For the uninitiated, potlikker is the liquid that remains in the pot after cooking up a mess of greens. Potlikker is nutrient rich as minerals and water-soluble vitamins in the greens are leached out into the cooking water. In The Potlikker Papers, John Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, introduces us to a platter of tidbits of what Southern food was and how it has changed since the Second World War. At the end of this impressive book he provides us with a glimpse or where it may go from here. Southern food culture has two roots—soul food of the cotton states and Creole in Cajun country. My primary exposure to Southern food has come from living in South Carolina and Georgia for over 30 years. Thus, I will focus on the roots of soul-food and not Creole in this review. Let me also state up front that I am NOT a foodie, and John Edge is definitely one. That difference will color this review.
Contrary its title, the introduction and first four chapters of the book are more about the struggle of the civil rights movement and how it changed the South during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Food is definitely a part of this story, but it plays a supporting role in Edge’s description of the times. We are introduced to the women who helped organize the movement and the food they prepared to feed the assemblages. Collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken, stuffed pork chops, and sweet potato pies are among the foods that are featured in this struggle.
The picture the author paints of the white-racist culture is not pretty, but it illustrates the depths of racial schism and the monumental changes that occurred during this dark period in the history of the South. To understand where we are now and where we need to go requires an understanding of where we once were. Anyone alive today who did not live in the South then could gain insight into those times by reading this perspective from a white Southerner who attended the Universities of Georgia and Mississippi in the post-segregation era. For those of us who have spent time in the multicultural, ultra-liberal city of Athens, Georgia, in the past decade or too, it is hard to visualize it as the home of “the Open House, which the FBI identified as a ‘hangout for rabid Klansmen.’ ” A reading of a history of the University of Georgia affirms Edge’s perspective.
The remaining twelve chapters of the book bring Southern food to center stage, although told primarily through personalities of either Southerners of both races or infiltrators into the region. Each chapter takes a different angle as it merges changes in food culture with the broader cultural milieu. Fast food is unhealthy and to be avoided. Somehow, Southern chains like Bojangles, Chick-fil-A, Gold Platter, Hardees, and Mahalia Jackson’s are not quite as objectionable. Hippies invaded the South introducing a vegetarian lifestyle to the region. There is an ongoing battle between advocates of “soul food” and those who wish to move on. Chefs both within the region and outside developed dishes starting with a Southern base while fusing them with other ingredients and techniques. The result featured dishes like collards tossed with kimchi, fried chicken with a soy-ginger glaze, and grits roulade. Edge traces the roots of a Southern cuisine proclaiming it as “a constellation of people and places, a vocabulary of dishes drawn from the life experiences of cooks and, eventually chefs.”
Enthralled with the book to this point, I began to have some reservations. Edge describes how the South became a leader in in the farm-to-table movement, adoption of heirloom varieties, adoption of artisan foods and the abandonment of industrialized food. Home cooks were abandoning modern ways and cooking like their grandmothers and great-grandmothers did prior to the “advances” in agriculture that preceded the Second World War.
I wish that the author had attended the DW Brooks lectures* on south campus when he was studying at the University of Georgia. It was Brooks who helped lead Georgia farmers out of the depravities of the Great Depression through developing cooperatives, convincing banks to provide low-interest loans to farmers, starting crop-insurance programs, and making available affordable inorganic fertilizers and other chemicals to help grow crops. Perhaps no individual was more responsible for developing a healthy agricultural community through industrialized agriculture in the state of Georgia and throughout the South than Brooks. Obviously, white farmers in Georgia reaped much greater benefits from his leadership than black farmers in the state, but that was as much about the times as it was about the man. An excellent book about agriculture in the South during the Great Depression and the Second World War is A Revolution Down on the Farm by Paul Conklin helps provide context for Potlikker Papers.
I am not a Southerner by birth, but I have spent over half of my life living in South Carolina and Georgia. My wife was born in the South. I know Southern food when I see it. We usually eat peas and collards on New Year’s Day. Last time I ate at Wilson’s Soul Food in Athens GA they didn’t serve collards tossed with kimchi. The best fried chicken I have ever eaten is served family style at Buckner’s just off of I-75 near Jackson GA and it wasn’t with a soy-ginger glaze. I fix Lakeside grits for breakfast from time-to-time with lots of butter and it isn’t served in the form of roulade. OK, I confess that I use Benecol instead of butter and 2% milk instead of water to prepare my grits. Yes the foods in the region are being molded by outside influences, and that is not undesirable. I am not against innovation, but I hope the more traditional, authentic Southern offerings will survive.
John Edge has provided us with a marvelous book about the South and its food. Pottlikker Papers is at its best when intertwining the story of food with the South’s racial heritage. It is at its worst when it tries to make southern food trendy by changing into inauthentic versions of true Southern cooking or idealizing the pre-industrial agriculture that led to cotton-depleted soils, poverty and pellagra. Enjoy this wonderful book, but don’t swallow it whole.
Next week: Local Food: The Regional Food of Hawaii by Rachel Laudan
*In the interest of full disclosure, I attended most pf the DW Brooks lectures from 1982-2013 and was awarded the DW Brooks Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002.