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How John T. Edge Ate His Way to the Top of the Food Chain
There is no drawl, no dripping molasses, just the occasional expanded vowel when John T. Edge talks. This is more about verbal cadence. The tempo of his talk lulls one to listen more acutely in order to separate his “lyrics” from some imaginary chorus of cicadas that set his conversation to music in your mind.
John T. Edge is an eater, writer, educator, and a Southern gentleman. The gentleman observation is of the highest order, as it seems to permeate everything about him beginning with his speech, which is eloquent and smart, yet easy. He is polite, and not in a suck-up, I-learned-this-at-prep school fashion. Rather, one gets the sense that his manners are so innate that he actually acquired them the old-fashioned way – from his mama, at home in Clinton, GA where he grew up.
So, how might his brand of gentility manifest in today’s fast and interactive world? In a recent email it took the form of a distinctive sign off: “in haste,” which politely said so much more, and so much less than, “gotta run, or off to an appointment,” or worse, no excuse at all. His sign off also might have covered such sins (there were none) as “from my Blackberry, pardon any typos,” which loosely translates for some as: I’m not really as stupid as this message makes me look.
“To call John T. Edge a food writer is like saying Herman Melville wrote booklets on fishing.” – Jack Pendarvis
As an educator and writer, John T’s knowledge of food — and Southern foodways, in particular, is as rich and delicious as sausage gravy. He generously shares specifics, as I suspect he shares the food he knows and loves. He affably opines aplenty, but is gracious, and not preachy, calling to mind the title of his second book, A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South. The cookbook rendered a nomination for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, just one of four nominations he has received from the esteemed foodie Foundation, including the ultimate — the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. These accolades, among others contributed to his recent induction in to Beard’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Edge has written a number of books, edited several others, contributed to The New York Times; is a contributing editor at Gourmet, a longtime columnist for the Oxford American, and has served as a culinary curator for NPR’s All Things Considered.
Edges’ intimate knowledge of Southern food and the culture that surrounds it has evolved beyond mere culinary data into ever more insight about the people, places and history of the South. It’s what happens when knowledge matures into wisdom. One especially realizes the ripened complexity of his perceptions and observations when discussions turn to Southern food and its role in race relations.
“Race is the great vexing issue of the South,” says Edge. “You can use many avenues of approach to think about race in the South. Food is a method to get at race in a non-threatening way. It’s creatively sneaky. I hope to pull someone in with good storytelling,” he adds. (A splendid, yet haunting example of good storytelling around food and race can be found in Edges’ story about an Athens, GA diner and its 60’s era connection to the Ku Klux Klan. See Open House.)
Beyond Bacon and Grits
Today, Edge is venturing north of – and west of, the Mason-Dixon to examine modern American street food, with Truck Food Nation, a cookbook to be published next year by Workman. His descriptions of the project, along with Angie Mosier’s photographs, suggest that this book is all about eating, not dining. So, what exactly is truck food? The answer is the taco truck, the sandwich cart, or the trailer. In other words: the foodstuff of heaven and heartburn. Believe it or not, there are actual recipes for these gastronomic gems.
“At the center of the discussion [of Truck Food Nation] is economical food and the immigrant influence and its effects on American culture,” says Edge. “I’m focusing on 12 places across the country. I love the connectivity. Each chapter is a street scene; each place becomes its own nexus for cultural exchange.”
As a culinary-cultural-connoisseur, Edge has parlayed earlier freelance contributions penned for The New York Times into a monthly series-writing gig for the Times, titled, United Tastes. The series explores the ongoing evolution in American cuisine. John T filed his first in the series piece from Springfield, MO, which essentially, and surprisingly, turns out to be the cashew-chicken capitol of the country. The second story focused on “cheater” biscuits, in which Edge basically gives Southern hostesses permission to dupe with dough. (“Contrary to what traditionalists might want outlanders to believe, though, freezer-case biscuits and rolls, especially par-baked versions that require no more than a quick brown in a hot oven, have been openly and often passionately adopted by Southerners with an elastic concept of what constitutes home cooking.” Next up is an account of… it’s a secret, but sure to be saucy.
While John T is clearly, and successfully expanding his food-writing menu, his Southern roots and expertise are still sought by Yanks, Midwesterners, New Englanders, folks as far away as LA; and transplanted Southerners. The New York Times Diner’s Journal blog is peppered with regional specialty questions for John T.: “John T, what’s your favorite Southern biscuit recipe? I can’t seem to master biscuits. And, “Where do I go for authentic boudin in Cajun country?” Or, “Is there a difference between country and chicken fried steak? And is one considered more authentically Southern?”
Emerging at the top of the food chain.
He has the answers, but how did he learn them? How exactly did he emerge at the top of the food chain? Unlike quick-rising yeast rolls, he did not rise overnight. In fact, John T. Edges’ rise was more like regular yeast where the cells are alive but dormant and need to be fed, and then ultimately awakened by a little heat into a burst of energy. His own burst of energy toward a different vocation came from time endured as “corporate swine.” (His description) To continue the metaphor, John T apparently would prefer to eat swine — than be swine — and was sufficiently “boar-ed” into going back to school. He had already partied (and pledged) at UGA in Athens as an undergraduate, but this time selected Ole Miss in Oxford to complete his degree. Along the way, he took the might scary step of self-publishing his first book, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South, which has since been revised and republished by Algonquin.
Edge stayed in Oxford to get a master’s degree from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and remains there today where he lives with artist-poet-wife, Blair Hobbs and their son. His acclaimed book, A Gracious Plenty, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons was a graduate school project.
In 1999, the very newly founded Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) hired Edge as the non-profit’s first Director. Ten years later, he still leads the organization from his office in Oxford at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. SFA was the inspiration of author and activist, John Egerton who galvanized a group of like-minded, and like-eating folk to document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the American South. Today, the highly inclusive organization hosts an annual “Taste of the South” celebration, which in 2010 will be held at Tennessee’s acclaimed Blackberry Farm. They also host many other events, symposiums, field trips and even a Potlikker Film Fest. These days, the once quirky, catfish lovin’ conclave boasting bumper stickers with sayings such as: “Make Cornbread, Not War” has migrated into the foodie mainstream.
“We’ve been at this for ten years now. It’s interesting as we move from being insurgent to part of the establishment,” says Edge. He wryly adds: “But, we’ll continue to decorate our events with the bacon tree.”
The Atlantic Monthly dubbed the SFA, “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.”
Take that Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs.
Q&A with John T. Edge:
• Q: “What’s always in your pantry, your fridge and kitchen?”
• A: “Seasoning Salt from The Burger House in Dallas; Bourbon barreled smoked paprika, jugs of olive oil and a whole lot of bacon from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. We have some nice cheese from Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Alabama, and Marshall’s Frozen Biscuits, from Mobile. I wrote about the biscuits recently in my New York Times series, United Tastes.”
• Q: “ Do you keep a tin of bacon grease?”
• A: “My mama kept one.”
• Q: “Can you cook, or do you just eat?”
• A: Laughter laced with a (polite) hint of derisiveness precedes his answer. “I can cook.”
• Q: “What do you cook?”
• A: “We’ve been eating a lot of flat iron steak lately. We also eat a heck of a lot a greens, collards, turnips, mustard, arugula. Our son – at age three – eats the hell outta turnips. Any kind a greens, we’ll eat ‘em. I guess this is informed by our roots, a tribute… there’s something about the bitter tonic of greens. We make Frank Stitts white bean and collards gratin a good bit. We trash it up a bit by using canned beans.
• Q: “Sounds good. Where can I get the recipe?”
• A: “It’s in his first book, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.
• Q: “So who does the everyday cooking?”
• A: “My wife, Blair takes on more of the daily cooking. She has a strong inclination toward caring for the family. She makes a great pizza in a cast iron pizza pan.”
• Q: “So you do the cooking for guests?”
• A: “We conceive the menus together. We did that just the other night over cocktails.”
• Q: “What food trends are you seeing?”
• A: “I don’t pay much attention to them. I’d say overall that I’m a supporter of Southerners realizing the value of their own food culture. The restaurants and chefs are embracing this. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to cook the best fried chicken I can’, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m from the South and my purpose in life is to prepare the best Pad Thai.’”
• Q: “What effect is the economy having on how Southerners cook?”
• A: “This economy has catalyzed us back to basics. We’ve quit trucking in so much damn food. There’s a focus on back of the stove foods like beans, pilau [pronounced perloo], and greens. Pot food. Out of adversity comes this flowering of creativity rendering something frugal and something great.”
• Q: “You’ve expanded beyond Southern food. Why?”
• A: I deeply love the South, but I also have a lot of curiosity about our country and the icons of American food in our culture. I’m doing the New York Times series, United Tastes, and I’m really lucky to get to do this right now. Hank Klibanoff and Susan Puckett [formerly] at the AJC really gave me my newspaper writing start.
• Q: “So tell me some Southern Chefs to watch.”
• A: “There’s so many. Specifically, Atlanta has come into its’ own. Scott Peacock and Stephen Satterfield [Watershed], Anne Quatrano, [Bacchanalia], Linton Hopkins, [Restaurant Eugene], Joe Truex [Repast], Shaun Doty [Shaun’s], Billy Allin [Cakes and Ale]. There’s a good dozen. Atlanta has realized its value as a place that celebrates historically Southern food. It’s not just provincial. It’s as good as anywhere.”
• Q: “Where else? Other Southern cities and chefs?”
• A: “ All across the South there’s a real sense of ferment in cookery. There’s Ashley Christensen at Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. She’s taken over an old diner and is doing riffs on burgers and pimento cheese, elevating them. And, Tandy Wilson in Nashville [City House], Lee Richardson in Little Rock [Ashley’s], John B. Shields and Karen Urie are doing seasonally focused foods at Town House [Chilhowie, VA], Sean Brock at McCrady’s in Charleston, Mike Lata at Fig [Charleston], Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill [Charleston], and Ken Vedrinski [Trattoria Luca, Charleston]. I’m going to Charleston in a couple of weeks and looking forward to going to Ken’s new place.
Images of of John T. Edge In order: Yvonne Boyd; Angie Mosier;
Image from Truck Food Nation: Angie Mosier; Catfish/Ribs poster: Southern Foodways Alliance
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