The Center’s Becca Walton conducted this interview for the upcoming issue of the Southern Register.
An Interview with John T Edge about The Potlikker Papers, Eating Democratically, and Foodways in Cultural Studies
My fellow Southern Studies MA alum John T and I have long talked about how food, shelter, and clothing hold the keys to learning about the lives of southern people, many of whom embody the collision of necessity and creativity that is at the root of cultural studies. In this interview about his new book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, we discuss the tension between the essential and the complex, something he brilliantly struggles with as a founder of the academic discipline of foodways, and something I’ve thought about in my own past work in the building arts and research on clothing and fashion in the South.
John T and I sat down at Square Books to talk about the book on May 19, the day before he headed off on a month-long book tour. Visit johntedge.com to see if he’s coming to a bookstore near you.
You write that you envision The Potlikker Papers as a sequel to Egerton’s Southern Food, which you call a “democratic portrait of the American South and its peoples.” Through your lengthening career studying foodways, and through the writing of this book, how do you square hospitality with injustice?
Egerton asked how you reconcile the gross injustices of our region and the beauty we wrought because of it and despite of it. And he postulated that the tensions between horror and beauty in the South made this region an incubator for creativity. Our region reflects those two trains running on parallel tracks, and it’s in the gap between the tracks where the beauty lies. There are moments when those tracks cross, and sometimes one train pulls out ahead of the other. I don’t think it’s up to me to reconcile those, I think it’s up to me to illustrate the confluence and conflicts between those two instincts. Especially for someone writing about food, which is often valorized as this becalmed product of a beatified South. When you dig deeply and honestly into the history of the South by way of food, the injustices come fast and furious. Let’s say you’re enamored by the South. Or you’re troubled by the South. I hope those enamored with the South will recognize a more complicated region, and those troubled by the South will find more beauty and hope.
Literally and metaphorically, you have to get people to the table. I think we’re at a moment of reckoning in the spheres of food studies and foodways. I think Ted Ownby addressed this very well in The Larder, wherein he wrote that he hoped that it would be the last collection of essays where one has to argue the validity of foodways as a field. Those of us who think and write about food are still grappling with old prejudices, grounded in dismissals of women and people of color and the cultural processes by which they have long expressed themselves.
At the Center, we imagine foodways as a way to open up big conversations about labor, and class, and race, and sexuality, but because of the essential nature of food, it also seems to create a tension between the simple and the complex. You can create the space for a deep conversation, but sometimes people seem to just want a barbecue recommendation. How do you navigate this?
Every artist thinks they’re misunderstood. If you’re a writer or a painter or a musician, you intend X and people see it hear it read it as Z and Y, and the best you can do is embrace that read, hear the person. If I believe that people respond to the narratives embedded in Southern food, then I need to coax out the real question. The onus is on me to try to figure that out.
I’m troubled by how dismissive some in the academy are about examining food, shelter, and clothing as a way to understand culture. As someone who has studied history and culture in an effort to understand and illuminate the day-to-day lives of people, it’s so strange to me that people can diminish these common experiences.
I’m publishing this book at a really interesting time, as smart and challenging voices step into the conversation, especially people of color and women. I think this is a signal moment, as numerous books talk to one other. What I’ve done is synthesize primary source research, secondary source research, and my own reportage, in the hopes my book will serve as a portal to deeper study. My book is a transom book. Here’s the transom, now cross it.
Based on past conversations we’ve had, I have a few questions about how to walk the line between making material culture accessible to all while also honoring the highly skilled people who created those things.
For the first question, on thinking about and studying. How does a scholar of material culture study in a democratic manner, acknowledging the power dynamics implicit in documentary storytelling? In much of your work you turn to the lived experience and political motivations of the craftsperson – in your case, farmers, oystermen, home cooks. In The Potlikker Papers you paint vivid pictures of people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Harland Sanders, and the SFA’s oral history collection is impressive in its depth and range. How to best tell a story using food as a lens?
Individual characters, who can carry the weight of the larger narrative, are the best …Lawrence Wright calls those “donkey characters,” characters who don’t own the story. They are not the protagonist, but their struggles and triumphs are contained within the larger story.
Along those lines, I had never before heard of Georgia Gilmore. How/where did you find her? She is such a great example of the heart of social activism coming from local, grassroots efforts, and how asking questions about everyday matters like eating can illuminate larger historical stories.
If you want to write about the subject that I write about, Georgia Gilmore, the cook who rose to influence during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, is the ideal encapsulation of the possibilities of food studies. She is the ultimate foot soldier for democracy, the ultimate welcome table keeper, the ultimate subject of a people’s history of the South. She shows this ferocity, and she shows keen social intelligence, she shows indefatigable bravery, and she has this beautiful playfulness too, calling her diners “heifer” and “whores.” The heifer and whore details I got from a preacher I interviewed in Shoney’s. You want to find a complicated South, talk to a Preacher in a Shoney’s, drinking lukewarm coffee, listening him talk about a woman who called Martin Luther King, Jr. and his compatriots heifers. If you think about restaurants at their best, and they’re not always at their best, they are proxy homes for people who gather there. When you dine at home you want to be treated like family. Part of being treated like family is being disarmed. To be needled is to be loved.
I love how she was just completely unimpressed by the notion of celebrity. And by expressing that, she claimed her place in the movement. You heifer, I’m just as important to this effort.
By way of Georgia Gilmore, I found the arc of this book. It started out as a post-Civil War book, and I had sketched an outline for that. But I recognized that if I started the book in 1955 with Georgia Gilmore and a hamper of fried chicken sandwiches at Holt Street Baptist Church, I had a 60-year arch to 2015. I didn’t want to open the book with a chef in a kitchen. I wanted to open with a seemingly unremarkable woman doing remarkable things.
Back to a question about food and democracy. In my own past work, I’ve struggled with the question of how to make skillfully-crafted built spaces and products accessible to all, while at the same time honoring the skill of the maker. How does one eat democratically?
That’s one of things I talk to our son Jess about. Each economic decision you make, each spending decision you make, is political. The transfer of dollars from you to another person is an investment in that person, the receiving entity. A democratic diner is an aware diner. And that means being aware of human resource impact, and natural resource impact. I think the two are of equal import. There’s a cultural impact too. The cultural impact is the most complicated one. I’m often asked about fried chicken cafés or barbecue restaurants – Where do their pigs come from, where do their chickens come from? Why would you patronize restaurants that use industrial pork and chicken? Aren’t those detrimental to the environment and to the people who work in those plants, and ultimately to the health of customer? And the answer is yes, they are. But that barbecue restaurant or fried chicken café owner has an equal if not larger responsibility to their community. Part of what makes barbecue restaurants and fried chicken cafes important is the democracy of a $6 barbecue sandwich or a $7 plate of fried chicken. Working class folk in that community demand, expect, need, want that food at that price. The models that upper-middle-class-farmers-market-shopping southerners apply to consumer decisions are not necessarily the same models we should apply to a barbecue restaurant or fried chicken café.
I think breaking it down that way – natural resource, human resource, and cultural impact is a really helpful way to understand it.
I think we as a society have awakened to the natural resource part of the puzzle What’s more difficult to deal with is the human element…the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the most successful human rights campaigns of the last 20 years. Their work in the tomato fields of Florida in the 2000s set a national model for facing down the human resource impacts of our food system. All of those pieces of the puzzle matter, and I think we’re making progress. But I don’t want us to apply some just one rubric when making decisions about which food is just and which is unjust.
Do you think people who come to the book, maybe those who know you write for various publications but haven’t read any articles, people who have just a vague conception of you as the southern food guy…do you think people will be disappointed by your book?
I hope not…When people respond to southern food, they’re responding to the narratives embedded in that food. That’s the core of my work, to use food as a storytelling prompt. If that’s what you came in search of, you’ll be very happy. If you came in search of a road trip book, you’ll go home hungry. If you came in search of a celebration of the South, you’ll be disappointed. If you came in search of a conflicted southerner writing about a conflicted place, you might be sated.
Viewing the Booker Wright footage that you discuss in the book is profoundly chilling, like watching someone sign his own death warrant. His candor betrays the imagined intimacy between white customers and black waiters (or domestic workers). I know his story is one that has been with you for years. How did you come across Wright? How has he affected your understanding of hospitality?
I first wrote about him for Southern Studies 602. Like many people who come to the Southern Studies program and land here in Oxford, you look west to the Delta. An hour away, the land changes, the culture changes, and you’re drawn to it. I was fascinated by Lusco’s, the Depression era Greenwood restaurant. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a restaurant like that, with its curtained booths and the sense of illicit, hedonistic indulgence that restaurant promises.
It’s amazing to think about all the things the waiters see and encounter in that space.
That’s it. It’s the ultimate metaphor for what a restaurant promises. Restaurants promise a bubble in which to live for an hour or two, and the outside world won’t intrude. I was fascinated by that restaurant, and did interviews about it for a grad student paper. I heard glimpses of the Booker Wright story. I talked to a number of African American interviewees in Greenwood who mentioned him, and so did a number of the white gentry of Greenwood. And I looked for that footage, I called archives, called the Peabody Museum in Athens, the Moving Picture Museum, I tried to find it. I called NBC. No luck.
When Amy Evans was collecting oral histories in Greenwood, she interviewed a tamale maker who mentioned Booker Wright. When that went live on the SFA website and was searchable, Yvette Johnson, the granddaughter of Wright stumbled across the reference while searching his life. Thanks to her I finally saw the interview Wright gave in 1965, the interview when he spoke so openly about the Janus -faced lies that Jim Crow coerced. She has since dug deeper into his story. In fact, she just published a really fine book, The Song and the Silence, about his life.
I describe it in the book as an act of self-immolation. He speaks with such with vigor and such honesty and such self-effacement. We often use the phrase “speaking truth to power,” and there is no better example. Wright knew what he was doing. You see it in his face. You can see the power that suffuses his body. There is such power in that moment. There has been much discussion about whether Booker was fired from Lusco’s, or he left of his own volition. It’s a false squabble. If you do that he did, with such beauty and such brilliance, you can’t return to that job. He signed his resignation letter by way of that monologue.
Hospitality is such an interesting thing to think about…it is at once incredibly positive, and performative – in Wright’s life, he lived and ultimately died by the culture of Jim Crow and the false sense of welcome.
I wonder if Jordan Peale has seen Booker Wright’s monologue? The film Get Out is, in its own way, a sequel to Booker Wright’s story.
In your chapter exploring Michael Twitty’s re-creations of the cooking of enslaved people and Paula Deen’s outing as unreconstructed, you mention having dinner with Anthony Bourdain in 2014 as he filmed the Delta edition of “Parts Unknown.” His comment that the food at Lusco’s “tastes like racism” bothered me. It seemed like such a simplistic, meaningless thing to say. It’s dismissive of all who live in the South, including those he imagines himself defending. It also seems to obscure the violence that was and is at the core of racism.
Many responses to the South reflect that eternal “How could you live in a place like that?” question. I want people to see clearly the horrors of this place and the triumphs of this place. Yes, Lusco’s is a place with a taint of past racism. It’s also a place that Booker Wright, one of the most valiant and brave characters I’ve ever encountered in the South, worked. So to say this “tastes like racism” is to deny his agency. I hear the criticism already: Wright didn’t own that place, he just worked for the proprietors. But 50 years from now Lusco’s will be remembered as the place where Booker Wright worked. And where one of the most effective and brave monologues in the civil rights movement was spoken.
The book seemed to me to be SST at work, in a form that centers activism and change at its core. Our South, as you say, “rejects easy encapsulation.” What would you say about the current state of the field of Southern Studies, and the place of foodways therein?
I think the field is in the midst of fitful maturation. Defining books are entering the conversation. Marcie Ferris’s book The Edible South is a great example of that. Organizations like the Appalachian Food Summit and Foodways Texas have joined the SFA. The territory has been defined, the squabbles have begun. Out of this moment, a robust field of study will emerge.
One of most exciting facets of food studies and foodways is the complement across disciplines, and the complement across public programming and primary source scholarship. In this moment, when university administrators challenge their colleagues to think about public service as well as scholarship, foodways offers a range of possible models for the future.