The Potlikker Papers – John T Edge


Earlier this spring, when I was doing my lecture series on Eucharistic Eating, one of the participants asked a question relating how the Eucharist was viewed in other cultural contexts. I didn’t have the answer to his question (my research is ongoing), but it did make me ask questions about my own reading experiences when it came to the subject of food.

Front cover of The Potlikker Papers

It seems to me, at times, that food writing is a particularly western, white, and privileged preoccupation. That may simply be due to my failure to find other writers. However, even a book like Mark Kurlansky’s Choice Cuts, shows a heavy tendency to lean in this direction.

I’ve tried to correct this somewhat in the intervening period. One thing I’ve done is become familiar with the work of Michael Twitty. The video below is a good introduction to some of his thinking.

There is a good selection of his videos available on YouTube, if you want to explore more.

One of the things the video above puts emphasis on is the need to credit that Black slave community for creations, that white owners took as their own. Jack Daniels, for instance has recently owned up to the role of Nearest Green in the creation of their whiskey.

The Potlikker Papers

As a result of this deficiency I try and keep my eyes open for books that will help to fill the gaps in my learning.

I decided the other day, as I wandered into the Millennium Library, that I would take a look at their new additions and see if there were any food books worth picking up. Most of the books were on the latest nutritional fads, which interest me not one whit, but I saw this book titled The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, by John T Edge.

Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance out of the University of Mississippi.  I have some familiarity with this organization, having come across it when I read Writing in the Kitchen. The Potlikker Papers covers some of the same ground as Writing in the Kitchen, but expands upon it and takes it to the front of house as it were. Much like Writing in the Kitchen, The Potlikker Papers show a South that is much more complicated and conflicted than we can easily grasp.

The term potlikker refers to the juices leftover from the cooking of greens. The slave holders ate the greens while the slaves got the leftover broth. Of course, when you cook greens much of the nutrient value leeches out into the water, and so the slaves were getting the healthier end of the deal. Over time potlikker has taken on other cultural overtones, which Edge examines throughout the course of the book.

The book is broken down into five time periods, beginning with the days of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement and continuing up until the present. With the events that have occurred in Charlottesville and other cities over the last few weeks, the book serves as a good history. Not only does it serve as a reminder that we haven’t moved as far along as a society as we think we have, but it also reminds us of how poorly blacks were treated in the era of Jim Crow Segregation.

The Potlikker Papers does well in focusing the spotlight on figures such as Georgia Gilmore, Zephyr Wright, and even gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in describing the role that Black women and men played in developing the good culture of the South. Along the way they also used that food culture as a way to fight against the way they were excluded from the levers of power and other benefits denied them because of their race.

The Potlikker Papers, however, don’t live in the past. Edge sees the South as an ever evolving place. One which was never simply black and white. Edge’s South is as broad and expansive as the area that it geographically encompasses.

With stories about Stephen Gaskin and The Farm, and about Craig Claiborne and others who left the South only to return later, Edge reminds us that being a Southerner isn’t simply about location, and it is certainly not simply about a way of life lost in the Civil War. Instead, the South has always been a complex and convoluted place, held together as much by it’s food as by anything.

While exploring this history, Edge makes a good argument for Southern Food as the American food. He points out that many of the activities that we associate with the modern American food scene got their start in the South. Just one example, Wendell Berry, noted poet and author who has motivated a generation or two of back to the land small scale farmers, is a Southerner, from Kentucky. Farm to table was being practiced as part of Southern food longing before it swept the trendy restaurants.

One of the things that strikes me in reading The Potlikker Papers, is the way that poverty and hunger never seem to hold our interest very long. I’ve been doing reading and thinking about famine recently, and while short-term stop gap solutions do come about, nothing happens long-term. Also, obese, sugar-addicted children are not the solution to the problem of hunger, they just represent the creation of a different problem, something that Edge seems to acknowledges in the book.

More than anything The Potlikker Papers is a hopeful book. In his introduction Edge states that:

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens form the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their familiies, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. After slavery, potlikker sustained the working poor, black and white…

Salvage food is a great concept. I’m not merely talking about the leftovers from grocery stores, but those foods that we don’t appreciate in times of plenty, but in lean times are often all that stand between starvation and survival. Food not appreciated for it’s goodness and life giving properties. There is certainly a lesson in that for how we have treated black, indigenous and other peoples in our history.

If there is one thing I would like to see more of in this book, it would be a greater acknowledgment of the contributions of the American Indians to the development of the South. Edge is not unaware of those contributions, but they seem to fall by the wayside a little

On the whole though, The Potlikker Papers is a good way to not only introduce yourself to the food of the South, but some of the historical complexities and political backgrounds that have created the Modern South.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Potlikker Papers – John T Edge

  1. I will have to check out this book! Interesting that potlikker started out as “salvage food,” because as any native Southerner (black or white) knows, that’s the best part of the greens! We will pout if we feel we got shorted. Also interesting is that outside of the South, many cookbooks do indeed recommend simply quickly stir-frying the greens (yuck, who wants to eat tough greens?) and pouring any excess liquid down the drain! If you like browsing cookbooks you may want to check out Bryant Terry Afro-Vegan, The Inspired Vegan, Southern Soul Kitchen … I know you are not vegan but they give a good overview of the history of the food, the contributions of Afro-Americans to American culture, and the dominant cooking methods/spices, etc. you will find in traditional Southern food. It’s a good counterpoint to Paula Deen.

    Liked by 1 person

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