Southerners love a good meal as much as they love a good story, and sitting down with food historian John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South is 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. For example, Georgia Gilmore, a cook and waitress who worked for the railroad, literally fueled the Montgomery Bus Boycott by opening her house and cooking for and feeding protestors. Rather than condemning fast food restaurants such as Popeye’s and Bojangles’, Edge sees them as emblems of the South and its food. As he points out in his introduction, in the 1930s even Southern politicians argued about food—in a series of letters to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they debated over whether to dunk or crumble cornbread into potlikker. Edge uses potlikker—the rich broth that’s left after a pot of greens or peas boil down—to illustrate the diverse and rich ingredients that coalesce in the South. Edge introduces us to great Southern writers like Eugene Walter who also wrote passionately about food, as well as cooks like Matt Lee and Ted Lee who understand that “cooking and eating and sharing food is a passkey to a newer South.”
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.