“[A]sk questions about who we are and how we got here, about who cooks, who cleans, and who earns a seat at the welcome table.”
– John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers, p.5
A few months ago, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for something medicinally Southern. After I paced a few uninspiring aisles, I found a hardcover someone had clearly misplaced.
I used to work in retail, and I get how maddening it can be for associates to constantly find and replace items that people scatter across the floor in the moments where they find something “better” than what they’ve got in-hand.
Unable to resist, I picked up the book and resolved to put it back where it belonged. That book was The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, and as it turns out, its proper place was with me.
Since that day, I’ve seriously savored Potlikker. And while I’m not a professional book reviewer, I do want more people to hear about this text, so I’m thrilled to feature it as my first Reading Words entry on the blog. Here we go!
As a Southerner, history major, food lover and woman, I was given so many reasons to fall “in like” with Potlikker Papers. Among them:
(1) There’s a cohesive narrative about how the famed “New South” came to be, and it does justice to both the opportunities and consequences of this cultural shift. In the process, Edge helped me realize that I wasn’t totally out of my mind to worry about the idea of home — both up North and in North Carolina.
(2) The book treats women as the serious contributors that we are — and indeed, always have been. To see this done, and to see it done in a way that doesn’t just start with Julia Child and end with Ina Garten, was refreshing. Not all women make the history books, but our stories are part of something that matters. It is never a bad day when someone else realizes this.
(3) It’s near-impossible to strike a true balance between hyper-local foodie writing and something that most people would label as “capital H” history. Edge’s people’s history has come pretty darned close. Many cultures contribute to the beautifully complex tapestry that is the American South. Edge has a knack for making sure we know about more of them, without presuming to have “found” or “discovered” them himself. Bravo, sir.
More broadly, my reaction to Edge’s book would not be complete without addressing how the South gets viewed. In many respects, Edge and I are in agreement. The South is not perfect — far from, as a matter of fact. But this does not excuse or explain America’s long, bizarre tradition of “yo-yo-like” changes in our cultural acceptance threshold.
Up and down, our perceptions of the South go up and down on the tiniest of threads, controlled by what feels like one user at a time, many of whom are ignorant to how the South has changed, is changing, or will continue to change.
In times of professed love, I’ve seen a range of reactions, from cultural appropriation, to patronization, to relocation, and everything in between. And I’ve only been on this earth since the ’80s, which is to say, not that long.
In times of disdain, reactions are more sinister, and usually kick off with a piece from someone who feels they “know better” in their chosen medium of record. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you’d recognize their voices, because the attitudes and beliefs they communicate invariably trickle down to everyday people like you and me.
The tragedy is that, in both of these times, Southern culture as it really exists — in all of its complex people, places, looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes — gets completely lost. And to be perfectly clear, this is dangerous for more than the American South.
So, what can we do in the face of this challenge? We can keep the conversation going, keep sharing stories of what life is really like, keep asking important questions, keep welcoming others into the fold as things grow and change. And we’ve got to start, like many foods we should probably eat more of, from the ground, up. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of Edge’s book in the process. Let’s get cooking.
P.S. For those with further interest, I’d recommend starting with:
This interview with NPR/The Salt.
This interview with Saveur.
This interview with the Southern Register / Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
See what nags at you from these pieces, then keep digging, keep reading, keep listening. This region, its people, their voices have been ready to be heard for a long time.
How ready are we to hear them?