Is Southern Food America's Most Important Cuisine?

As part of our year-end review, we're revisiting some of the most important stories from 2014. Here, we talk to Southern food scholar John T. Edge about the cuisine he holds so dear.

During Yahoo Y’All week, we’re celebrating the food culture of the American South. Expect profiles of cooks, makers, and bartenders, plus recipes showcasing the classics (and twists on those classics) you love.


John T. Edge, happy at his desk. Photograph by Tamara Reynolds

John T. Edge eats and breathes the South. 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 “studies and celebrates the food culture of the American South,” he told us. “We think about Southern food culture as the taproot of American food culture.” He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun, a magazine based in Charleston, South Carolina. He is writing The Potlikker Papers, a history of the modern South told from the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 forward (it will be published by Penguin Press in 2017). And right now, he’s gearing up for this weekend’s 17th annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, a four-day exploration of Southern food, this year focusing on ethnicity, sexuality, diet, class, gender, and race. We talked to Edge about that and about what “Southern food” means today.

How did you come up with the conference theme this year?
It’s the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated restaurants. An anniversary offers people time to reflect. We’re not just going to mark that anniversary and celebrate it, we’re going to ask questions about inclusion and exclusion today. Racism is what divided us in ’64, what are the issues that divide us today?

Do you have thoughts on what, specifically, those issues are?
Of late, we’ve come to terms with natural resources and we’ve focused a lot of attention on where our food comes from. The dialogue is shifting now and should shift to a conversation about human resources and people: farm workers, waiters who have worked their lives on the restaurant floor, line cooks who have worked their lives in the bowels of the kitchen. We want to tell those stories. By telling them, we can address issues of class, of ethnicity—of race, too. The whole of it is to say: The notion of natural resources has been the defining approach for a long time. Exploring human resources is important now.

When you think of classic Southern food, what do you think of?
Country ham. It’s dependent on age and expertise and things long associated with the rural South—the South of farmers, working the land, having hogs and slaughtering them. It’s the traditional food that many associate with the South. We’ll serve country ham and beaten biscuits on Friday afternoon this year.

The next morning we’ll wake up, though, and we’ll serve Venezuelan arepas from an immigrant who grew up in Caracas, Lis Hernandez of Arepa Mia in Atlanta. The ones she’s serving are 12-hour roasted pork. Think about it: It’s a corn cake stuffed with pork. Sounds really Southern, right? It’s very much reflective of this new Southern moment. Food of Venezuelan origin is as totemic in this time for the South as is that country ham on a beaten biscuit. There’s this connectivity between two foods and two peoples.


Meat-and-threes at Johnny’s. Photo credit: Courtesy of Johnny’s Restaurant

Where is Southern food today?
There’s a rediscovery of working-class food more broadly in the South. There’s been a boom in barbecue across the country—it’s not just Southerners rediscovering wood-fired barbecue, but a boom in barbecue in Brooklyn, even. There’s also the next step along from that, the rediscovery of the meat-and-three recipes in the South. That’s the traditional midday farmer meal of meat and three vegetables. Smothered pork chops, collard greens, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy—the food that sustains you and would have sustained workers when plowing the back forty or working a steel mill.

There’s a new guard, though. For example, there’s a new place called Johnny’s in Birmingham, Alabama, that’s doing white tablecloth-worthy meat and three-style food that is exceptional. More often now it’s a meat-and-two. There’s some measure of restraint. This year at the symposium we’re doing an “and six” all-vegetable meat-and-three meal. The dishes are coming from two places that I think are exceptional: One is Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville and the other is Silver Sands in Nashville; one is in the black tradition and one in white tradition. And what’s remarkable is what’s in common, not what’s different. Food knows no color or segregation, it’s working-class food the South over.

What’s something people outside of the South might not know about but should?
The American South is comparable in size to Western Europe, so to talk about Southern food doesn’t really get you very far. You have to talk about sub-regions of the South. The Tidewater region of Virginia, where I’m talking to you from now, is very different from the deeper South where I live, and the foods are really varied, too. There’s this great small fish I love to eat when I’m here called Sugar Toads. It looks like a goldfish that somebody took a bicycle pump to—it’s engorged. You eat the sides and pull the meat off the bone. If you live along the eastern shore of Virginia you know that, but you can’t get them in Mississippi.

People tend to lump Southern food together. It’s that New Yorker map vision of the US, that the South is this little boutique of fried chicken joints. But the South is this sprawling place. And yet, it all has something in common: that peculiar and at times tragic history and hopeful future.

In Sean’s Brock’s new book, Heritage, he writes that Southern food is one of the most important cuisines in the world.
Certainly it is! If you think of cuisine as am emblem of people and place, which is what I think is, our foods reflect people of African descent, of Western European descent, and of Native American descent. The narratives that we tell through our food are deeply important and are resonant not just in the South but all across the country.

The South is a place that inspires a reaction. You either fall deeply in love with it, or are repulsed on some level by it, or are seduced by it. It evinces a reaction, the South does, and Southern food does, too. The music and the literature and the food, the story of the Civil Rights movement… Those are really important American narratives. They compel a reaction from people.

Will there ever be the day that you’ll be able to find Southern food everywhere, like you can Italian food or Chinese food?
I think we’ve already gotten to that day. There’s a kind of new normal wherein Southern food has achieved respect and pride of place on menus that will endure. We’re in a moment when everyone seems to have fallen hard for Southern food. That will ebb but what will carry forward is this new normal way of seeing the region, in which the South earns the respect it deserves.

More on Southern food:
Sweeteeth Is One Sweet Southern Chocolatier
The History of Moon Pies
Lowcountry Shrimp and Okra Recipe

What’s your favorite dish from the South? We’d love to hear your comments.