In The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge views sixty years of Southern civilization through the filter of his favorite subject. The book opens in 1955 with the kitchen-based heroics of an Alabama woman named Georgia Gilmore. The largely unknown civil-rights activist provided chicken sandwiches (and hard-earned money) to organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and then left work in a segregated restaurant to start her own home-cooking business with support from Martin Luther King Jr. Gilmore perfectly illustrates Edge’s central point in The Potlikker Papers: the history of the modern South is inextricable from the story of Southern food.
This is a tale rife with outrages and thefts. Edge revisits the 1960s scene at Lusco’s, an institution in Greenwood, Mississippi, where black waiters performed for white diners in what Edge calls a “Jim Crow theater.” (For evidence he points to a YouTube video of Booker Wright’s appearance in an NBC documentary, in which he acts out the humiliation he endures as a Lusco’s server.) The home kitchens of white people were historically the sites of even greater tragedy, Edge writes, becoming “places of violence” when white women left their black cooks alone there, vulnerable to the assaults of the men of the house. Farming one’s own land could be a path to independence—from both hunger and the dangers of a white kitchen—but racist loan practices at banks and the USDA made that option nearly impossible.
In dense detail, this book ranges fluently over the politics, drama, and romance of Southern foodways, a winsome word for an academic discipline. Edge, a winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, wrote a graduate thesis about the Potlikker and Cornpone Debate of 1931. (The debate: crumble versus dunk.) The Southern Foodways Alliance, which he now directs, was formed in 1999 by a group of food writers that included Edge’s mentor, the late John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. (The alliance is based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.)
Edge’s book takes its name from the liquid that remains in a pot after greens are cooked. Slaveholders of the antebellum South ate the greens and left the “pot likker” for enslaved workers to salvage, unaware that the leftover liquid contained the dish’s real nutrients. From history’s castoff dish to today’s celebrated menu item in restaurants like Husk (in both Nashville and Charleston), which treat traditional ingredients with reverence, pot likker is an apt symbol for the evolution Edge chronicles in this book.
The Potlikker Papers begins with the 1960s fight for rights by the people in the South who did the overwhelming share of the food work and continues through the movement by black nationalists to create a vertical economy with ownership of land and control of food sales. He explores the contradictory impulses of the 1970s migration to back-to-the-land communes like The Farm in Middle Tennessee at just the time when Southern fried chicken was being franchised by KFC. He finds the origins of an appreciation for regional food in such disparate sources as the election of a Georgia peanut farmer as president of the United States, and the food writing of The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin and Roadfood authors Jane and Michael Stern. He credits the elevation of local ingredients to determined chefs like Paul Prudhomme in Louisiana and Bill Neal in North Carolina, whose “money dish” was the old fisherman’s breakfast of shrimp and grits.
To Edge, the advent of the “artisanal pantry”—when the South begins to value true grits unmolested by industrial farming, for example—now seems inevitable. Glenn Roberts, who founded Anson Mills in South Carolina in 1998, says, “If I do the job right, my grits should taste like corn tasted one hundred, two hundred years ago.”
The book is populated by a cast of visionaries and eccentrics, from Fannie Lou Hamer, founder of the Freedom Farm and Pig Bank, to Edna Lewis, who could tell when a cake was done by listening to it. And Edge balances the story of miller Glenn Roberts, whom he calls a “steam punk evangelist,” with tales of people like Popcorn Sutton, a legendary Tennessee moonshiner, and the grandson of Pappy Van Winkle, who scoffs at the idea that he should care about the provenance of the corn he uses in his bourbon distillery.
This book uncovers an interesting clash of sub-cultures—the old pitmasters and distillers, who trust in their own skill and intuition, and the newer breed, who put their faith in the purity of their sources. “Does honest food rely on great produce and livestock, born of heirloom seeds and breeds nurtured by farmers with a sense of agricultural possibilities and responsibilities to history?” Edge asks. “Or are the artisans who transform raw ingredients into kitchen and table goods the true heroes of the story?” The fact that The Potlikker Papers begins with the struggle for basic civil rights and ends with such nuanced and intriguing questions makes a good case for optimism about the state of the South.
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.