Scholar John T. Edge celebrates the glories of Dixie cuisine
BY AUDRA D.S. BURCH
John T. Edge walked into the man’s library and was absorbing all the beautiful books on Southern cooking and thinking that life is good when your culture has made it into print, all fancy like. He turned to the books again and again ’cause the titles were so dang interesting, and soon his fascination became slightly jarring — and, would it be too dramatic to insinuate, borderline criminal?
The library’s owner thinks not.
”I thought he was fixing to rob me,” says John Egerton, culinary scribe, godfather of regional food studies and self-described septuagenarian South culturalist.
It was in the ’90s, and Edge was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. ”He started really staring at my bookshelves and quoting all this stuff back to me, and he was sizing me up,” Egerton says. “But all he really wanted was my recipes.”
The story still tickles the old man; he is most delighted to have found a way to imbue Edge’s delicious culinary career — his uncompromising, unapologetic passion for Southern cooking and the culture surrounding it — with a jail-time spin.
”But seriously, John is a good guy. He came along at a time when the South really needed him,” says Egerton, still snickering, but adding enough bass to sound rather important.
“He did to Southern food what Robert Johnson or Chet Atkins did to Southern music or what William Faulkner or Lee Smith did to Southern writing. He gave us a reason to feel good about coming from here.”
Which is to say that Edge, drawing on his own Dixie roots, appetite for down-home cooking and proper education, commodified the idea that to understand the South is to understand its food, all that stuff cooked up in backyards, juke joints and Mama’s kitchen. His is a kaleidoscopic mission: preserve and protect our Southern delicacies for they are precious; introduce them to the microwave generation as a hip retro cuisine; give it the kind of polish that will invite broad acceptance.
”Food tells us who we are, tells us something about our social, political, economic ways,” Edge says this day over muffins at Oxford’s Bottletree Bakery, itself a window into Southern culture. “Food is a banner we Southerners can hang on to.”
John T. is pronounced ”johntee,” quickly dispensing with the first name and saving all the sugar and drawl for the initial. He bellies up to the counter at the Bottletree, stopping to adjust his glasses, and begins firing off e-mails on his Palm Pilot, using brand-new technology to chat about traditional cooking without a whit of irony.
Edge, 42, has emerged as the voice of Southern foodways. His aw-shucks manner and scholarship have lured many serious thinkers into studying the finer points of cuisine and culture. Officially, he heads the university’s Southern Foodways Alliance. It is a kind of incubator, now on the national radar, that guides great eaters and thinkers beyond the table; it holds an annual conference that has become a celebrity event in the food world.
The center’s mission is to celebrate, preserve and promote the diverse food culture of the American South, which could range from the gospel of barbecue to sweet, sweet tea to regional battles over the highly contested source of customs to the strange and persistent intersection of race and food.
”Food is one of the great shared creations of the South,” says Edge. ”It offers a nonthreatening entree into a discussion about race. You start off talking about okra then you ask how it got on the plate and suddenly you are talking about race,” he says earnestly. “You can get to the big stuff pretty quickly.”
Which is the most profound reason Edge has found himself shepherding a flock — civil-rights leaders, professors and regular folk — to dining tables across the South. Last year, the 40th anniversary of desegregation, Edge’s followers met in Birmingham and Oxford.
He has written a series of books celebrating iconic foods — Fried Chicken, Apple Pie and the upcoming Burgers & Fries (not exclusively Southern but certainly iconic). The research required him to eat his way across much of the nation, but more importantly, to take the time to meet the people behind the recipes.
”John is quite the raconteur. He loves the Southern table and he knows food, loves food and most importantly understands food,” says Elizabeth Williams, who heads the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. “He can talk about it in a way that is both earthy and also intellectual.”
Edge grew up an only child in a farmhouse once owned by a Confederate general in Clinton, Ga., population 50 or so, a stop along U.S. Highway 129 on the way to Macon. He is of headstrong stock — parents who were as outspoken as they were progressive. His mother quit the Methodist Church when the preacher banned dancing and once went to a Klan rally to see if any of the hooded were neighbors. Edge remembers the hurt and anger he felt as a boy when his black friend was kicked out of a swimming pool. He was forbidden, too — by his outraged parents.
”I came up near the end of the Civil Rights movement. My mother was a social intellect. I read Flannery O’Conner. I spent a lot of time trying to figure what the hell this was all about,” he says. “This was the beginning of my internal dialogue about the South.”
It would not become public for many years. Edge went off to Athens and the University of Georgia, where he spent much of time personifying the characters in Animal House. “I was 17 and was let loose on a campus in a big city where they had beer served in half-gallons.”
THE 5-YEAR PLAN
Edge heartily indulged, and after five years plus, left degreeless. Still, he landed a job in Atlanta at a business analysis firm, made a plump salary, moved into a hip neighborhood and ate good food all over town.
He felt bad about not finishing school, about wasting his father’s federal-probation-officer salary and savings. So nearly 10 years after starting at Georgia, Edge gave up the yuppie life. He sold his house and traded in his car for a ’66 Plymouth convertible — because isn’t that the kind of car in which you tool around looking for the soul of the South?
He moved into an apartment in Oxford and enrolled at Ole Miss, buoyed by an article he’d read on the merits of its Center for the Study of Southern Culture. (The Foodways Alliance is now a branch of the center.)
As a Southern Studies major, Edge got to empty out all those strange conversations, observations and conflicts in his head about home. Through the academic filter, he came to explore and interpret Southernness.
”I wanted desperately to understand my region, the good and the bad, and my conflicted sense of it,” he says.
Edge was happily immersing himself in the South when he happened upon an article about culinary anthropology. At that rather unassuming moment his career was decided.
`LOOK IN THE YARD’
”You want to know about John Tee? I invited you to go to his home, walk to the back and just look in the yard,” says Curtis Wilkie, neighbor, fellow Southern theoretician and journalism professor at Ole Miss. “There are a whole lot of grills, smokers and other cooking stuff. He has one of those fancy kitchens, too. I’m telling you there is more cooking stuff than you have ever seen.”
Wilkie and Edge live in a delightful neighborhood near the university in homes that have front porches. It’s skipping distance from the very patch where Faulkner played as a child. Edge says there’s something poetic about that.
He and his wife, Blair, have filled their house with folk art and 3-year-old son Jess. All those books about fried chicken and apple pie bought Edge his very own front porch, the requisite resting station where Southerners like to sit and be Southern.
They say John Tee is a great cook. They say he makes magic in his kitchen, throws killer parties. (Last fall’s soirée was interrupted by police, and Edge and Wilkie are fairly certain they know the neighborhood snitch behind that.)
Which is actually beside the point. The truth is, Edge occupies a huge chunk of Southern Americana because he is so damned accessible. He is just at home with the stiff people droning on about culinary academics as the cooks in the kitchens as the family and friends at his backyard bashes. His take on food, ultimately how it came to define and sometimes divide the social South, is the sum of all those experiences and more. He gets it.
”Really all you have to say is John Tee knows food,” says Williams. “That’s it.”