When I was a kid, there were still lunch counters. Around the corner from the movie theater, an Eckerd’s Drugstore sold the most perfect grilled cheese sandwiches: Sunbeam Bread and American cheese, slathered in butter and pressed flat on a hot grilltop, flipped between the pinch of two very expert, impossibly callused bare fingers by a woman who worked there for as long as I remember. It’s a strong memory, because we ate those grilled cheese sandwiches often, and because we watched the rows of sandwiches line up from our perch on the swivel stools, watched her pink fingertips and dark hands, the flick of her wrist when she knew, from years of practice, it was time to turn.
Reading John T. Edge’s recent book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, I realize there is context to this memory that makes it even more powerful. Lunch counters were once places of protest. Women, especially black women, had worked over Southern stoves for generation upon generation, all the way back to the plantations. And kitchens had always been theaters, where our cultural inequities played out against our real human need to eat.
It’s a rare book that gives you a fresh perspective on what you already know.
With a curious, associative intelligence, The Potlikker Papers gathers the details of our complex Southern history, from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts through the Civil Rights Era, the farm-to-table movement, and the influence of multicultural chefs and restaurateurs on our collard greens and cornbread. In doing that, it illuminates the power of the choices we’ve made and the ones we’re still making every day when we feed ourselves.
For those of us familiar with Mr. Edge and his work with the Southern Foodways Alliance, this should come as no surprise. Based out of the University of Mississippi, SFA is a narrative-focused media non-profit organization. It produces a dozen films, a podcast, and a quarterly journal called Gravy, a couple of books a year, and four different food symposia, “all of it to tell a new story of this place using food as a leverage point,” says Mr. Edge. He puts emphasis on new. “We’re not preserving anything,” he says. “The South needs to change, has needed to change, is changing. We don’t attempt to preserve some version of the South in amber.” But The Potlikker Papers suggests you might want to understand the past in order to see the future.
The book begins with an author’s note to the late John Egerton, a Southern writer and friend at the table who once stated, “the more messed up a place is, the more inventive and free-wheeling its creative voices.” For Edge, which culinary voice speaks above the rest?
Georgia Gilmore was a cook, midwife, and mother of six who raised money selling baked goods, feeding the protesters in the Montgomery Bus Boycott from her home, and it’s her story that opens the book. “She took her talent in the kitchen, frying chicken and baking cakes and pies, and took the talent she honed in white kitchens and flipped the script, in essence,” Edge says. “She took this seemingly mundane knowledge, that every African-American woman had garnered, and did something very individualistic.”
It was a piece he wrote on Georgia Gilmore in 2000 for The Oxford American magazine that gave rise to what would become The Potlikker Papers. “I realized when I wrote this book that she was a far more important character than I’d initially thought,” Edge says. The way she recognized and galvanized her own economic power was revolutionary. And her life felt real. In writing Gilmore’s story, Edge went back to those early notebooks where he’d paced out the length of the counter in her home, imagining what it was like when Martin Luther King, Jr. walked through the door. “My best source was that notebook that had been sitting in a pasteboard box for 15 years,” he says.
Gilmore was famous for her pork chops and potato salad, her low growling voice, and habit of calling people humbling names regardless of their stature. Edge says, “If you were someone like MLK at that time, someone who was deified in the popular culture, to be truly welcomed, to be called a heifer, is a greater a gift in some ways than the food.”
This same drive against sentimentality seems to light all corners of The Potlikker Papers, from profiles of larger-than-life figures like Colonel Sanders to the sometimes precious elevation of Southern foods to white-tablecloth status. “We often valorize the wealth of the land,” Edge says. “We tend to describe our relationships to food and agriculture in these kind of simplistic, virtuous terms. The truth is uglier, and more honest.”
Recent news reveals how truth is still a battleground in kitchens across the country, as well as kitchens in the South. Edge even-handedly discusses Paula Deen and the rift that formed between her and her cook at The Lady and Sons Dora Charles over Deen’s use of racially insensitive language. “Kitchens have long been places of inequity where women, and women of color, have been exploited,” Edge says. The #metoo movement included accusations of sexual harassment against New Orleans chef John Besh, which call to mind the stories in The Potlikker Papers about plantation-era kitchen rape. “Beyond that kitchen door, out of sight, we Southerners allowed our worst impulses to play out,” Edge says.
Kitchens are still private, unprotected spaces. “Literally, you think about those prototypical metal kitchen doors, with the little peepholes at the top, and what you see is clouded with smoke from the brazier . . . ” He drops the metaphor, but there’s a lot of truth in it.
But there is also progress: “brisk progress in the South, but fitful progress.” Edge welcomes it, always with an eye toward Georgia Gilmore–style evolution, innovation over preservation, shown most fully in the rich sensory realm of food. The final chapters of The Potlikker Papers explore the way immigration is changing our physical picture, and the culinary picture alongside it. Fried okra with fish sauce and peanuts. Crawfish boiled with lemongrass. Edge says, “When the next generation of chefs take their exploratory trips through the South and they’re looking for the best dim sum in Upstate SC,” Edge says, “We will have made our point.”
In so many inclusive, generous, delicious ways, it’s a good point to make.
John T. Edge will be discussing The Potlikker Papers on February 11 at M. Judson Booksellers and Storytellers as part of its Sunday Sit-Down Supper series. Chef Shawn Kelly, of Fork and Plough, has crafted a menu inspired by the book. Tickets and more information are available at mjudsonbooks.com.
Eat, shop, and read like John T. Edge in his beloved hometown
Not long after I moved from Atlanta to Oxford in 1995, I got a chance to peek into the kitchen at Rowan Oak, novelist William Faulkner’s home. The spice cabinet yielded a bottle of Escoffier brand Sauce Diable, two tins of sage, two bottles of filé, a thimble of red food coloring, and enough cloves to choke a horse. Beyond stood the scuppernong arbor, and the smokehouse, where he cured and hung hams.
It would be a stretch to say that, until recently, culinary travelers to Oxford could do little better than root through Faulkner’s pantry. But the last decade has been truly dynamic. Oxford is now a bona fide food town, worthy of a weekend long ramble. If you make the trip, and I hope you do, here’s a quick primer.
Provisions & Souvenirs
Chicory Market, owned by the husband-and-wife team Kate Bishop and John Martin, is the place to score farmstead milk in glass bottles, produced by Billy Ray Brown, son of late local writer Larry Brown. Look for cold brew, bottled by Heartbreak Coffee in nearby Water Valley. Come summer, they stack rattlesnake and yellow meat watermelons by the front door.
Neon Pig focuses on whole animal butchery. Working with farmers across the mid-South, Mitch McCamey and his crew break down cows and pigs and sheep and display their best in a glass-fronted case. Burgers, ground from that beef, are their claim to fame. I like mine medium-rare on a house-baked brioche bun with refrigerator pickles, mustard, and pickled onions.
Square Books is one of the best bookstores in the nation. Full stop. Proprietor Richard Howorth has shepherded the literary careers of many locals, including current residents like novelist Ace Atkins and poet Beth Ann Fennelly. Off Square Books, his second space, stocks a wealth of signed food and cooking books and hosts the weekly Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.
Bottletree Bakery proprietor Cynthia Gerlach earned her master’s degree in Southern Studies. When she opened a bakery, Gerlach decorated the walls with art she collected when researching and writing about folk artist B.F. Perkins of Alabama. Start with a cream cheese pastry, smeared with local honey.
Big Bad Breakfast takes its name from Larry Brown’s book of short stories, Big Bad Love. Post in the front window and you can see the spot, now a park, where Brown began writing when he worked at a city fire station. To dunk your biscuit, ask for a saucer of tomato gravy.
Canteen, housed in a former filling station, is a mod space in a town that tends toward columns and porticos. Corbin Evans, who made his name in New Orleans, does right by sandwiches, noodles, and all-day-breakfasts. The breakfast torta, stacked with a sort of chorizo quiche, is my go-to.
City Grocery is the city’s flagship restaurant. Our family prefers lunch to dinner. Snag a table by the front windows, drink a bloody, and savor a roast beef po-boy. On Sunday, eggs Sardou, garnished with perfectly fried shrimp, is the money order. Come late afternoon, City Grocery Bar, overlooking the Square, is an ideal cocktail perch.
Mama Jo’s is the city’s steam table soul hub, attracting college students and working class folk. Jo Braselton fries pork chops, skillet cooks creamed corn, and stews turnip greens down with hunks of sidemeat. Look for her hot water cornbread. Creamy at the core, crisp at the edges, it’s bliss.
Taylor Grocery, eight miles south of Oxford in Taylor, is deservedly the most famous catfish joint in the South. Bring your own bottle of wine or whiskey to Lynn and Debbie Hewlett’s graffiti-scrawled, porch-fronted, tin-roofed restaurant. And bring a sleeve of foam cups, too. Local decorum requires that your beverage go incognito.
Grit, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Nick Reppond and Angie Sicurezza, around the corner from Taylor Grocery, in a new urbanist development called Plein Air, presents like an atelier. Try Reppond’s smoked corn pudding. Or the beef short ribs with peach-braised collards.
Saint Leo opened in 2016. Before Emily Blount introduced this Italian-inflected restaurant, just off the Square, she studied hospitality with Danny Meyer in New York City and pizza-making with artisans across Italy. Start with a Chartreuse tonic from bartender Joe Stinchcomb, and an order of farinata, which translates as rosemary-dusted chickpea crepes.
Snack Bar, like Big Bad Breakfast and City Grocery, is owned by John Currence, the city’s chef ambassador. But this is really Vish Bhatt’s restaurant. A native of Guajarat, India, Bhatt serves collard paneer, black-eyed pea daal, and cumin-scented boiled peanut salads. To drink, ask for the Lurleen, a bourbon cocktail kissed with ginger and named after our family dog.
John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi: southernfoodways.org