When John T. Edge undertook the challenge of writing a history of food in the modern South, he explored the vast pool of restaurants and personalities that over the decades shaped Southern culture.
“My initial drive for this book was to make sense of why I’m obsessed with Southern food culture and perhaps comprehend why others are too,” Edge said by telephone from Oxford, Miss., where he lives and works.
“The answer I began to form in my head is that we are obsessed with the narratives — the stories that we tell about Southern food,” he said.
Edge’s newest book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South,” was released recently by Penguin Press. Edge will sign copies and speak at 3 p.m. on May 21 at Avid Bookshop on Prince Avenue, and again at 6 p.m. on May 23 at Heirloom Cafe & Fresh Market in Athens.
Edge directs the Southern Foodways Alliance based at the University of Mississippi and has written several books on food from hamburgers to apple pie. Edge has earned national recognition for his work on food culture and was featured this month in a story in the New York Times.
Many personalities are mentioned in Edge’s book — from Montgomery, Ala., restaurant owner Georgia Gilmore to President Lyndon Johnson’s cook, Zephyr Wright, both of whom contributed to the Civil Rights Movement.
Then there are others such as Harland Sanders, who became the famed Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and franchised his restaurants in the 1950s.
“He took something truly traditional and made it into something modern in a moment when Southerners were leaving the farm and moving into the cities and suburbs,” Edge said.
Edge does not shy away from eating at fast-food restaurants.
Although it’s been a long time since he’s had KFC, he recently ate fish at Captain D’s.
“It was actually pretty good,” he said.
Fast food began its evolution in Southern culture in the 1950s, and Edge has explored its emergence.
“Fast food is a product of the South and the nation at that time. I want to make sense of it and what it tells us. My job isn’t to denigrate it. It’s to make sense of what it tells us and Colonel Sanders tells us a lot,” he said.
The secret recipe for KFC’s chicken batter “is akin to the formula for Coke,” he said. “It’s as much about the mystique as it is about the recipe. “
Other personalities who emerge in the book are Nathalie Dupree, one of the first television cooking personalities in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Glenn Roberts, a South Carolinian who reintroduced stone-ground heirloom corn grits to the market.
Edge is a native Georgian who grew up in Clinton, a small town in Jones County. Edge’s father worked for the federal court district based in nearby Macon.
“Judge William Bootle, who ordered the desegregation of the University of Georgia, was my father’s mentor,” Edge said. As a result of this connection, Edge said he actually attended a few days of the notorious trial in Athens for the Klansmen charged with violating the civil rights of black soldier Lemuel Penn, who was murdered in 1964 in Madison County. Those same suspects had gathered at the Open House restaurant on Hancock Avenue operated by the wife of one of the Klansmen.
“Writing about it and revisiting it was important to me,” he said. The building that housed the Open House remains, although the restaurant itself disappeared many years ago.
In the course of his studies, Edge has dined in restaurants across the South.
If he happens to be traveling south of Oxford, he enjoys a stop at the Biscuit Pit in Grenada, Miss., where they make biscuits from scratch or as he described: “low crown, slim, demure biscuits.”
Edge and his wife’s 16-year-old son, who recently received a driver’s license, also wants to hit the road with a food destination in mind.
“The first road trip he wants to make is to a place in Brownsville, Tenn., two hours north of us called Helen’s Bar BQ,” he said. Owner Helen Turner “is one of the fiercest and best pit masters I know.”
Edge grew up just down the road from Old Clinton Bar-B-Q, a business that has endured the years.
“Traditionally, barbecue has been defined as the work that men do and the competition circuit kind of cements that idea. But I’m not that interested in the competition circuit as a cultural phenomenon. I’m more interested in barbecue restaurants that have been around for a long time.”
While Edge’s palate has sampled foods from a carry-out joint called Catfish One in Mississippi to the fine dining of Five & Ten in Athens, he has a personal attachment for a simple food that graced the table of his parents’ home.
On the wall of his kitchen is a framed recipe for his mother’s catfish stew, a flavorful concoction of catfish, bacon, tomato and onion.
“It’s really a simple stew, but that stew — and my wife makes her version —reminds me of my Mom every time,” the interpreter of Southern food said.