book review / culture

Southern History, Deep Fried

John T. Edge's "The Potlikker Papers" looks at multiculturalism, conflict, and civil rights in the American South—all through the history of the region's food.
It was 1838, and the young Englishman Philip Henry Gosse couldn’t sleep. He’d arrived in Alabama two months before, and was working as a schoolteacher for 21 young boys. An amateur naturalist, Gosse catalogued every living thing he saw: hawk moths and humble bees, turkey buzzards and crayfish, woodpeckers and whippoorwills. He also described all the things he ate. He wrote home about the watermelons that tasted like pink snow; hominy so good he could have it with every meal; figs that ripened mysteriously into a powdery blue skin. His favorite culinary discovery was a square dough dish, a little difficult to describe. “You see,” he wrote, “they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges.” The cells formed small pockets to capture sugar or jam. He advised eating “woofles” with butter.

Gosse’s Letters from Alabama was published two decades later, making him one of the first sojourners in the South to write about the region’s food. Rapturous accounts of southern cuisine have been made over and over again since then by strangers from all sorts of strange lands, and their outsider reports have appeared alongside resident voices from below the Mason-Dixon line. The latest of these homespun testimonials is The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South from John T. Edge, who was born in Clinton, Georgia, and lives now in Oxford, Mississippi. Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge grew up lunching at Mary Mac’s tearoom in Atlanta; he cured his undergraduate hangovers at a greasy spoon in Athens run by a member of the Ku Klux Klan Ladies Auxiliary.
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