004), he makes a statement that encapsulates the entire body of his work, his purpose and his
inspiration: "Please consider this work to be my pilgrimage in search of America's greasy grail."
Fried chicken becomes a metaphor for the American
"melting pot." The versions he finds across the country
include classic fried chicken from (the now-shuttered)
Deacon Burton's restaurant in Atlanta; mojo-marinated
Latino-style fried chicken (Pollo Campero), originating
in Guatemala; Italian fried chicken made in Chicago by
a native of India who branded himself as an Italian;
and recipes from modern chefs, such as Peacock,
founding chef at Watershed in Atlanta, where Chef Zeb
Stevenson today maintains the fried-chicken tradition on
For Edge, Southern food isn't just about what one
ingests for nourishment or to appease hunger. It's culture
and conversation; it's history; it's links between the races
and among the diverse ethnic communities that are shaping today's South. "The Potlikker Papers" contains no
recipes, and it's not meant to be a cookbook. Instead, it
looks at Southern food as a reflection of the region's rich
cultural heritage and a glimpse of its abundant future.
In "An Active Authenticity," a recent article in
Oxford American (Summer 2017), Edge notes his evolving personal view of Southern cooking, beyond the food
and the places that, as he put it, "preserved the South in
amber." Today, new cultures enrich both Southern food
and the Southern experience, enhancing the Southern
identity as well. Rejecting cultural conservatism today, he
embraces a Szechuan fried chicken that's "showered with
red peppers and pocked with peppercorn nubs."
And that's just for starters. Korean fried chicken,
anyone? Or Thai? Bring 'em on!
Jane F. Garvey is a freelance food, wine, culture and
travel writer based in Decatur.
More online at www.georgiamagazine.org