SCAD’s final installation of its Art of the Mind lecture series took place Wednesday, May 24 at Alexander Hall with a discussion from Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge. Edge read from his latest book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South,” and reflected upon the influence and role of Southern cuisine in American history.
Edge, a contributor to Garden & Gun magazine, discussed how southerners shaped America’s culinary identity, as well as how race relations have influenced the region’s food culture throughout the last six decades.
Writing Professor Harrison Scott Key was one of two speakers to introduce Edge. Key first introduced Executive Chef of The Grey, Mashama Bailey, who then introduced Edge.
“I stand before you a very confused man,” Key started. “I am called a southern writer by many but I’m not sure what that means anymore. This is good news I think. We’re ignorant of much in the South, but we know about sin even when we try hard to forget. Writers like John T. are helping us remember by looking at what’s on the supper table.”
Bailey, who opened The Grey with John O. Morisano in late 2014, recounted how she reached out to Edge for advice about the Savannah food scene.
“I don’t know John T. Edge very well,” Bailey said. “We met via email in 2014, the same that The Grey in Savannah opened. I didn’t know anyone in Savannah, let alone the South. When I moved here, my only confidants were my business partner and his wife, and the three of us had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
Bailey described how when she first contacted Edge, she had only been in Georgia for a few months. She told him who she was, why she came to Georgia and how she admired him and his work with the Southern Food Alliance (SFA).
“But I talked about my experiences and how we wanted to add something to the Southern food conversation,” Bailey said. “I concluded my email by extending him an invitation to the opening of The Grey slated for sometime in October. A few days later, John T. Edge respectfully declined my invitation to our opening due to conflicts with the SFA, but he was happy about us being in Savannah, and he thanked me for the kind words and the good note. He also wondered if we would be interested in becoming members of the SFA. Later that week we joined.”
Shortly after this digital interaction, Bailey sent a follow-up email to Edge, but this time, she specifically asked for his help.
“I needed contacts, and I needed to know where to buy good food,” Bailey said. “We’re surrounded by it, but it’s so hidden and I just needed a friend. So he responded with an open dialogue. John T. and the SFA have included The Grey in many things that followed that email introduction.”
Following Bailey’s introduction, Edge took the podium and began is Southern food conversation. For the next 40 minutes, Edge took his audience on a swift and engaging tour of the South, its history and the role food played throughout that timeframe.
“I came here wanting to come here because of the example set by Mashama [Bailey] and John Morisano,” Edge said. “I came here because I’m a Georgia boy. I grew up down the road in Clinton, Georgia, just outside of Macon, and to come back to Georgia is its own kind of homecoming and I feel it in the room and I appreciate the warmth of the room.”
The South, as Edge explained, has evolved dramatically over the last 60 years, as Edge details in his book.
“Mashama talked about change and progress,” Edge said. “The South of the 60 years of the story I tell, 1955 to 2015, has changed briskly. It’s changed fitfully too. We’ve backslid a whole bunch, and yet the arc is long. Food is one of the ways to apprehend that arc, and that’s what I’ve attempted with this book.”
Throughout Edge’s lecture, he discussed the influence of Southern cooks, particularly women who made an impact in the Southern community. At one point, Edge mentioned Georgia Gilmore, a cook in Montgomery, Alabama who participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955.
“When Dr. [Martin Luther] King stepped to the stage as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, when Rosa Parks stepped to the stage to applause for refusing to step to the back of the bus, Georgia Gilmore was at that first meeting,” Edge said. “She recognized like so many African American women that . . . if the cooks and maids of Montgomery were willing to quit the buses of Montgomery, the cooks and maids of Montgomery, to drive this alternate transportation system, would need gas in the cars, gas in the station wagons, would need new breaks as those station wagons traversed Montgomery, delivering the black cooks and maids of Montgomery to their jobs.”
Edge explained Gilmore’s involvement in this historical movement and her occupation as a cook made her the perfect subject for the beginning of his book.
“Georgia Gilmore was a fierce and bright and demanding woman,” Edge said. “Before she became a cook, she literally laid tracks on the railroad. Georgia Gilmore was a midwife. Georgia Gilmore used the skills she learned cooking both for her black family and for white families for whom she cooked and white restaurants where she cooked. She used those skills to leverage change in the South and she is the beginning of my book and the beginning of change in the American South.”