John T. Edge is a preeminent food and cultural scholar whose work focuses on the modern South. He serves as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), a membership-based organization he helped found. SFA is based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. SFA documents, studies, explores and celebrates the diverse – and evolving – food cultures of the modern South. It has amassed a stunning collection of stories about the South. The organization also produces one of my favorite podcasts – Gravy – with a new episode released every other week.
Mr. Edge is a prolific (and talented) author. He has won three James Beard Foundation awards, including the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. His most recent book is “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South”…and it is rightfully earning rave reviews. This is not a book solely about food, but rather, a book that explores in vital ways the connections between food, race, politics, history and regional identity. It is utterly relevant to the national discussion we’re having on any number of issues. It is one of the most beautiful and powerful books I have read this year, giving voice to important stories and history that many of us may not be familiar with.
Mr. Edge graciously agreed to answer a few questions for the UC Food Observer about his work.
What is the modern South teaching us about food?
To study Southern food is to study the region and its people. To look back at the last sixty years, during which the modern South emerged, is to apprehend the brisk rate of change by which the region transformed. We have moved from an agrarian society to a service economy. Once polarized by white-black struggles, the region now reflects some of the highest immigration rates. Progress has been fitful, but change has been constant.
You write about race and food in The Potlikker Papers. What is the most important thing you’d like readers to understand about this topic?
Please allow me a slight edit. I write about racism and its impact on the region. Race is a categorization. Racism is a pattern of behavior that exploits difference and power to control and subjugate. Beginning with the South’s original sin — the enslavement of Africans to harvest crops — the story of the region has hinged on how racism affected this place and its people, our crops and our foods. Thinking and writing about food and foodways, I aim to help audiences recognize that racism is behavior and that racism, not race, is the issue.
What is the potential of food to help us overcome some of society’s most divisive issues?
I used to say that a well-set table was a seductive and sneaky place to focus attentions on serious matters like racism, class discrimination, gender inequity, and the like. While that’s somewhat and sometimes true, I’ve come to recognize a harder truth: Farms and kitchens and dining rooms are unique sites of conflict where inequities fester and possible solutions to those inequities gestate.