A Talk With John T. Edge

john-t-edgeFood writer, director of the University of Mississippi’s Southern Foodway Alliance (SFA), and Oxford resident, John T. Edge was preparing for the SFA’s annual October symposium and was ‘completely crazed,’ but was kind enough to take a took a few minutes to chat with us.

OxfordMississippi.com: What does the T stand for?

John T. Edge: Thomas

OXMS: Do you have the best job in the world?

Edge: (Laughs). No. But some days it seems like it.

OXMS: I imagine your job as eating your way through some of the best kitchens in America on an expense account (without the headache of actually running a restaurant) .

Edge: Well… that’s not wholly accurate. I don’t have an expense account for everyday encounters and everyday meals. I have to engineer my eating so that it’s tied to assignments, whether it be the New York Times or the Oxford American or whomever, so it’s not quite as luxe as that. Not quite as sexy as that.

OXMS: You left out Gourmet. What going to become of Gourmet?

Edge: No idea. I’m sad at the news; very sad at the news. I’d been writing for that magazine for eight years and that was the last magazine I did have an expense for. The idea of an expense accounts sounds awful indulgent but if you’re going to write about food you need to eat broadly and you need to eat often and you need to eat with a sense of intellectual curiosity and sense of abandon almost. It cost money to write about food. It costs a goodly bit because the people who are legit don’t take free meals.

OXMS: What is the Southern Foodways Alliance and what do you see its role as being?

Edge: Our role is straightforward. We’re an instate of the Study of Southern Culture here at the University of Mississippi and we do three things. We document southern food culture by way of oral history, interviews and films. We study Southern food by way of publishing compendiums of writing, by way of staging public academic addresses, by way of mentoring graduate students who come here with that interest- an interest in food. We celebrate Southern food culture by staging events across the region and beyond each year, everything from our annual symposium in October to field trips where they are more about experiential learning. The last one of those was in Bristol, TN and the next one this summer will likely be on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

OXMS: You mentioned October as being the month the SFA holds its annual symposium. What is this year’s theme?

Edge: The theme this year is food and music. This idea that out of this place and from these people came these great kind of cultural creations and this idea that food and music are cultural creations that are interlinked. That’s the thematic structure of the event. There will be everything from a talk by a gentleman named Bob O’Meally at Columbia University about the agricultural roots of American Music. So everything from Mr. O’Meally to a performance by Ballet Memphis based on various and sundry songs about pork including what we are loosely calling a “chitlin’ ballet.”

OXMS: What is your favorite song about food or that mentions food?

Edge: That’s a good question. Let me think about that for a second. I’d have to say something about food and drink. There’s a cover of Snoop Dogg’s Gin & Juice by the Gourds. I love that cover. It’s right up there by the Derailer’s doing Raspberry Beret by Prince.

OXMS: Was the genesis of the original symposium?

Edge: The Center for The Study of Southern Culture has a long track record of public programming: conferences on Faulkner, conferences on the state of the book in the South; a long history of public programming. When I came here as a graduate student I asked the basic question, “Well, why don’t we stage a symposium on the Southern foodways?” And the response from Bill Ferris and Anne Abadie and the folks that ran the Center at that point was, “O.K. Figure it out.” So I did.

OXMS: Has it developed the way you thought it would or has it turned into something different than you expected?

Edge: I expected that I might run a conference for the next few years. I didn’t expect there to be a really strong membership supported organization with over 800 members across the country and internationally. I mean, God help me, there is somebody in Alaska who is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. It has grown in terms of import and in terms of mission in a way I didn’t expect and a lot of that has been driven not by me but by the people who saw possibilities in what we were doing and certainly by the people that will work with me. People like Amy Evans who came on as a graduate student in Southern Studies and now has in her work has cataloged more than 450 oral history interviews with fried chicken cooks and tamale makers and the like. And Joe York who has made over twenty films and came out of the same thing- came out of the Southern Studies Program. I didn’t envision those possibilities but I certainly am as pleased as I can be that those documentary efforts are driving what we do.

OXMS: You’ve written about Fried Chicken, Donuts, Apple Pie, Hamburgers, you are currently working on a book about truck stop food…

Edge: Not truck stop. Nope. It is about truck food but it’s not about truck stop food. About truck food and street food. This kind of modern American phenomenon inspired in part by new Hispanic immigration into the US. It’s about those sorts of things. It’s about American street food.

OXMS: The October Gourmet has a piece about street food. We see Anthony Bourdain travel to the other side of the world to eat peasant food. We see world class chefs often having dishes in their restaurants where they reinvent simple dishes from their childhood. Is there a trend to get back to comfort food?

Edge: I think that’s the way food has… you know … good food always draws upon its roots. The cultural roots of that person and that place. That’s nothing new. I think the idea that that is now sexy, the idea that that is now saleable, the idea that truck food is now Twitterable and Tweetable, whichever the Hell way you are supposed to say that… that’s what’s new. It’s about the marketing of it. But this reliance upon peasant food for white tablecloth food; that’s the way it’s always been.

OXMS: I saw a website a while ago that basically listed death row inmates and their last meal. I thought you’d see a lot of steak and lobster but what I saw was peanut butter and jelly and Coke, or fried chicken and Kool-Aid or a hamburger and French fries. What would be your death row meal?

Edge: Um, it would more than likely be BBQ and then I would hope that I would not be on death row in Massachusetts.

OXMS: There are regional styles of cooking (low country, Creole, California Cuisine, Tex-Mex), even regionally recognizable style of BBQ as you mentioned. Does it go more specific than region? Can you tell Georgia cuisine from Mississippi or Alabama Cuisine? And could a state have a signature dish?

Edge: I think state boundaries are difficult to draw when you are looking at a particular food. I think it is more about kind of, you know, the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia or the Piedmont of North Carolina or the band of boudin lovers that stretches from Southwest Louisiana into Texas. You are looking at geographic regions and cultural regions more so that state boundaries. People talk about microclimates when they talk about wine- the ability to grow a certain grape in certain place and I think there are food microclimates all across the country, all across each state. There are certain pockets of Mississippi where butter rolls are eaten. Where dinner rolls sobbed with butter and sugar are kind of de rigueur and then you drive 100 miles away from there and the people don’t know what a butter roll is.

OXMS: When did you begin writing about food?

Edge: About… let’s see…. I’d say nineteen ninety… five? Somewhere around there.

OXMS: When did you realize you could make a living at it?

Edge: I still can’t make a living at it.

OXMS: What brought you to Oxford?

Edge: I moved to Oxford because I wanted to make sense of my own relationship with the South. I love this place and yet there is much about our region, especially when it comes to issues of race and class that bugs the Hell out of me. So I came here to try to resolve that. To try to understand my region better. And because I was the kind of kid that had a great time my first time around in college but didn’t really study and by the time I was in my thirties I was ready to study. I was intellectually curious about my region and was fired up to go back to school.

OXMS: Is there another town in America with a full-time population of less than 20K with a better food scene than Oxford?

Edge: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’d love to hit the road and try to find out.

OXMS: What type of restaurant is Oxford missing?

Edge: Wow. That’s a good question. A number. I think Oxford lacks a restaurant where you can get… uh. I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I ‘ll pass on that question.

OXMS: What is your favorite restaurant in your travels?

Edge: My favorite restaurant in my travels? It’s where ate or what I loved a week ago, you know? It changes every time I head out on a trip. On this last trip I went to a really great po’boy place in New Orleans and… what’s the name of that place? It was a fried shrimp po’boy with a part of a shrimp market in the Gentilly neighborhood right around the corner from Gendusa’s Bakery. Zippy’s? It was in a seafood market and when you ordered your shrimp poboy they peeled your shrimp, breaded them and fried them. It was just the perfect fried shrimp poboy. (Editor’s note: it’s Zimmer’s Seafood)

OXMS: What do you think the best food city in America is?

Edge: Oh, Lord. I think I can make a case for New Orleans and New York for two different reasons. I think New Orleans celebrates its vernacular cookery better than any city does and I think New York plays host to the United Nations and I think New York is the United Nations of food. Any sort of food any sort of technique. This great kind of myriad of people and restaurants is what defines New York for me.

OXMS: What culinary figure has had the most impact on you?

Edge: John Edgerton has been a mentor to me and a great friend and this guy who has written two big books in his life: one on Southern food and one on the generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Both kind of groundbreaking books and his interest in those two subjects has kind of driven my relationship with him and he’s been a great mentor to me and to the Southern Foodways Alliance.

OXMS: This year you were inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. What has that meant to you?

Edge: I mean, it’s humbling. In some way it means your peers were paying attention and that’s about the best thing you can ask for- that your peers were paying attention when hopefully you had your head down doing it.

OXMS: Its football season and you are tailgating in The Grove. Money is no issue. What are you serving to eat and drink at your tent vs. the Razorbacks?

Edge: (Laughs). I’m pretty sure what I served last week because I went out to Liz and Frank’s Farmers Market out on North Lamar past the intersection of Molly Barr Road. On Saturday mornings they’ve got tamales sitting in a cooler right up front and I got some spicy pork tamales that were chocked with jalapenos and I got about two dozen of those and brought them out to The Grove. And they were perfect. And they were a great kind of Mississippi moment, too because some of these people tailgating (and we were actually in The Circle) said, “Are these tamales?” And I said, “Yeah.” And they were expecting Delta tamales and yet these were, you know, Delta tamales a hundred years before Delta tamales; two hundred years before. And they were just fantastic tamales. I really admire what Liz and Frank are doing out there. If anyone is driving the local food system… if any place is driving the local food system I think it’s that market. The number of other restaurateurs who care deeply about this including people like John Currence [City Grocery, Snackbar] and Paige Osborne [Yocona River Inn] and Shannon Adams [Honey Bee Bakery] and Cynthia Gerlach [Bottletree Bakery] and yet I think what Liz and Frank are doing out there is kind of curating a food scene and I think a lot of great things will grow out of that place and already have grown out of that place.


Read more about the Southern Foodways Alliance

Follow John T. Edge on his blog, http://www.johntedge.com/

{photo credit: John T. Edge & Yvonne Boyd}

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  1. Nice interview…I enjoyed reading that. I think its interesting to hear about why people move to Oxford. I can dig his conflicted feelings about the South. The way it used to be and the way it is now clash head on around here.

  2. agree there Carl.. it’s amazing, though, to see the great steps the city (and university) have taken over the past – short – ten years.. makes me a happy man to see the city mature..

  3. Great interview Derek. In my travels I’d put Northampton, MA as a small town with a great restaurant scene up against Oxford. Although if L and M’s and Yocona were still in business I’d say that Oxford wins the matchup…

  4. What a fantastic interview… chocked full of neat information from an Oxford Man of Distinction.

    Great blog site… this was my first visit and I’m sure to return!

  5. Very nicely done. I’d love to see more interviews like this of Oxonians of interest.

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