Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Food Nonfiction

I love reading about food. It is interesting to learn how certain food items are entwined with history and impacted world events as well as how they became so important to culture as well as our diet. We are what we eat, right? Here is a collection of books about food that I’ve put on my tbr pile:

Salt: A World HistoryOne of my friends has described this book as one of the best she’s ever read. [amazon asin=0142001619&text=Salt: A World History] by Mark Kurlansky is a story about the history and importance of salt. From Goodreads:

Kurlansky “turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.  Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Kurlansky’s kaleidoscopic history is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece.”

The True History of Chocolate (Second Edition)I actually have [amazon asin=0500286965&text=The True History of Chocolate] by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe on my shelf right now. I looove chocolate. Who doesn’t? Goodreads says,

This delightful and best-selling tale of one of the world’s favorite foods draws upon botany, archaeology, and culinary history to present a complete and accurate history of chocolate. The story begins some 3,000 years ago in the jungles of Mexico and Central America with the chocolate tree, Theobroma Cacao, and the complex processes necessary to transform its bitter seeds into what is now known as chocolate. This was centuries before chocolate was consumed in generally unsweetened liquid form and used as currency by the Maya, and the Aztecs after them. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it first became the drink of kings and aristocrats and then was popularized in coffeehouses. Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made chocolate a food for the masses, and now, in our own time, it has become once again a luxury item. The second edition draws on recent research and genetic analysis to update the information on the origins of the chocolate tree and early use by the Maya and others, and there is a new section on the medical and nutritional benefits of chocolate.

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History[amazon asin=0143118749&text=For All the Tea in China] by Sarah Rose is currently on my Kindle. I love tea. I love teapots. I love everything about a traditional British tea. This book, however, makes the story of tea sound like an adventure. Goodreads describes the book:

Robert Fortune was a Scottish gardener, botanist, plant hunter—and industrial spy. In 1848, the East India Company engaged him to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China—territory forbidden to foreigners—to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea. For centuries, China had been the world’s sole tea manufacturer. Britain purchased this fuel for its Empire by trading opium to the Chinese—a poisonous relationship Britain fought two destructive wars to sustain. The East India Company had profited lavishly as the middleman, but now it was sinking, having lost its monopoly to trade tea. Its salvation, it thought, was to establish its own plantations in the Himalayas of British India. There were just two problems: India had no tea plants worth growing, and the company wouldn’t have known what to do with them if it had. Hence Robert Fortune’s daring trip. The Chinese interior was off-limits and virtually unknown to the West, but that’s where the finest tea was grown—the richest oolongs, soochongs and pekoes. And the Emperor aimed to keep it that way.

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive OilI was doing some research on olive oil the other day, and I came across [amazon asin=0393070212&text=Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil] by Tom Mueller, and I have to admit I was intrigued. A whole book in olive oil? Apparently so:

For millennia, fresh olive oil has been one of life’s necessities—not just as food but also as medicine, a beauty aid, and a vital element of religious ritual. Today’s researchers are continuing to confirm the remarkable, life-giving properties of true extra-virgin, and “extra-virgin Italian” has become the highest standard of quality.

But what if this symbol of purity has become deeply corrupt? Starting with an explosive article in The New Yorker, Tom Mueller has become the world’s expert on olive oil and olive oil fraud-a story of globalization, deception, and crime in the food industry from ancient times to the present, and a powerful indictment of today’s lax protections against fake and even toxic food products in the United States. A rich and deliciously readable narrative, Extra Virginity is also an inspiring account of the artisanal producers, chemical analysts, chefs, and food activists who are defending the extraordinary oils that truly deserve the name “extra-virgin.”

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement [amazon asin=0061288519&text=97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement] by Jane Ziegelman has been on my list for a long time. Goodreads says,

This delicious saga of how immigrant food became American food follows European immigrants on a remarkable journey from the Ellis Island dining hall to tiny tenement kitchens, from Lower East Side pushcart markets and delicatessens out into the wider world of American cuisine.

Although reviewers have mentioned the book isn’t really about the immigrant families so much as it is about the kinds of food immigrants brought to America and that the single tenement was more an organization device than anything else, I still really want to read it. Just reading the description from Publisher’s Weekly makes me hungry:

Ziegelman puts a historical spin to the notion that you are what you eat by looking at five immigrant families from what she calls the “elemental perspective of the foods they ate.” They are German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish (both Orthodox and Reform) from Russia and Germany—they are new Americans, and each family, sometime between 1863 and 1935, lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each represents the predicaments faced in adapting the food traditions it knew to the country it adopted. From census data, newspaper accounts, sociological studies, and cookbooks of the time, Ziegelman vividly renders a proud, diverse community learning to be American. She describes the funk of fermenting sauerkraut, the bounty of a pushcart market, the culinary versatility of a potato, as well as such treats as hamburger, spaghetti, and lager beer. Beyond the foodstuffs and recipes of the time, however, are the mores, histories, and identities that food evokes. Through food, the author records the immigrants’ struggle to reinterpret themselves in an American context and their reciprocal impact on American culture at large.

Food is one of those things that shapes our culture in so many ways. We also derive so much of who we are from the food we eat. I was listening to an Italian-American colleague at work the other day telling a co-worker he never had macaroni and cheese as a child because it was “boxed pasta,” and his mother wouldn’t have it in the house. I don’t think I ever had pasta that wasn’t from a box unless it was at a restaurant. I know folks who swear by homemade pasta and spend the time to make it, but would I know the difference? I don’t know what I’m missing. Chances are pretty good, however, that my colleague doesn’t know good Southern fried chicken.

So, do you have any good books about food? Please share.

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