You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Southern History, Deep Fried

John T. Edge's "The Potlikker Papers" looks at multiculturalism, conflict, and civil rights in the American South—all through the history of the region's food.

Rob Kim/Getty Images

It was 1838, and the young Englishman Philip Henry Gosse couldn’t sleep. He’d arrived in Alabama two months before, and was working as a schoolteacher for 21 young boys. An amateur naturalist, Gosse catalogued every living thing he saw: hawk moths and humble bees, turkey buzzards and crayfish, woodpeckers and whippoorwills. He also described all the things he ate. He wrote home about the watermelons that tasted like pink snow; hominy so good he could have it with every meal; figs that ripened mysteriously into a powdery blue skin. His favorite culinary discovery was a square dough dish, a little difficult to describe. “You see,” he wrote, “they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges.” The cells formed small pockets to capture sugar or jam. He advised eating “woofles” with butter.

Penguin Press, 384 pp., $28

Gosse’s Letters from Alabama was published two decades later, making him one of the first sojourners in the South to write about the region’s food. Rapturous accounts of southern cuisine have been made over and over again since then by strangers from all sorts of strange lands, and their outsider reports have appeared alongside resident voices from below the Mason-Dixon line. The latest of these homespun testimonials is The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South from John T. Edge, who was born in Clinton, Georgia, and lives now in Oxford, Mississippi. Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge grew up lunching at Mary Mac’s tearoom in Atlanta; he cured his undergraduate hangovers at a greasy spoon in Athens run by a member of the Ku Klux Klan Ladies Auxiliary.

When Edge made it to graduate school, he wrote his thesis on the forgotten potlikker and cornpone debate. In 1931, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution instigated a regional crisis when he wrote that Louisiana Governor Huey Long had dunked his cornbread into potlikker, the water left over from boiled collard greens. That editor, Julian Harris, had won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Klan, but not even he was prepared for what came next: Six hundred letters poured into the newsroom arguing over whether it was better to crumble or dunk into potlikker. Centuries after Christians had stopped arguing about intinction, Southerners had their own sacramental crisis over cornbread and collards.

Edge is an ecumenist when it comes to such culinary crises, and that’s what makes him so wonderful a surveyor of the last 50 years of Southern history. The Potlikker Papers goes looking for the story of the South in its kitchens, fields, gardens, and groceries. Edge profiles the black cooks and maids who helped end Jim Crow, orders at the drive-thrus that dot America’s highways, follows the Delta mafia that controlled the restaurant pages of The New York Times, and lands in the Nuevo Sud of today. Decade by decade, Edge shows that we aren’t just what we eat; we are where that food was grown, how it was cooked, who cooked it, and who all gets to eat it with us.

Take, for instance, the case of Georgia Theresa Gilmore. She was in the pews of Holt Street Baptist Church in December 1955, when Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. She brought along a hamper full of sandwiches that first evening, and as the boycott continued over the course of a year, she organized what she called “The Club from Nowhere,” a group of bakers and cooks who sold cakes and pies to activists and supporters, pouring the money they made back into the Montgomery Improvement Association. When the buses integrated, she kept cooking. John T. Edge describes how Gilmore’s brick house on Dericote Street became “an executive dining room for the civil rights movement.” She turned her home into a restaurant of sorts, with standing room only at times, and the likes of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson seated at her table.

Home restaurants and the women who staffed them were prototypes for what came next in the movement. The lunch counter stools of Greensboro, North Carolina are the only ones preserved in the Smithsonian, but there were thousands like them around the South where activists sat down, placed their orders, and refused to leave. Even after some owners removed the stools, black patrons stood for hours demanding service. By April of 1960, Edge says, there were sit-ins in 78 American cities, and by the end of that same year, more than 70,000 customers had participated in lunch counter protests. “Restaurants,” Edge writes, “were backdrops for change, stage sets where black and white Southerners negotiated an integrated future before a national audience.”

After blacks fought to integrate these public spaces, they fought for greater equality in private homes, too. They started a political conversation about hunger, pushing the federal government to address the forty million Americans who lived in poverty by the end of the fifties. The Great Society initiatives followed naturally from the integration campaign, and activists called attention to how assistance programs and food stamps were failing black and white families alike. Food was so integral to freedom that some civil rights leaders pursued alternative agriculture programs: In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer founded Freedom Farm on a few hundred acres in Mississippi, leading an interracial exchange. “You can give a man some food and he’ll eat,” she said. “But give a man some ground of his own and a hoe, and he’ll never go hungry again.”

At the same time, more and more Americans wanted faster food. Edge shows how the South produced some of the most popular, enduring franchises. He shows us Colonel Sanders cursing and complaining about how he thought he sold his secret recipe, not his soul, to the businessmen who marketed his face and fried chicken around the world. Long John Silver’s fish were first fried in Lexington, Kentucky; Wilber Hardee  got his start in Greenville, South Carolina. “In an era of convenience foods,” Edge argues, “the South emerged as a packager of American regional tastes and traditions.”

Alongside those still standing, Edge resurrects a whole network of black businesses that were crowded out of the marketplace. Mahalia Jackson might’ve wanted to walk in Jerusalem, but her “Chicken System” opened its flagship store in Memphis. “It’s Glori-Fried,” the chain’s slogan promised in 1968, becoming the first national fast food franchise with African-American management. A year later, James Brown was insisting that “if you don’t like Gold Platter, you ain’t got no soul,” promoting his restaurant chain around Macon, Georgia.

Food-wise, the South was already a culinary Camino de Santiago: Kansas City native Calvin Trillin made his name covering crime for The New Yorker, but he wound up publishing a travelogue of his meals around the region called American Fried in 1974. Jane and Michael Stern went on their own anthropological eating tour of the South that appeared as Roadfood in 1978. And later, John Egerton bested them all with Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History in 1987. Edge presents The Potlikker Papers as a sequel to Egerton’s book, and agrees with his literary ancestor’s assertion that food is the key to unlocking “the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex” in the South. He writes, “a place at the table is like a ringside seat at the historical and ongoing drama of life in the region.”

But like everything else, food gentrified. Edge looks at how Craig Claiborne, a Southern-bred The New York Times editor, transformed food writing from something that was mostly for women to something dominated by men. Encouraged by his friend Willie Morris, Claiborne also used the Gray Lady’s pages to promote Cajun, Creole, Soul, and Tex-Mex. He and other writers, editors, and chefs made Southern food into more than an eccentricity—it was suddenly something worth talking about and paying for.

That consumption became even more conspicuous when southern cooking shows took over the airwaves. The best of these television stars was Nathalie Dupree, a white woman who rolled pepper into her dumplings and everything else. She wore an AIDS ribbon during a 1985 tapping of her show New Southern Cooking. She planned an Atlanta event for Salman Rushdie after the fatwa against him was announced, and then defended the Muslims who protested her party for him. She insisted on acknowledging the African-American slaves whose recipes were stolen for Southern mainstays, along with the Chinese immigrants who came to build the canals and whose sauces added flavor to Georgia cooking.

Dupree was ahead of her own time, and ahead of ours, too: Her modern equivalent, Paula Deen, was booted off the airwaves for racist comments. Instead of focusing on Deen’s downfall, though, Edge looks at the culinary historian Michael Twitty, who penned a popular open letter to the fallen chef in the summer of 2013. Twitty explained he wasn’t mad she used a racial slur, but “angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food.” For years, he’d been researching his own family’s enslavement and the ways that African slaves had changed the culinary culture of America. “We are surrounded by culinary injustice,” he insisted, “where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendents played key roles in innovating.”

Just as the South was coming to terms with its past, the injustices of the present revealed themselves more starkly. Edge illustrates how the industrial agriculture that had come to dominate the economy and food culture of the region reinforced old systems of racist worker oppression. Whether it was Big Tomato in Florida, Big Pig in North Carolina, or Big Chicken in Arkansas, a new generation of workers was being exploited in the fields, factory lines, and slaughterhouses of America. In what Edge calls “political reckonings,” these laborers fought the greed that suppressed their wages and the gag rules that kept their life-threatening working conditions hidden from regulators and consumers alike. The results were mixed. It says a lot about the mountain of injustice in agricultural labor that one of the greatest triumphs of reform so far was getting farm workers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes by boycotting Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King.

The men and women who pluck fruits and pick vegetables mostly come to the South as migrants, bringing with them a rich culinary history and changing the southern foodscape as well as its landscape. For every xenophobic law in Alabama and Georgia, there are a thousand bodegas and tortillerias. As Edge explains, the South actually leads the country in immigration: “From Arkansas, arcing down into the plantation belt of Mississippi and sweeping upward into the Carolinas, minority populations increasingly constituted the majority.” These immigrants followed African slaves brought there in coffles, waves of Chinese workers recruited for cane fields, and Vietnamese refugees who came after the war and became fisher folk on the Gulf.

The tables of the New South are integrated and international. So were those of the Old South, although Southerners have feigned amnesia about their actual history for so long that they might have forgotten that New Orleans had Chinese restaurants as early as 1892, or that most of them ate hot tamales long before they knew what a hush puppy was. It’s convenient to pretend it was always just grits and gravy, but the South was never a monoculture.

The boundaries of the South are tricky, and like so many Southern storytellers, John T. Edge is of several minds about just what counts. He rejects the idea that the South can be defined by the latitude lines of geography or the timeline of secession, arguing the region is not only “a broad swath of land, comparable in size and sweep to Western Europe” and more than “a rejected political gambit, defined by brutality, economics, and global trade.” Instead, Edge argues for a South that is “an album of snapshots,” “a jukebox of 45s,” or, in the book’s own vernacular, “a menu of dishes.”