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John T. Edge on Race and the Redemptive Power of Food

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John T. Edge with his friends, James Dean, Elvis and a burger.
John T. Edge with his friends, James Dean, Elvis and a burger.
Photo: MPB

As founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Mississippian John T. Edge not only writes about food thoughtfully but thinks about food in a way as far removed from vapid food porn as one can get. His idea of food as folklore and social fabric is often given lip service but is rarely given more. Edge and the SFA, on the other hand, have collected over 400 oral histories from the South on topics from barbecue to Croatian shrimping in Mississippi.

In the 50s, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax traveled the South recording forgotten bluesmen. Lomax, of course, was instrumental to the Folk Revival of the 60s. Do you see a connection between what Lomax did and what you're doing?
There is linkage between that documentary work he did and the documentary work we're doing. But I think there is a larger linkage right now with food-obsessed kids in their twenties. In the folk revival in the 60s, there were the hipster kids of that era who went to Brown, Yale, Harvard, or whatever the case might be, who came South to sit at the foot of [country blues singer and guitarist] Missisippi John Hurt. What we're finding now is that same aged hipster is coming South but instead of sitting at the feet of an agéd bluesman, they're sitting at the feet of a barbecue pitmaster or a fried chicken cook. It's that kind of intergenerational communication that's happening all over again.

It's both intergenerational but also interracial. Socio-economically there's a big difference too.
Your observation is apt. But there's a democracy in what we're doing that the stories that we are capturing and the way we're sharing them with the digital advantage we have now. It's not as though all the stuff is captured on a reel-to-reel and filed away somewhere. Every single one of our oral histories is accessible in full form with an unedited 40-page transcript. The relationship between documentarian and documentary subject has evolved for us. Now it's about democracy. It's about how to manage that line between documenting the life of an individual and befriending that individual.

I'm not familiar with befriending anyone. But would you say this new model is closer to befriending?
There's a knowledge of the self-interest involved that wasn't there before. When Amy goes out to document someone's life story, the feedback for that person who she profiles is quicker. There is this tape loop where Amy does documentary work, Amy send them back a photograph and the transcript, the transcripts goes on the web, people read the transcript, people in that person's home town read the transcript and they begin to see the value of that person and of their life's work. Then the feedback comes back to the person.

You had mentioned Northern hipsters heading South to sit at the feet of bluesmen and now barbecue pitmasters. Of course that has many benefits, after all Lomax brought people like Mississippi Fred McDowell fame and renown but it still seems to be a vexed relationship. It's a strange fetishization, almost cultural carpetbagging. When the SFA does field work, do you use Southerners to offset that effect?
As much as we can, we use researchers who are part of that community but we fail at that. Fails is too harsh a criticism but we are cognizant of our failings in that arena. Sometimes there are barriers of race. We have a white girl sitting down with an elderly African American man. Do we get everything that's possible? Do we get the most honest appraisal of that person's life's work? Is there a racial barrier? Yeah, we're aware of it yeah. Can we get past it? I don't know.

The great opportunity of the SFA is to help people realize that through food you can get at the big stuff, you can get at the stuff that Faulkner called life's "eternal verities": race, class, gender. You can realize those fulcrums of the South shaped Southern food ways. It isn't all about sourcing your pig locally and feeding it on peanuts. It's about Africans being transported to this place and transforming Native American ingredients in complement with people from Western Europe. It's about facing that reality head on. We've got to tell a story in such a way that it doesn't force people to think about race but certainly frames the dialogue about Southern food in such a way that they confront race.

Do you think the bandwidth to deal with such difficult issues is increasing in measure with the renewed interest in Southern food?
The reality of race in the South means that that burden will be long upon us. We have to deal with race in a way the rest of the country doesn't have to because of our peculiar history. We have to deal with it.

You spoke about the loop of feedback getting smaller and how people are realizing their self-worth through it. Do you think it's akin to when a species becomes endangered and everyone has an increased level of care? That is, is the bedrock of Southern foodways diminishing even as its popularity in widespread culture grows?
I think that idea that bedrock Southern cultures is diminishing fixes culture in some time, usually in some time past. But culture isn't static. It's evolutionary. Especially in the South I care about that. My ideal of the South is not — thank God — 1865. I'd think of that as the nadir. When I think about the apex, it's 1965, when the good guys won. But it's not fixed in either time. This idea of a South diminished?

You see the South rising.
Don't say that. That's the old language. The South rising makes the South seem an aggressive force. It makes me think of all the neo-Confederate souls who I have little respect for.

I was only kidding.
Yeah I know but you're talking to me. I'm sitting here in Oxford, Mississippi in a time when the University just decided on a new mascot. Here a little symbol, like the mascot, has resonance. I'm touchy. Yeah.

So surely culture is a dynamic thing and culinary culture is as well. At the same time it seems that SFA is dedicated to preserving traditions that might be lost in the shuffle or fading away. There are not always things that are of a time past. The oral history project Francis Lam did for us on the Mississippi Gulf coast looking at Vietnamese and Croatian immigrants.. It's not as if he's plumbing the depths of Mississippi history to look for the original settlers.

You mentioned earlier Neo-confederates, do they fall wildly outside of your scope? Food can obviously bring people together. Are you interested as well in how it can drive people apart?
Sure. In a book I admire called Celebrating the Third Place by a guy named Ray Oldenburg, he writes about the third place in America. Not work. Not home. A tavern, a bar a restaurant. These places create a community where unrelated people relate as equals. We often talk about that with great fondness.

If you look at the Civil Rights Movement and think about the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and how his lieutenants eating at Paschal's or Aleck's Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta and planning marches resulting in civil rights advances, those are examples are how restaurants and food can be an incubator of good. But conversely if you look at some of the signal if you look at moments Lestor Maddox who in essence who took a stand in a lunch room door to stave off the integration of his restaurant, the Pickrick in Atlanta, he leveraged food and community for evil. Same thing, a lynching of Lemuel Penn outside of Athens, Georgia, about the same era as Maddox, was hatched and celebrated at a restaurant called the Open House in Athens. If you take a group of good-hearted people, open to communal experience and put them in a room, good things happen. If you take a bunch of sonuvabitches and put them in a room, bad things happen.

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