John T. Edge is a member of the food writing culinoscenti, although he would blush to read that assessment — perhaps not least because of the awkward neologism. But how else should I describe someone who combines a knowledge of food and culture with insight into the combination and an ability to articulate that knowledge and insight? He, along with Calvin Trillan, Russ Parsons, Michael Ruhlman, and a few others, is one of the best food writers in the business and his latest book, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lovers Guide to the South, reflects that skill.
Edge focuses on American food and past books include Donuts: An American Passion and Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story. But he’s also a Southerner, born and bred in Clinton, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. He’s currently the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that, “celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South.” Besides his books, Edge writes for the Atlanta Constitution, Gourmet, the New York Times and other publications.
In his introduction to Southern Belly Edge writes: “This is a very subjective work… In defining what constitutes the South, I ignored matters of Confederate or Union affiliation during the Civil War or mapping based on where the kudzu grows…” The author’s South is studded with buildings like Chuck’s Bar-B-Que where, “salvation and sin coexist in a cinder-block building,” and populated by people like Dana Berlin Strange who keeps a jar of pickled okra around “for educational purposes,” and who opened a café named Jestine’s Kitchen after the black woman who was her family’s housekeeper and who, in a throwback to the Old South, raised her.
Southern Belly is an odd book. Organized by state, it presents a huge collection of one- to two-page essays on places to eat from Virginia in the Southern north to East Texas in the Southern southwest. These are not so much reviews as vignettes of an eating experience, providing insight into the particular establishment’s history, cuisine, and the people who eat and work there. For instance, according to Maurice Bessinger who runs the Piggie Park barbeque joint, God was the first pitmaster: “All the Old Testament sacrifices were cooked with wood, and that was ordained by God.”
Edge tells me he got into writing because he had an opinion and fell in love with his own byline and that he started writing about food as a backdoor approach to bigger topics like race and class and, clearly, culture. His passion is apparent and he makes no claims of objectivity about the content. And yet, he brings a clear eye for the telling detail, an ability to illustrate deftly with a turn of phrase, and a way of offering conclusions and asking questions between the lines of text that infuse Southern Belly with more content than you at first expect. In fact, after reading the first half of the first chapter (Alabama) I skipped ahead to Tennessee. Completing it, though, I’d found the rhythm in the stories, which rock like an old blues singer, and returned to the beginning to read the entire book at a rate of eight or nine barbeque pits, fried chicken stands, and meat-n-threes each evening before turning off the light and going to sleep, my mind filled with imagined odors and the sound of screen doors slamming shut behind me.
Southern Belly is food writing at its best because it’s not so much about food as about a culture: where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. When we take our kids to McDonald’s or Krystal or Litton’s, we’re teaching them about our culture and our values in the grand sense and the personal sense. Follow Edge’s lead and you may find that Litton’s, or even Glo’s place, “a roadside trailer with three folding tables,” is a lesson not just about Southern food, but about the values you want to pass on.
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