In his new book The Potlikker Papers (Penguin Press, May), food historian John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, traces the evolution of Southern identity through its food culture.
What prompted this book?
I have been trying to write, and wanting to write, this book for about a decade. I was obsessed with Southern food. I wondered what could be gained from a closer look at Southern food. My pieces for the Oxford American and Garden & Gun were my investigative research for the book. Also, I wrote my master’s thesis on food in the South, and I discovered the stories of many of the people I write about in the book, like Georgia Gilmore.
Is the Georgia Gilmore story the one that got you going on the book?
Well, you expect that it would be, since in a way the Georgia Gilmore story is the defining story of this book. She had worked as a cook, a waiter, and for the railroad all her life—cooking for other people—but then she fuels the Montgomery Bus Boycott with cooking she did in her house. But the story of Stephen Gaskin revealed to me that I had a book. In that moment—the late 1960s and early 1970s—when it was in vogue to quit the South, Gaskin, an outsider from California, starts a farm in Tennessee and brings with him a bunch of Haight-Ashbury kids trippin’ on acid. They grow their own food and weed, and Gaskin and the others reinvigorate the South and Southern food with the products they sold to local companies.
How did you choose the title?
First, it’s a food metaphor: potlikker is the distilled essence of the South. You get potlikker when you boil down a big pot of greens or beans, bobbing with pork, until the beans are mushy and the greens are soft, and the liquid that remains is the likker. Potlikker is a metaphor for all the different ingredients that coalesce in the South. Second, it was the subtitle of my graduate thesis. I found these letters from Julian Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, to Huey Long about the relative merits of dunking or crumbling corn bread in your potlikker. Those letters fueled a debate from other readers at the time who used potlikker to write about women’s rights or class divisions.
If you could have lunch with three food writers, living or dead, who would they be?
Zora Neale Hurston: she described the food culture of the turpentine camps in South Georgia or the pulpwood camps in South Florida that she visited. Eugene Walter: he was a true Renaissance man from Mobile, Ala., who toward the end of his life wrote beautifully about food and the South. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor: she wrote Vibration Cooking: Or, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl; she was a go-go dancer with Sun Ra’s Solar Myth Orchestra, but in the cookbook, she tells stories along with the recipes; she was practicing culinary anthropology long before we called it that.