John T. Edge is at work on The Potlikker Papers, a personal history of Southern food, to be published by Penguin Press. The book will investigate why the South came to be at the forefront of American culinary culture and how issues of race and ethnicity have shaped the place, its people, and its food.
My friend Dan Philips, a wine importer, likes to drag me into discussions of the Civil War. Though he lives in California, Dan has roots in the South, eats and drinks his way through the region often, and reads voraciously. Dan is smart. And he asks great questions. But I rarely take the bait. The reasons are complicated.
“I will fix this, if they let me,” says Will Harris of White Oak Pastures as he machetes through a briar-tangled bamboo thicket and scampers over a mossy boulder, plunging toward a ruined concrete-bordered public pool glossed with emerald slime and swarmed by dragonflies. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this bottom-of-the-bluff park at the heart of Bluffton, a farming town on Georgia’s southwestern fringe, was a symbol of civic commonwealth for white settlers who staked claims after Andrew Jackson killed off and kicked out the Creek Indians in 1814.
“At first, I couldn’t come in a place like this,” Helen Summerville told me one recent afternoon as she forked into a mound of cornbread dressing and giblet gravy at Kairos Kafe on the south side of Birmingham, Alabama. “And then, for a while, I wouldn’t come in,” she said. “None of that matters now.” Prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Summerville, who is black, would not have been served in most white-owned dining rooms in Birmingham. Back then, Ollie’s Bar-B-Q—which was open from 1926 through 2001 and claimed three locations in this neighborhood, including the one now occupied by Kairos—was among the staunchest defenders of the Jim Crow laws and practices that dictated separate eating facilities for whites and blacks.
From the archive, an appreciation of cookbook-memoirist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor.
Vertamae is the sort of person who, while struggling to find work in the broad creative world, came to know James Baldwin as “Jimmy,” played the part of Big Pearl in the infamous Broadway play Mandingo, catered a record-release party for David Bowie, danced and chanted with Sun Ra & his Solar-Myth Arkestra, and inspired her daughter, who was nine at the time, to publish a volume of poems with Doubleday.
Grasping a starched napkin in his left hand and twirling a pair of mod eyeglasses in his right, Goren Avery shepherds the flocks who seek purchase nightly at Highlands Bar & Grill, this reliquary of a restaurant, the most vaunted in the South. This place, and, by extension, this city, is his domain.
On a summer day in 1949, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, novelist Donald Windham, painter Buffie Johnson, playwright Tennessee Williams, and writer-provocateur Gore Vidal gathered at Café Nicholson, a bohemian supper club set in the back courtyard of an antique store on New York City’s Upper East Side.
In 1995, when the late Larry Brown first published (in the Oxford American) the essay "Billy Ray's Farm" about his son's farm in Lafayette County, Mississippi, he was both realistic and optimistic about the challenges of farm life. He could not have known that one day his friend, the renowned chef John Currence, would open Big Bad Breakfast, a new kind of diner featuring local ingredients, including dairy products from Billy Ray's heifers. John T. Edge recently visited Billy Ray and his milking cows at the Brown Family Dairy.
Reminisces of eating rat-trap cheese: "We ate it in the parking lot, with sleeves of crackers and tins of sardines, its hue a not-of-this-world orange, with a texture that straddled cheddar and polyester. And a red wax rind. Stored beneath a see-through plastic dome. Sliced into wedges with a countrified guillotine."