John T. Edge was born in Mississipi and still lives and writes there, so there was Deep South in his voice when he said, “I’ve got these two gerbil wheels in my head, and one says, ‘I love the South!’ and the other says, ‘I hate the South!'”
Edge travelled to Savannah to give a talk at the Savannah Book Festival about his 2017 book “The Potlikker Papers.” In an exclusive interview with District, Edge discussed what leads him to continue working in and writing about his home region. “This is a complicated place, deeply flawed and profoundly beautiful,” he said. “I write about this place because the issues that thwart the South – racism, gender inequity, class discrimination – are big picture humanities challenges that continue to fascinate me and compel me to action.”
In his presentation on Festival Saturday, the author explained that he turned to food to address these issues because southern food is highly distinctive, yet historically devalued by people from this region. “I would argue that’s in a large part because the people who were responsible for our food culture were women and they were people of color. And, historically in America, we devalue those people and their labor and their intelligence,” Edge said.
Of course, Edge is neither a woman or a person of color, but he is still strongly motivated by their stories.
“I’m a pasty white boy,” he said. “But I’m a pasty white boy who tries to pay attention to my region, who tries to make sense of it. Not out of some sense of guilt, but out of a responsibility to the place that I call home.”
That’s why “The Potlikker Papers” dives into food culture from the perspective of these unsung champions, telling the stories of the cooks, farmers and waiters, including the women who worked in the kitchen of Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah.
Like in any non-fiction work, Edge’s research was extensive. The author told District, “I’m a geek. It’s never enough. For a recent Garden & Gun ‘Fork in the Road’ column on the soul food café Ms. Girlee’s in Memphis, I read a 400-page beast of a book on the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike of 1968, perused oral histories from that era and made three trips to the restaurant.”
During his presentation, Edge said that he paid even more attention to his research on “The Potlikker Papers.” During the years he spent researching the book, he tried to get as close to every original source as possible. If the farmer, cook or subject otherwise in question was no longer living, Edge sought out friends and family members to learn about the subject’s history and experiences from someone who was close to them at that time.
“I’m looking for old stories to tell in new ways. Stories with tension. Stories about food that reveal big truths,” Edge said. “That sounds a little pompous. But I mean it. Writing about food offers me access to writing about life.”
Though the lives Edge chronicled are diverse, they are united, like all of us in the South, by food – by okra and fried chicken and potlikker.
By Shelby Loebker.