One of Christopher Kimball’s Six Favorite Books About Food
A people’s history that reveals how Southerners shaped American culinary identity and how race relations impacted Southern food culture over six revolutionary decades
Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is a salvage food. During the antebellum era, slave owners ate the greens from the pot and set aside the leftover potlikker broth for the enslaved, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. After slavery, potlikker sustained the working poor, both black and white. In the South of today, potlikker has taken on new meanings as chefs have reclaimed it. Potlikker is a quintessential Southern dish, and The Potlikker Papers is a people’s history of the modern South, told through its food. Beginning with the pivotal role cooks and waiters played in the civil rights movement, noted authority John T. Edge narrates the South’s fitful journey from a hive of racism to a hotbed of American immigration. He shows why working-class Southern food has become a vital driver of contemporary American cuisine.
Food access was a battleground issue during the 1950s and 1960s. Ownership of culinary traditions has remained a central contention on the long march toward equality. The Potlikker Papers tracks pivotal moments in Southern history, from the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s to the rise of fast and convenience foods modeled on rural staples. Edge narrates the gentrification that gained traction in the restaurants of the 1980s and the artisanal renaissance that began to reconnect farmers and cooks in the 1990s. He reports as a newer South came into focus in the 2000s and 2010s, enriched by the arrival of immigrants from Mexico to Vietnam and many points in between. Along the way, Edge profiles extraordinary figures in Southern food, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Colonel Sanders, Mahalia Jackson, Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme, Craig Claiborne, and Sean Brock.
Over the last three generations, wrenching changes have transformed the South. The Potlikker Papers tells the story of that dynamism—and reveals how Southern food has become a shared culinary language for the nation.
John T. Edge
The Pot Likker Papers is the latest book from writer and historian John T. Edge. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance he is well versed in the history and cuisine of the south. John T. Edge was kind enough to talk some time from his busy schedule (He was at an airport when we spoke.) to talk to us about his latest book.
Books About Food(BAF): We’ll have to start with a fairly binal question. Pot Likker, where does that name come from?
John T. Edge:Pot Likker is the distilled essence of a pot of greens that’s been long cooked on the back of the stove. And, once you cook the greens, often times they’re served without the liquid. The liquid remains at the bottom of the pot. It’s the distilled essence of that pot of greens; the liquid leavings at the bottom of the pot, that’s the Pot Likker.
BAF: For the purposes of your book what is the definition of ‘The South’ that you use? What are the parameters?
John T. Edge: I wrote very early in the book about how definitions of the south have long limited the place and limited the people, too. The attempts to define the south by way of states that were union and confederate during the civil war or definitions that define the south as nothing south of the Florida panhandle geographically, those don’t work either. So many definitions of the south fail the south, and fail its people. For me, the south is a cultural construct and a geographic construct. And, if I was forced to define it, I would define it geographically as the region from Virginia south, and central Texas east. Having said that, there are pockets of Chicago, and Brooklyn, NY that look and sound and taste a lot like the American south.
That was a really long answer.
BAF: No, that’s fine.
Southern culinary roots seem to be much stronger than in other parts of the country.
John T. Edge: Well, they are. If you think about it and extend that metaphor out, to that of a tree or a plant growing in soil, southern roots have had to be stronger to wrest nutrients from the soil for southerners to prosper in a place that’s long been poor and has long been defined as a problem child across decades of American history. So, the southern relationship to agriculture and southern respect for our foodways reflects that cauldron of poverty and turmoil out of which so many of the cultural products of the south have come. From music, to literature, to food they’re born of turmoil, they’re born of poverty and yet southerners have created something beautiful out of that turmoil, out of that poverty.
BAF: One of the first things that came to my mind were the lunch counter protests.
John T. Edge: The integration of lunch counters was symbolic. It was about recognizing common humanity. And, it was also about another kind of symbolism; the symbolism of that kind of long unbroken table, which in Christian belief hearkens to the last supper. It hearkens to this notion of equality and so those lunch counter protests were a demand to recognize common humanity across racial divides. It was also a leverage by African-American protesters staged at a very symbolic space: the long, unbroken table that had deep meaning for those southerners who were Christian.
BAF: What are some of the misconceptions would you say are out there about southern food?
John T. Edge: There are so many! And, many of them have been perpetuated by southerners! But, one of the misconceptions is the south is a land purely of West African and western European, and the reality is the south has long been much more complex than that. Sure, the struggle between western Europeans and West Africans has defined the south. But, a study of food reveals that Mexican American cotton pickers who entered the Mississippi delta in the early years of the 20th century to harvest crops and brought with them foods, like tamales, which endure in the delta as a kind of totemic food of the 21st century south. I write in the book too about issues, like yaka mein which is very much a part of a multicultural coastal south. Shows up in places like Roanoke, Virginia & New Orleans, Louisiana that reflects the way that coastal cities are kind of magnets for immigrants. Some of that driven by the military, others driven by the dynamics of port cities. But, the south is far more complex than we seem to often times want to give it credit, and food is one way to apprehend that; that kind of multicultural dynamism.
BAF: You mentioned culinary icons, for lack of a better word, like Colonel Sanders, and Craig Claiborne, and Enda Lewis. Now, somebody like Saunders, isn’t he continuing that myth of the southern plantation owner, or that southern gentleman type? do.
John T. Edge: Yeah. And that speaks to that notion that the stereotypes that have defined the south, and in some ways limited the south, many of them were formulated and prosecuted by southerners. Sanders was born in Indiana, but really made his name and reputation in Kentucky. And, what he did in essence was he took a very traditional food, fried chicken, modernized it, and packaged it for a suburbanizing audience. And, recognized that to sell this traditional food, prepared in a very modern way, he needed to cloak himself, kind of, in the mantle of the plantation south. And that’s what that white jacket, that white suit was about. That’s what his bleached goatee was about. He was about was playing the part of a planter, an upper class planter, and Saunders was not from that cultural world. He assumed that role to sell us something; sell America something rooted in the south, but truly a modernized version of that south. So that’s why he relied on the past to sell the future, in essence.
BAF: Then there’s Craig Claiborne who I think a lot of people don’t realize is from Mississippi, because he seemed to go the other way. But, still somehow was connected to his roots.
John T. Edge: Yeah. I mean, Claiborne was inspired in his career by learning to cook in his mother’s boarding house in Mississippi. But for Claiborne defines himself, he left the south. He never really returned. And, Claiborne is a gay son of the south who felt unwelcome in his native land, and that’s a long and tragic story of so many southerners in a time when the south was a far more intolerant place. Gay southerners, and in the same instinct African-American southerners, had to leave the south to find fortune, to find safety, to find welcome. That’s a strong thematic piece of the southern story.
BAF: Obviously you’ve studied the south very well and you know your subject matter, but doing this, were there any surprises?
John T. Edge: I was surprised by how compelling I would find the story of The Farm in Tennessee; the hippies that quit the Haight in San Francisco after the summer of love has passed. And, I was surprised by the short time frame between the moment when people were quitting the south, were escaping the south because of intolerance, because of poverty, because of so many things. It was a really short window between a moment when people would have quit the south, when you saw the horrific images of lunch counter sit-ins, and the violence that whites perpetrated against Blacks and then, just a few years later, people like Stephen Gaskin and the hippies who settled The Farm in rural Tennessee are quitting peace-loving idealistic San Francisco, for Tennessee; for the south, to farm, to adopt southern ways.
And, that surprised me. The proximity between the two. And, it surprised me how compelling I would find that story, the story of The Farm. I didn’t think about it as part of the southern narrative until I started digging in to try to make sense of the south decade by decade, which is what the book does. And I realized to tell the story of the 1970’s, I needed to tell the story of the Back to Land movement in the south. And, probably the most compelling back to the land story was situated in Tennessee not far outside of Nashville.
BAF: The one thing I’ve noticed was that with southern cooks is that there is a certain unique pride in the roots of their food, even chefs who move there. I remember talking to Ed Lee a while back, for this site, and he is a Brooklyn kid originally, but even then there seems to be a real pride in his adopted southern roots. This is a generalization, but that seems to be something that is very strong in The South.
John T. Edge: Well, Ed claims the south actively and that’s interesting to me, too. It comes back to those same kind of tensions that we were talking about a minute ago. If the south was America’s number one economic problem/social problem, then why is it that so many people have come to claim this place and want to be a part of this place?
And, I think there’s a recognition that the south is kind of an American cultural taproot. Out of the south have come these beautiful, expressive responses to adversity. And, these beautiful expressions of people and place. That comes back to music like bluegrass, and blues, and gospel; and the food like barbecue, and fried chicken, and hoppin john, these iconic dishes that have emerged from this place.
And I think to claim the south for someone like Ed Lee and a range of other people (you know, I write about Ed in the book) is to claim a kind of American identity; to recognize that the south is America writ small, that the south is not some kind of cultural isolate. The struggles of the south, the problems of the south, the successes and joys of the south are instead American. And, to claim the south for a number of new arrivals is to claim a kind of rawer, realer America.
That’s not the way… I don’t think about it as “rawer” or “realer”, but I think that’s one of the drivers for people who think about it that way.
BAF: Is there a tipping point, or a dividing line that you would say between the old south and the new south?
John T. Edge: There have been so many “new south”s and so many tipping points. You know, the south has been reinventing itself since the civil war, and I think that process is on-going. You know, the pain of slavery on the region is an impetus to reinvention. It’s one of those things I think is honest about the south at its best is that we can’t deny our history. We can’t pretend that the horrors of slavery didn’t shape our place. I think too much of America tries to pretend that it is exceptional and above reproach, and the history of the south makes clear that we are not above reproach. Our region is tangled and tragic, and ultimately beautiful.
BAF: What does the future hold for southern food?
John T. Edge: I think two things are kind of in process now and will continue kind of a pace. One is a kind of ongoing rediscovery of our roots and our new values that southerners are placing and will continue to place on our food culture, on our crops, our artisanal goods, on working class folks. And, I think we will continue to rediscover the roots of our cuisine at the same time.
And I think not in contrast with this but running on a parallel track, is the recognition that the south has always been a multicultural place, becoming a more multicultural place. And, a place wherein crawfish is cooked by Vietnamese, as well as Cajun folk; a place where turnip greens get spiked with chili de arbol.
And those two kind of drives are running on parallel tracks. They don’t cancel each other out. They’re ongoing and both those instincts will shape how The South eats and probably how America eats for the next decade or so.
BAF: What’s next for you?
John T. Edge: I dunno. I’m trying to figure out my next book project.
I’m interested in a lot of different subjects from how restaurants are changing in this modern day; what roles restaurants play today. But, also the paperback of this book is coming out in February and I’m excited to get back on the road some and talk to more people who’ve read the book. The reaction I’ve gotten from it has been very affirming, and the conversations I’ve engaged in have been really beautiful. I want to figure out what to write next, but for right now, I just want to keep talking to people about this book.
“Long one of the key voices in the discussion of Southern cuisine, Edge challenges the accepted narrative… [and] watch[es] the momentum build until the South comes into its own.”—New York Times Book Review
“Edge is an ecumenist when it comes to such culinary crises, and that’s what makes him so wonderful a surveyor of the last 50 years of southern history…Decade by decade, Edge shows that we aren’t just what we eat; we are where that food was grown, how it was cooked, who cooked it, and who all gets to eat it with us.” —The New Republic
“To read “Potlikker” is to understand modern Southern history at a deeper level than you’re used to. not just a history of Southern food; it also stands as a singularly important history of the South itself.” —The Bitter South
“A panoramic mural of the South’s culinary heritage, illuminating the region’s troubled place at the American table and the unsung role of cooks in the quest for social justice.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“In dense detail, this book ranges fluently over the politics, drama and romance of Southern foodways.”— Nashville Scene
“An insightful, refreshing, and at times revealingly ugly examination of food and its place in the South…In the evolving story of Southern food, The Potlikker Papers is a must-read force for good.”—Charleston City Paper
“Like sitting down to a bountiful Sunday Southern dinner. Edge uncovers the rich narratives that lie beneath Southern food, illustrating the tangled and compelling webs of politics and social history that are often served up alongside our biscuits and gravy… Edge’s delightful and charming book invites us to pull up a chair for a satisfying repast of tales that illustrate that the food history of the modern South reveals the dynamic character of Southern history itself.” —BookPage
“[Edge] has created a canon of Southern food writing that follows in the tradition of legends like John Egerton and Vertamae Grosvenor. The Potlikker Papers is an extension of this cultural plumbing of the South and its meaning in modern America… Edge asks us to consider how we, as Americans, active and passive Southerners, journalists, and eaters, can begin to set the record straight in this very moment—to tell the histories of those living and working in the South with truth and humanity. To recognize them and say their names.”—Saveur.com
“Masterful…When it comes to chronicling Southern food, John T. Edge puts his motor where his mouth is, logging many thousands of miles over the years to illuminate these hidden corners of the region’s cuisine like no other…Edge expertly sieves through decades of cultural influences to explore how today’s rich culinary tradition emerged.”—Garden & Gun
“The one food book you must read this year…No matter the subject, there is always something to learn from Edge’s work…The Potlikker Papers is a reminder of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.”—Southern Living
“Edge’s research and command of prose make this a necessary history.” —Booklist (starred review)
“In the South, Edge notes, food and eating intertwine inextricably with politics and social history, and he deftly traces these connections from the civil rights movement to today’s Southern eclectic cultural cuisine…In this excellent culinary history, Edge also profiles some of the South’s greatest cooks—Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Paula Deen—who represent the sometimes tortured relationship between the South and its foodways.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Mixing deep scholarship, charming anecdotes, and his own extensive culinary explorations, Edge provides a chronological account by decades, starting in the 1950s…What will stick with most readers are the vignettes about specific chefs, restaurants, food producers, food marketers, politicians, celebrities, and race-based relationships…Without question, this is a book for foodies, but it is also for readers who…care deeply about regionalism, individual health, and race relations.” — Kirkus (starred review)
“What we eat tells our story. John T. Edge wonderfully tells the story, through grits, pone, and pig meat, of the ever-morphing American South—fleshing out the caricatures of Harland Sanders and Paul Prudhomme, traveling history’s through lines from the lunch-counter protests of the Civil Rights era to the latter-day flowering of pitmaster chic. So good, so fun, so thorough, so important.” – David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula
“There are certain writers who you just know have found the perfect form for their creative expression, and so it is with John T. Edge, our preeminent chronicler of southern food and culture. In this rich, compact history of the South through its food and cooks—from Martin Luther King’s favorite fried chicken artist in Montgomery, Georgia Gilmore, to The New York Times’s long-reigning food editor Craig Claiborne—Edge has produced a wonderful narrative of the region’s evolution on race, gender, and justice, with a light-handed knowingness at once sympathetic and critical.” –Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home
“If I know anything about Southern cuisine it’s because of John T. Edge. Somehow he’s weaved together a story of how Southern food shaped, not only what was on the table, but American history. “ — David Chang, CEO/Founder, Momofuku
“Edge’s book means to be about food, but quickly veers into a close examination of the Deep South, before revealing itself as the smartest history of race in America in a generation.” —Jack Hitt
“The Potlikker Papers takes readers on an exceptional journey through the modern American South, driven by the expressive power of food as a language and currency of place. John T. Edge’s profound analysis of the region’s vibrant—but always contested—food cultures skillfully navigates the rough road from the civil rights movement’s bus boycotts to the vibrant culinary diversity of the contemporary South. This work is essential reading in the American canon of foodways scholarship.” — Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South
“It should come as no surprise that John T. Edge would use a “salvage food” to celebrate ignored and forgotten kitchen stories. Recognizing the unrecognized is what he does. With his trademark style of compelling storytelling, Edge sets a table where everyone is welcome and every story matters — where untold histories teach new truths that challenge beliefs, while salving old wounds. The Potlikker Papers inspirited me with renewed hope for unity not just in Edge’s beloved South but anywhere there is food to eat and people to eat it.” – Toni Tipton-Martin, author of Blue Grass Cook Book and The Jemima Code
“Confidence is a funny thing. Without it, you may cling to poles, draw boundaries, and take aim at the other. The South never had much confidence in me, a foul mouthed, shants wearing, 1st Generation Taiwanese-Chinese-American conceived in Maryland and raised in Orlando. I left as soon as I could swearing I’d never open my heart again. I hadn’t thought about it for quite some time, but then John T. boiled off the greens, discarded the nasty bits, and served me Potlikker. In it is a nutrient rich reflection on the South’s past, present, and future. It gives me confidence that one day I can love the South all over again.” — Eddie Huang, author of Fresh Off the Boat
“John T Edge has unearthed an extraordinary people’s history of the South, brilliantly told “through its most influential export: food. Like its namesake broth, THE POTLIKKER PAPERS is a concentrated, complicated account of the little-known cooks and humble community-builders who fed each other and fueled a movement for inclusion.” – Beth Macy, author of Truevine andFactory Man