Writer John T. Edge is a professional “observer of the South,” and in The Potlikker Papers, his “food history of the modern South,” he looks at the ways in which the South’s culinary traditions are inextricably linked with its history. On a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, Edge explained to hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito the issues that arise when restaurateurs don’t understand this complex relationship.
There are dishonest, trend-surfing restaurants, Edge says, that intend to sell the mythos of the South. It’s a phenomenon that began in the late 1960s in Southern states, possibly in reaction to the Civil Rights movement, and is apparent today in restaurants outside of the region. “You see restaurants that would mount a confederate cannon on the awning and offer you steaks that are Lincoln-ized, or Sherman-ized, or Stonewalled,” Edge says. He refers to this as a “kind of pageantry of the Old South, repackaged for a more modern era.”
To use the South as a theme in this way without acknowledging its past — a past obviously fraught with serious race and class issues — is, quite simply, wrong. Edge explains: “If you're going to work in the broad rubric of Southern cultural outputs, if you're going to sing Southern music, if you're going to craft Southern food, you've got to have a handle on the history that undergirds it because it's that history you're selling as much as that food.”
It’s not impossible to serve Southern food outside of the South, but it must be done respectfully, Edge says. He names Michigan restaurant Zingerman’s Roadhouse as an example of one that successfully tells stories of the South through its food without becoming a Southern-themed restaurant. For all others, Edge has this to say: “If the aspiring restaurateur begins throwing around words like ‘dixie’ and ‘plantation,’ and you don't know what it is you're messing with, you're ready for a downfall, and I'm willing to bring it to you.” He adds, “This is a tragic place, from which I hail, with a troubling and ultimately triumphant history. If you want to trade in the tropes of my place, please dig in and understand my place a little.”
Hear the complete interview with John T. Edge as he discusses welcoming new arrivals to the South, the region’s multi-cultural future, and why food is power. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.