The Mississippian John T. Edge is a columnist for the New York Times, contributor to numerous other publications, and a book author. He is perhaps best known, however, as founder and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance; it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that the great contemporary Southern chefs, driven by an interest in preserving and pushing forward their traditions, look to him for guidance and inspiration. In the following interview, Edge talks about his new food truck book, his goals for the Southern Foodways Alliance, and his hope — "as an American and not a Southerner" — that chefs around the country take more of an interest in their local cuisines.
Tell me about the new book.
It's a survey of modern American street food, all by way of profiles of vendors across the country and their iconic dishes. I attempt to link the old guard taco trucks with the new guard of chef trucks. This new generation owes a deep debt to the older taco trucks, which for generations were the backbone of fast eating in America.
What inspired you to come up with the project?
My own writing outside of the Southern Foodways Alliance for the past ten years has been about things beyond the South. But I learned how to think about food as a cultural product while thinking about and writing about the South, so there are certainly linkages between this book and my work with the SFA.
There are a few factors that contributed to this book happening: the very first magazine piece that I ever wrote was about how I worked the Lucky Dog cart for three nights in New Orleans, including New Year's Eve. It was inspired by Confederacy of Dunces. A variation of that piece appears at the end of the book on food trucks. I've always been fascinated by the possibilities and perils of street food.
Another point of inspiration is that about ten years ago, I opened my own hot dog cart with a friend here in Oxford. In an homage to that book, we called it Dunce Dogs. Our slogan, which my wife provided, "Think Genius. Eat Dunce." We did that for about eight months.
The third piece of the puzzle was that I went to Vietnam and traveled around. I remember being in Saigon and literally sitting on a curb with my feet in the gutter eating a banh mi sandwich. I thought to myself, "Why don't we have great street food like that in the U.S.?" I began to travel around the U.S. and started noticing that there was a movement bringing great street food across the country.
You mentioned "possibilities and perils" just now. Can you briefly describe what you mean by that?
I think street food offers us the possibility for a kind of democratic feed. I think of it as a way of offering honest, good food in a reasonable way — seemingly that everyone can afford. That's one of the promises. One of the perils of street foods is life on the street. I'm not scared of street food or fearful of disease, but working in the street, if you're a vendor, it's not an easy life. I came to appreciate that working the Lucky Dog cart in New Orleans. To wheel out a metal cart in the middle of the night with hundreds of dollars in your pocket down Bourbon Street is a pretty perilous undertaking.
Much has been written about food trucks — some might say too much. What do you hope distinguishes your book?
I'm not playing ass-tag with the latest trend [laughs]. I'm genuinely interested in that kind of food and the people that cook it and the people who feed their families by making that food. What I hope to do, as I mentioned before, is to put that third generation taco truck vendor on the same pedestal with the downshifting chef who is adapting something high concept to that setting.
What does "democratization" mean to you?
The democratization of our understanding of food has its basis in a lot of smart writers. There's Craig Claiborne, who offered a review of a coffee shop in the Times. And even Craig LaBan a few months ago gave a review to a banged up truck doing Americanized Chinese food. All that is to say that Michelin stars or any other designation are not the measure of great food. Patrons are the measure of great food, and patrons who return regularly and hold restaurants with wheels up to a particular standard.
Now let's talk about the Southern Foodways Alliance. I'll start by asking if this great amount of interest over the past year in high octane chefs like Sean Brock, John Currence, and Linton Hopkins has somehow made things easier?
I don't know how to answer that. Those chefs that you mentioned are part of the fabric of what we do, in large part because they buy into our documentation of working class cooks and artisans and farmers as the most integral piece of the puzzle in the South. They reinterpret and riff on these figures in such a way that honors them. I would say that there's a real synergy between their work and our work.
Perhaps a more precise way of phrasing that last question: has that attention, which really seems to be directed at those chefs, caused people to be more interested in and supportive of what you do?
I'll answer again in an oblique way [laughs]. The interest in the South has long been cyclical, whether it's the 1930s or 1960s or 1970s. I think what will be interesting is to see if this inspiration and interest in the South will translate into a strong interest in Midwestern cuisine in a few years or a rediscovery of New England cuisine in four years. That, to me, is the great possibility and hope. I would like to see chefs looking more at subregions of the United States instead of subregions of Italy for inspiration. That insecurity that has informed a lot of chefs and American food cultures — the idea that you must look to France, that you must look to Europe and take your one month trip there before opening your restaurant — might be on its way out.
I hope that the approach that rediscovers American cookery, not just cookery in the South, is what comes of this. I think that if we take advantage of this moment, being Americans and not Southerners, is the best outcome possible.
Do you think that's already happening?
I think there's a ways to go before that interest is really leveraged for the greater good. It's in process, I hope.
Who are some folks who represent hope in that department?
I think when Andrew Carmellini opened the Dutch, that was a great tip of the hat to the possibilities. If you think about a restaurateur like David Chang, who had ham plates from the American South on his menu from almost the beginning — that's a great way of talking about Southern food being relevant across the spectrum of restaurants. I think and hope that will play out throughout the rest of the country.
Back to the SFA. What are your goals and concerns thirteen years in? What are you thinking about these days?
Like any non-profit with a sense of responsibility, we have a ten year plan. I'll give you a couple of highlights: in terms of the future, I think the SFA has a real responsibility to complicate people's understandings of Southern food and the South. We've got a responsibility to channel their interest and ask them to think about issues of race, class, gender, and identity when they think about Southern food. It's not just about arriving here in search of the best fried chicken or barbecue or collard greens. We have a responsibility to challenge people both inside and outside the region to think about food as a cultural creation of people and place. That's our biggest goal, and one we're up to.
Beyond that, our mission is to document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of a changing American South. Our work is not to kind of preserve some Southern past in amber. This is a progressive organization that sees much in our Southern past that we don't want to preserve but rather change. If we move forward, it's important that we construct a portrait of the region that accurately portrays the region, that pays as much attention to Vietnamese crawfish cooks as it does to old-fashioned pit masters. That's what the South is, and it's our responsibility as an academic institution to do that.
I'm glad you mentioned the word "academic," since I was going to ask you about that aspect of it.
Yeah. I'm a University of Mississippi employee, and so is everyone that works with me. We have a seven person staff, we're self-funded — we run on an $850,000 budget, $50,000 of which comes from the University, and the rest we raise — but we're an academic institute. We're teaching classes to undergraduate and graduate students, like a course that analyzes back of the house and front of the house relationships through the book The Help and its film adaptation. One of our fundraising goals is to be able to hire another professor, and all of our oral histories have a strong academic backbone. There's no reason you can't do academic work and put a façade on it that has appeal. You can be playful and smart at the same time.
Finally, how challenging is it to run the organization and carry out what are its pretty ambitious goals?
You know, I don't want to make it sound like it's easy, but I believe that non-profits need not be underfunded or understaffed. I think that they should operate from a position of strength and not from a position of weakness, with their hand out. We've been very successful, and I think that with a solid financial plan and a good board of directors behind us, we'll be even more so. We've grown very slowly over the past thirteen years, and there's a lot of momentum building.