I first came across the writing of John T. Edge about ten or so years ago. His name came up in conversation about the correct spelling of the word potlikker. Until that point, I’d always thought that potlikker was spelled as such. However, the person with whom I was speaking was convinced that the word was Pot Liquor. And I, being a Yankee- and a damned Yankee at that- was wrong. Just wrong. I’m proud to say, although I would have been whooped for saying it at the time, that I was correct about the spelling of potlikker. You cannot always be right in life. Especially not with the spelling of potlikker.
I learned how to cook on my family’s farm in Morristown, NJ. Our cook’s name was Estelle Ellis. She was from Southern Georgia. Although she didn’t teach me how to cook in the classic manner – through lessons and the like, she cooked for my family. I watched her make the dishes from the pantheon of Southern Cuisine. Years later, when I worked as a cook in Charleston, South Carolina, her informal lessons came bubbling to the surface. I was able to cook greens until they released their likker. I can slaughter a hen for soup and know a bit about frying chicken in a cast iron Dutch oven. Estelle taught me to marinate a tough bird in buttermilk to tenderize it and she taught me to soak a country ham to make it less salty, then pile the now tender meat on a home-made biscuit for a savory treat. I also cultivated a taste for Bourbon at around 17 years of age. I remember the first time I tasted it. Sweet and hot in the glass. My friends were all drinking beer and their parents single malt Scotch. I can’t tell you how many bottles of whiskey was slugged down during this time. . I don’t really care for the smoke.
There was always Bourbon in our home. My father’s father loved his Bourbon Whiskey, so I cultivated a taste for the sweet grains at an early age.
Martha Lou owns a Soul Food restaurant in Charleston, SC. I spent a bit of time over there, enjoying her fried pork chops. If I got lucky she’d fry up some fresh whiting for fried fish sandwiches served on white bread. The secret ingredient? Fresh. It wasn’t fancy food, but the soulful flavors still resonate with me still after all these years.
1. Who taught you to cook? Mother? Father? Grandparents? Cookbooks? Television? Do you remember the first thing you ate? What was it?
My knowledge of cooking came from both my mother and my father. My first memories of cooking involve my mother teaching me how to make vegetable soup with the marrow bones. My father taught me to rummage through freezer cases in Asian markets. I grew up in Clinton, Georgia. This is 15 miles north of Macon, Georgia in the center of the state. It’s an hour or so south from Atlanta. It was a very small town. My father was curious about world cuisine. My parents loved to eat out. Growing up in their home went way beyond the typical home dining experience.
When I was growing up my first real food memories surround BBQ. The food that I associate from my childhood was and still is BBQ. I grew up about ½ mile from a BBQ joint. It was the classic chopped BBQ place with sawdust on floor. I remember a spiral of smoke coming from the chimney. I have a bucolic sense of BBQ. Miss Coulter ran this place. Behind the counter she held two cleavers in her hands. She was chopping the BBQ meat. This chopping makes a wonderful sound. It’s still something that resonates with me to this day. Real BBQ takes time.
One of the first thing I remember- but I really have no true recollection of the date as I was still in my food infancy. When I was sick or sad, I hadn’t thought about this in years. My father would make me grits with these little tiny smoked oysters in the bowl. Nothing fancy about this bowl of grits. Down under, folded under the creamy white grits you’d drill down to find smoked oysters. My father would hide these tiny bivalve treasure in the bowl of grits. Brownish black lozenges buried under the grits. Like a smoky, fishy marine beast. Grits were a taste of my childhood. Jim Dandy or Quaker Oats brand- that’s what we used.
My Mom left us just before my son was born. My Father is still living in Macon, Georgia. He is quite robust and still intellectually curious in his cooking.
2. You travel the country eating interesting foods. Do you script your trips yourself? How do you pick what places to go, things to try?
The reason I’m traveling today (we did this interview on the phone) I’m going to do a New York Times story for my United Tastes column. I really don’t like to have a script. I like to say to the folks that I’m interviewing: let’s just talk. Let me observe and listen. This is important. Patience is necessary. I feel like scripted work is artificial and it doesn’t get you anywhere. I try to read up as much as I can on a place. It’s important to me to see what other people have written before me. It’s important to understand a place on a deeper cultural level.
Writers are selling 60% ideas, 40% execution. I don’t think I’m the best writer out there. What I hope I can deliver is a good idea. When I’m talking to an editor about an approach or an idea then I set out to craft a paragraph. Those ideas comes from me. What they see, what they hear. One of the great things is the people who care about what I do and have an interest in what I do. I write about subjects that interest me!
3. Where are your favorite Food Trucks? What style do you find most interesting?
I like a lot of the new guard of the food trucks. Admire their marketing acumen and opportunistic urge. Out in SF and there is a new food truck named 51st state. Attempt to do a monthly rotation of American regional food. Do honest interpretations from a truck .. Brunswick stew. Fascinating to try to pull something like this from a truck .. It is the diversity of American food tradition. Portland, Oregon went back again to a place called the Swamp Shack. Crawfish pies. I admire all that. It brings me back to a deeper and more profound respect for the working class. The multitude of Mexican straight up taco trucks. I love Mexican hot dog vendors. Those sorts of vendors are some of my favorites. Three tacos for three bucks. The new guard wants to challenge the others. They shouldn’t lose sight of this history.
4. Is there anything that you cook that brings a tear to your eye when you prepare it? Would you mind sharing that recipe? Who does that dish remind you of?
This is an interesting question. The dish that really is my past and my present is my mother’s recipe for catfish stew. It’s the dish that my wife makes now. My wife’s inspiration is Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. My wife changes it up a little bit. She uses broth, and a bit of bacon, and a bit of fish. It’s now part of my wife’s repertoire. It’s really a simple soup. It is just broth with some catfish simmered in it. But it goes much deeper than that.
My cousin a couple of years ago gave me a recipe from an Edisto River restaurant for catfish stew. Ripped out of a page from a recipe book that was marked with my mother’s pen in her hand. I had it framed for the wall in our kitchen. My son will never know my mother, but this recipe is a connection to another world.
5. If you could be anywhere in the world where would it be? Would you be eating or sightseeing? What would you drink with your first meal there?
I’m a small town boy by birth and a small town boy by choice. I lived in Atlanta for 10 years. I love this place. I can take my son to eat dim sum or wander through a Mexican market. We can even eat a bowl of pho for breakfast.
I am on the road so much, being home with my family is what I like most. One place I would like to go is Southern India to eat vegetarian food. I’d really like to go someplace where I don’t speak the language and don’t recognize a soul. Of course I’d start my journey with some fortification in the form of a gin and tonic.
Thank you JT for being so kind to me by participating in the Five Questions on Wild River Review.
From John T. Edge’s website, his bio:
John T. Edge writes a monthly column, “United Tastes,” for the New York Times. He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun. He is a longtime columnist for the Oxford American. He was a contributing editor at Gourmet.
His work for Saveur and other magazines has been featured in seven editions of the Best Food Writing compilation. He has been nominated for five James Beard Foundation Awards, including two M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Awards. In 2009, he was inducted into Beard’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.
Edge holds a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. 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 documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South. The SFA has completed more than 450 oral histories and 20 films, focusing on the likes of fried chicken cooks, row crop farmers, oystermen, and bartenders.
He has a number of books to his credit, including the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook, A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South.
Putnam published his four book series on iconic American eats: Fried Chicken: An American Story; Apple Pie: An American Story; Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story; and Donuts: An American Passion.
Algonquin Books published, in 2007, a revised and expanded edition of Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South.
Edge is editor of the foodways volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. And he is general editor of the book series, Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing.
I want to personally thank JT for guiding me to becoming a food culturalist and eater.
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Wild River Review/Wild Table editor, Warren Bobrow grew up on a farm in Morristown, NJ. A graduate of Emerson College in Boston- with a degree in Film, he spent his senior year of college as a research assistant in visual thinking. (CAVS @ MIT)
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