2018 Selection: The Potlikker Papers

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The Potlikker Papers is a people’s history of the modern South, told through its food. Beginning with the pivotal role of cooking and restaurants in the civil rights movement, John T. Edge narrates the South’s journey from a hive of racism to a hotbed of American immigration.

He looks at the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lunch counter sit-ins, the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s, the rise to prominence of Southern chefs and regional specialties in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the resurgence of artisanal Southern food and contributions from immigrant cultures in the 2000’s.

Our hope in choosing this book as the Nashville Reads 2018 selection is to bring the community together through food and highlight the city’s history, cuisine, and people.

About John T. Edge

John T. Edge writes about the food culture of the American South.

In May of 2017, the Penguin Press published his latest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

Edge is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American. For three years he wrote the monthly “United Taste” column for The New York Times.

His magazine and newspaper work has been featured in eleven editions of the Best Food Writing compilation. He has won three James Beard Foundation awards. In 2012, he won Beard’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Edge holds an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. And an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

He is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the American South. The SFA has completed more than 900 oral histories and 100 films, focusing on people like fried chicken cooks, row crop farmers, oystermen, and bartenders.

Edge has written or edited more than a dozen books, including Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South. Edge is editor of the foodways volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. And he is series editor of Southern Foodways Alliance Studies in Culture, People, and Place, published by the University of Georgia Press.

Edge is an editor in residence at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony. And he serves on the faculty of the MFA in Narrative Nonfiction program at the Grady College of the University of Georgia.

He has served as culinary curator for the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered, and he has been featured on dozens of television shows, from CBS Sunday Morning to Iron Chef.

Edge lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his son, Jess, and his wife, Blair Hobbs, a teacher, writer, and painter.

Nashville Food Culture on Film

The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), directed since its inception by John T Edge, documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the American South. At its core, the SFA is a storytelling organization, based at the University of Mississippi, that uses food narratives to grapple with big issues that have long rankled the South, including racism, gender inequity, class discrimination, and immigrant persecution.

To date SFA has produced more than 100 documentary films and collected nearly 1,000 oral histories. Gravy, the SFA’s combination print quarterly and bi-weekly podcast, brings these rigorous inquiries to popular audiences. To cultivate progress across the South, the SFA makes all of this content available, FREE, to readers, listeners, cooks, eaters, and thinkers at southernfoodways.org.

Little Kurdistan

Just off Nolensville Pike on the southern outskirts of Nashville lies Little Kurdistan—a thriving community of Kurdish immigrants and new generations of Kurdish-Americans.

Little Kurdistan from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.

Counter Histories

Counter Histories connects the protests and demonstrations of today and yesterday, equipping viewers to ask questions about the role of civil disobedience in the face of systemic racism and injustice.

Counter Histories: Nashville from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.

Prince’s Hot Chicken

Meet Andre Prince Jeffries, and learn all about the addictive hot chicken craze in North Nashville. It’s hot, and it’s fried.

Hot Chicken from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.


“What the Grand Ole Opry did for country music, she has done for Southern food,” wrote Betty Fussell, “spreading the gospel of simple country cooking in a seductive Tennessee voice that has drawn the world to Nashville.”

PHILA from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.

Fried Pies in Nashville

Mr. Elzy “E.W.” Mayo of Mayo’s Mahalia Jackson Chicken & Fried Pies, in Nashville, made what he called “the world’s best pies.” He didn’t have too much to say about the chicken, so we focused on the other side of the ampersand.

& Fried Pies from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.

Q & A with John T.

What makes The Potlikker Papers a good choice for Nashville Reads 2018?
Told over six decades from 1955 forward, The Potlikker Papers uses time in the fields, before stoves, and at tables to frame the South as a dynamic place. Yes, progress has been fitful. But it has been made. Over that same period, Nashville has proved itself a dynamic city. During the 1960s, Nashville was a place where Civil Rights Movement leaders devised strategies to foment a revolution. In the 2010s, Nashville has actively embraced new immigrants, offering a model for a nation now struggling to embrace its demographic destiny. Nashville is the ideal place to puzzle through the ideas that animate my book.

Tell us about the influence that the late John Egerton of Nashville has had on your career and on this book in particular.
You can read Egerton’s influence on every page of my book. From A Mind to Stay Here to Southern Food his books were sources for The Potlikker Papers, cited in the endnotes. More important, his attitude about the South informed my work. In ways small and large and generous, John showed us that, to love the South fully, we have to be critical of this place, its history, and its present. I did my damndest to bring that attitude to bear.

In the book, you talk about how pitmasters, many African-American, are really just now getting widespread recognition for their talents. Are there pitmasters in Tennessee you feel should be better recognized?
Helen Turner of Brownsville, Tennessee, a onetime cotton shipment center southwest of Nashville, is one of the most talented and enterprising and engaging pitmasters in the nation. Six days a week, she steps into the smoke to shovel hardwood coals, chop pork shoulders, and feed regulars her peerless slaw-crowned and hot sauce-sluiced sandwiches. If we now recognize barbecue cookery as a craft worthy of veneration, then it’s time we recognize that pitmasters like her are national folk heroes.

What do you want readers who have never heard of it to know about the Southern Foodways Alliance?
Using food as our focus, we tell new stories about the changing South. Though our biweekly Gravy podcast and our quarterly Gravy journal we complicate narratives about this region. At our four annual symposia, we lead conversations about identity. Through our books, oral histories, and films, we cultivate progress.

Where do you tell people to eat when they come to Nashville?
I eat often across Nashville. For my Garden & Gun column, I recently wrote about Greko, the Greek street food café in East Nashville, and Hugh Baby’s, the new wave fast food spot in West Nashville. When friends ask for touts, I invariably talk about Silver Sands Cafe, a 50-plus-year-old meat-and three institution, famous for hotwater cornbread and smothered pork chops. At her tables, proprietor Sophia Vaughn curates a beloved community.