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John T. Edge: Why Southern Food Matters

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Photos: Garden & Gun

Got a case of Southern envy? Wish you understood the fine art of keeping that plaid bow-tie immaculate while eating whole hog barbecue? How to make perfect biscuits without breaking a sweat? How to tell truly fantastic bourbon from swill? Garden & Gun has your back with their first ever book, The Southerner's Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life. Below, in an Eater exclusive excerpt, SFA president/Garden & Gun columnist/Southern food expert John T. Edge explains the importance of the South's cuisine today. The Southerner's Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life, edited by Dave DiBenedetto, comes out from HarperWave on October 29 (pre-order on Amazon).

John T. Edge: Why Southern Food Matters

In a region bound by a tragic past, we Southerners find common purpose in shared creations. Like music. Like art. Like food. In a region where our relationships to various symbols have long been problematic, our beloved provincial dishes — from pulled-pork barbecue to fried chicken drizzled with honey, from hoppin' John capped with chow-chow to blue-crab gumbo thickened with dried sassafras — serve as unifying totems of people and place.

Our beloved provincial dishes serve as unifying totems of people and place.

Our relationship to food is complicated here. Agriculture is one of the reasons people left the region during the Great Migration of the early and mid-twentieth century. For many poor whites and blacks of previous generations, farm life meant toil, poverty, and penury. Now our agricultural legacies and the strength of our honest farm-to-table bonds are drawing people back to the region.

The South was once the nation's number-one economic problem. Families went without food. Babies from Appalachia and the Delta, with distended bellies and listless eyes, were television poster children for the Great Society poverty initiatives of the 1960s. Now the South is the nation's number-one obesity problem. And many families, raised on a diet of double-crust freeze-case pizzas, take in too much of the wrong kind of food.

Our attitudes about Southern food ways are not static. Like all expressions of culture, they evolve.

Insiders and outsiders alike long dismissed Southern food as grits, greens, and grease. "Southern cooking has been perverted by slatterns with a greasy skillet," wrote Atlantan Ralph McGill back in the 1940s. Singer Bette Midler once told a Charleston, South Carolina audience in the 1980s that grits tasted like "buttered kitty litter." And both were, to a certain degree, right.

Southern cookery went off the tracks for a while. We bought into the faster-cheaper-better industrial-food mantra. We ditched lard-frizzled wedges of cornbread in favor of slices of bagged white bread with the texture of a wasp nest. We quit putting up our own summer peaches and began buying canned free-stones from the West Coast.

But a correction is afoot. A slow and steady return to the old ways and the old truths, filtered through new imperatives. Over the past several decades, writers like Virginia's Edna Lewis and Tennessee's John Edgerton, along with chefs like Alabama's Frank Stitt and North Carolina's Ben Barker, have shaped a New Southern Cuisine, reliant on local farmers and artisans, dependent on traditional methods and practices, reflective of all contributors to the canon, especially the peoples of African descent who previously got short shrift.

Southern food had emerged as our pan-national cuisine.

Southern food had emerged as our pan-national cuisine. Hipsters from Brooklyn now descend on our mountain precincts in search of chocolate gravy, an Appalachian dish now falling out of favor in Kentucky, where it was once a Saturday-morning standard. Hippies from Berkeley now go questing for the last fish muddle in eastern North Carolina, hoping against hope to meet the old codger who still cooks his onions down in rendered salt pork. Emboldened by the views of outlanders, Southerners have begun to see the value in their own cookery, to comprehend that polenta is just grits with a mellifluous Italian accent.

After a long fallow period, the South is reclaiming its culinary heritage, paying down debts of pleasure that have accrued over generations. We now celebrate the pit masters who have long stoked our fires and flipped our hogs. We now honor the farmers who began saving our seeds long before we began referring to certain vegetables as heirlooms.

Southern food, as we know it today, is the potlikker and pone of enslaved Africans and their progeny. It's the ham-shawled guinea hen of plantation gentry and their country-club dynasts. It's the cracker-topped and canned-soup-thickened casserole served by working-class cooks and their sires. It's the okra-threaded gumbo, once stirred in back-of-town cottages by Creoles of color, now served by white-toqued chefs in tony restaurants.

The state of the Southern Food Nation is good. Our cookery is vital and progressive. Our best meals, our best rewarding times at the table, lie ahead.

· The Southerner's Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life [Amazon]
· All John T. Edge Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Garden Gun Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Book Club Coverage on Eater [-E-]