John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers is a fascinating read about how food has shaped the modern South.
If you love reading about Southern food, you’re likely a fan of John T. Edge. And if you’re not familiar with John T. (as he is called by friends and the food world at large), it’s time to get acquainted. As the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge and his team at the University of Mississippi document, study, and celebrate the diversity of food throughout the South. No matter the subject, there is always something to learn from Edge’s work. Over the past decade, he has covered topics as varied as the hot tamale trail in the Mississippi Delta, the role lunch counters played in the Civil Rights movement, the boom of women-run farms in Georgia, and ya ka mein, New Orleans’ take on Japanese ramen.
Like John Egerton and other writers and food historians before him, Edge has shown the world that there is no one true Southern cuisine. Southern food is as regional as it gets—anyone who has ever gotten into a heated debate about barbecue can attest to that. There is a rich, often complicated history behind many of the South’s most iconic dishes, like gumbo, cornbread, and potlikker, which inspired the title of his newest book: The Potlikker Papers.
As Edge writes in the introduction to the book:
Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, masters ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for slave cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. After slavery, potlikker sustained the working poor, black and white. “I lived on what I did not eat,” Richard Wright wrote. “Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from greens kept me going.”
In the rapidly gentrifying South of today, potlikker has taken on new meanings. In search of a dish that represents the region, chefs and writers have reclaimed potlikker. The glossy food magazine of the moment recently published a recipe for potlikker noodles with mustard greens. National Public Radio reported that a Washington, D.C. chef reduces collard potlikker to a low gravy, tosses the liquid with black-eyed peas, and pours the sauce over grilled fish. And a chef in Athens, Georgia, introduced a dish of poached mountain trout in boiled peanut potlikker. Inevitably, he called the broth nutlikker.
Through profiles of notable Southerners including farmer and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, and Colonel Sanders (yes, the Colonel—and he’s not who you think he is), Edge shows how food has shaped the history of the South, and in turn, the history of the entire country. The sale of pound cakes and chicken sandwiches helped fuel the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s. Southern farms were the setting for the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. The South’s artisanal food products, heirloom produce, and innovative chefs played an important role in the farm-to-table craze of the 2000s. And today, immigrants from around the world have chosen the South as their adopted home, bringing with them a diverse and delicious array of cuisines.
As Edge writes:
On the long march to equality, struggles over food reflected and affected change across the region and across the nation. Once thought retrograde, Southern food is now recognized as foundational to American cuisine. Southern cooks who labored in roadside shacks now claim white tablecloth temples where they cook alongside new immigrants. The assent has been tumultuous, and is still ongoing, but the passage has powerfully driven national conversations about cultural identity.
The Potlikker Papers is a reminder of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. The book, which available for pre-order through Amazon, will hit bokstores in May.