Cornbread, Collards, and Country Music: John T. Edge’s “The Potlikker Papers”
In the South, music and food go hand-in-hand — or maybe better, hand-to-mouth — with plenty of artists delivering memorable songs about food and eating. Although the list is a long one, one or two examples will suffice: the jaunty Fred Rose song “Roly-Poly” pokes fun at, and celebrates in its own way, the can’t-get-enough love of food. In Billy Currington’s “Good Directions,” the singer thanks his mama’s “good directions and turnip greens” for sending the woman of his dreams back to him.
Rosanne Cash once said “the rich, beautiful, dense, and weird South is the South I love.” Part of that beautiful density is surely the smells, tastes, and sounds of the South. You need not read too far into Southern literature to smell the funky loaminess of the land that makes people mad to possess it. The black dirt or red clay or delta silt flows into their blood, so that their own souls reek of the dirt in which they work, wrenching from the soil a living or a sustenance, and usually both. The crops that teem — in a good season or on bottomland — supply the rich pot likker that folks drink along with their cornbread come supper time. Food—the smell of it and the taste of it and the abundance or scarcity of it — occupies a central place in Southern literature; think of Thomas Wolfe’s great paean to the loaded dinner table in his mother’s rooming house both in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God contains one of the sexiest food scenes in all of Southern literature.
Leaving Southern literature aside, food, and the places where food is served, have become hallmarks of all that is right and wrong about Southern culture. Think about the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro — or Piggie Park in Charleston, South Carolina — where blacks sat, asking simply to be granted the right to eat a meal like any other customer. As John T. Edge puts it in his powerful and captivating new book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (Penguin): “lunch counters were designed as everyman spaces, where lawyers and laborers might sit side by side to eat flat-top-fried burgers and crinkle-cut fries and sweaty tumblers of tea. They were modern places. They were city in a rapidly urbanizing South.” On the one hand, lunch counters spawned homogeneity, even though the vanilla Cokes at Woolworth’s might have been better that those at the Rexall drugstore; on the other hand, they fostered an exclusivity, serving food familiar and comfortable mostly to white diners. Although you could order a burger, shake, and fries, you would have to go elsewhere to find fried chicken livers and turnip greens on the menu. As Edge points out, “lunch counters were streamlined and efficient predecessors to the fast-food restaurants of the 1970s, serving dishes that were more broadly American than Southern.”
In his new book, Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and who is a contributing editor for Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American, brilliantly illustrates the wonderful, weird, and deeply complex ways that the narrative of food and eating in the South inextricably weaves itself into the political and cultural narratives of the South. As Wendell Berry once wrote, “eating is an agricultural act,” and Edge develops this idea as he traces the history of food in the modern South from the kitchen tables and restaurant theaters of the 1950s and 1960s and the development of fast food in the 1970s and 1980s to the gentrification of Southern food in the 1990s and the multicultural cuisine of the New South in the 2010s and beyond. Edge echoes John Egerton, another great writer on Southern food, about the insidious character of food in the South: “Not infrequently, Southern food now unlocks the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex … on such occasions, a place at the table is like a ringside seat at the historical and ongoing drama of life in the region.”
In 1956, Georgia Gilmore, incensed by the inequality in her town of Montgomery, Alabama — she took the city to court when police beat her son for walking across the whites-only Oak Park — opened a restaurant in her house to feed blacks in the community. Before she opened her house restaurant, Gilmore had worked for the railroad and as a cook and a waiter. Her house restaurant became the anti-lunch counter in the community; local postal workers took breaks to “eat stews of chitlins and hog maws with sides of coleslaw; women from a nearby laundry ate lunches of chicken wings and green beans.” She fueled the Montgomery bus boycott with her meals, and her restaurant became a clubhouse for Martin Luther King Jr., who “wanted pigs’ feet and collards, the food that sustained him in his youth.” As Edge points out, Gilmore’s house restaurant, “which straddled the divide between a dining hall and a private club, defined a welcome table ideal that would emerge as a primary metaphor in the civil rights movement to come … her success hinted at the moves to come during the Black Power stage of the civil rights movement, when, instead of angling for the integration of white spaces, African Americans created black spaces.”
Edge regales us with stories of various individuals whose relationships with and to food illustrate the ways that growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, and eating food reflects the character of Southern culture. The story of Stephen Gaskin, an outsider from California, is one of the funnier ones in the book. In the late 1960s and early 1970s — when it was in vogue to quit the South — Gaskin started a farm in Tennessee and brought with him a bunch of Haight-Asbury kids tripping on acid. They grew their own food and weed, but Gaskin and the others reinvigorated the South and Southern food with the products — some vegetarian — they sold to local companies. More important, Gaskin moved to the South because he saw an opportunity: he’s a Southerner by choice, according to Edge.
Edge takes the title of his book from potlikker, the rich broth that’s left after a pot of greens or peas boil down. It is the distilled essence of the South. Edge also found letters from Julian Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution, to Huey Long, then governor of Louisiana, about the relative merits of dunking or crumbling cornbread in your potlikker. Those letters fueled a debate from other readers who used potlikker to write about women’s rights or class divisions. The study of food culture reveals issues that vex the South.
A masterful storyteller, Edge draws us into every one of these stories just as if we were sitting at his kitchen table listening to him. “One of the reasons I respond to Southern food is that it’s about the narrative embedded in the food; that’s why people respond to Southern food with such vigor,” he told me in a recent conversation. “It’s my job to exhume these and bring them into relief. We often think of the South as this bulwark, as this place that does not change — you know, ‘old times there are not forgotten’—but it’s a dynamic place of diversity.” The Potlikker Papers is about “radical acts performed by Southerners reinventing the South in the most unexpected ways.”