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, then left work in a segregated restaurant to start her own home-cooking business with support from Martin Luther King Jr. Gilmore illustrates Edge’s central point: the South’s recent history is inextricable from the story of Southern food.
Edge 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 communes like The Farm in Middle Tennessee at just the time when Southern fried chicken was being franchised by KFC.
He finds an appreciation for regional food growing from 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 traces 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.
Admiration for the “artisanal pantry”—when the South begins to value true grits unmolested by industrial farming, for example—marks another stage in the region’s evolution. 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.”
A cast of visionaries and eccentrics populates The Potlikker Papers, 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. The story of the miller Glenn Roberts, whom Edge calls a “steam punk evangelist,” is countered by 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.
The old pitmasters and distillers, who bank on skill and intuition, and a newer breed, who put their faith in the purity of their sources, create an intriguing clash of sub-cultures. “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 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.