The Potlikker Papers: Book summary and reviews of The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge

The Potlikker Papers

A Food History of the Modern South

by John T. Edge

The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge X
The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge

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Book Summary

A people's history of Southern food that reveals how the region came to be at the forefront of American culinary culture and how issues of race have shaped Southern cuisine over the last six decades.

The Potlikker Papers tells the story of food and politics in the South over the last half century. Beginning with the pivotal role of cooks in the Civil Rights movement, noted authority John T. Edge narrates the South's journey from racist backwater to a hotbed of American immigration. In so doing, he traces how the food of the poorest Southerners has become the signature trend of modern American haute cuisine. This is a people's history of the modern South told through the lens of food. 

Food was a battleground in the Civil Rights movement. Access to food and ownership of culinary tradition was a central part of the long march to racial equality. The Potlikker Papers begins in 1955 as black cooks and maids fed and supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott and it concludes in 2015 as a Newer South came to be, enriched by the arrival of immigrants from Lebanon to Vietnam to all points in between. 

Along the way, The Potlikker Papers tracks many different evolutions of Southern identity - first in the 1970s, from the back-to-the-land movement that began in the Tennessee hills to the rise of fast and convenience foods modeled on Southern staples. Edge narrates the gentrification that gained traction in North Carolina and Louisiana restaurants of the 1980s and the artisanal renaissance that reconnected farmers and cooks in the 1990s and in the 00s. He profiles some of the most extraordinary and fascinating figures in Southern food, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Colonel Sanders, Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme, Craig Claiborne, Sean Brock, and many others. 

Like many great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is a salvage food. During the antebellum era, masters ate the greens from the pot and set aside the left-over potlikker broth for their slaves, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient-rich. After slavery, potlikker sustained the working poor, black and white. In the rapidly gentrifying South of today, potlikker has taken on new meanings as chefs have reclaimed the dish. 

Over the last two generations, wrenching changes have transformed the South. The Potlikker Papers tells the story of that change - and reveals how Southern food has become a shared culinary language for the nation.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Without question, this is a book for foodies, but it is also for readers who may be indifferent to the food they consume yet care deeply about regionalism, individual health, and race relations, among other themes." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. In this excellent culinary history, Edge also profiles some of the South's greatest cooks - Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Paula Deen - who represent the sometimes tortured relationship between the South and its foodways." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. An engrossing blend of food science, regionalism, and ethnic studies. Highly recommended for Southern historians, agriculturalists, cuisine enthusiasts, professional chefs, and general readers." - Library Journal

"What we eat tells our story. John T. Edge wonderfully tells the story, through grits, pone, and pig meat, of the ever-morphing American South - fleshing out the caricatures of Harland Sanders and Paul Prudhomme, traveling history's through lines from the lunch-counter protests of the Civil Rights era to the latter-day flowering of pitmaster chic. So good, so fun, so thorough, so important." – David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula

"In this rich, compact history of the South through its food and cooks...Edge has produced a wonderful narrative of the region's evolution on race, gender, and justice, with a light-handed knowingness at once sympathetic and critical." - Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home

"If I know anything about Southern cuisine it's because of John T. Edge. Somehow he's weaved together a story of how Southern food shaped, not only what was on the table, but American history. " - David Chang, CEO/Founder, Momofuku

"Edge's book means to be about food, but quickly veers into a close examination of the Deep South, before revealing itself as the smartest history of race in America in a generation." - Jack Hitt

"The Potlikker Papers takes readers on an exceptional journey through the modern American South, driven by the expressive power of food as a language and currency of place... This work is essential reading in the American canon of foodways scholarship." - Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South

"The Potlikker Papers inspirited me with renewed hope for unity not just in Edge's beloved South but anywhere there is food to eat and people to eat it." - Toni Tipton-Martin, author of Blue Grass Cook Book and The Jemima Code

"Potlikker it is a nutrient rich reflection on the South's past, present, and future. It gives me confidence that one day I can love the South all over again." - Eddie Huang, author of Fresh Off the Boat

"John T Edge has unearthed an extraordinary people's history of the South, brilliantly told "through its most influential export: food. Like its namesake broth, The Potlikker Papers is a concentrated, complicated account of the little-known cooks and humble community-builders who fed each other and fueled a movement for inclusion."- Beth Macy, author of Truevine and Factory Man

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More Information

More Information

John T. Edge is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American. In 2012, he won the James Beard Foundation's M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. He is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Edge has written or edited more than a dozen books. He has served as culinary curator for the weekend edition of NPR's All Things Considered, and he has been a regular columnist at the New York Times. Edge lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his son, Jess, and his wife, Blair Hobbs

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