The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge
Penguin Press, 370 pp.
Fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, barbecued pork, and sweet tea -- delicious, and heavily freighted with history and meaning. In The Potlikker Papers, John T. Edge. a James Beard Award winner and director of the Southerm Foodways Alliance, unpacks the deeper significance of modern southern food. It's no surprise that much of it relates to slavery, poor whites eking out a modest living on small farms, and civil rights. What is surprising is just how good Edge's food stories are.
Edge recounts how during the civil rights movement, fast-food was associated with freedom, because it was a break from the old Southern ways of eating, which were steeped in racism -- and how the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson opened a chain of fried chicken restaurants, "Mahalia Jackson's Chicken System," to promote black entrepreneurship. He tells of the poor-white cooking of Mary Mac's, the last female-owned tea room in Atlanta, a place of biscuits made the old way -- and "subversive feminism." And he writes about the rise of fancy Southern artisanal cooking, in which a new generation of regional gourmands sought out, among other things, the best possible corn for grits.
Edge introduces readers to some remarkable characters, in every part of the food chain. The most memorable is Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco's, a fancy restaurant in the Mississippi Delta that served the region's white planter class. Wright struck a powerful blow against Jim Crow when he gave an interview to an NBC television crew in 1965 -- and spoke honestly about the indignities heaped on him as black man waiting on a clientele who barely bothered to hide their racism. Wright's interview continues to live online: