You can best understand the South, and its history, by studying its food.
Such a rich and colorful history undeniably and regrettably includes what has been called the Original Sin — slavery — leading to the Civil War and its long and often bloody aftermath: Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the black freedom struggle, and assimilating new immigrants.
As for Southern food — the ultimate in American regionalism and What Tastes Great — there’s cornbread, of course. And grits. And collard greens, black-eyed peas and fried chicken. Oh, and good bourbon. And pork. Lots and lots of pork.
Studying and writing about the Southern Experience has been the life and profession of Georgia native John T. Edge, a James Beard Award-winning writer and director since 1999 of the Southern Foodways Alliance based on the University of Mississippi’s campus in Oxford, Miss.
He’ll discuss his latest, much-recommended book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” as part of the Nashville Reads 2017-18 series finale, set for 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, May 1 at the Nashville Downtown Library.
Preceding the spring event, there’s a host of food-related Nashville Reads events, starting with a “Nashville Reads Kick-Off with Randy Rayburn and Company” set for 2 p.m. this Saturday, Feb. 24 at Nashville’s downtown main library.
Veteran restaurateur and all-around nice guy Randy Rayburn (Midtown Cafe, Cabana and the shuttered Sunset Grill) will facilitate a discussion with top Nashville chefs Deb Paquette (Etch, Etc.), Margot McCormack (Margot Cafe and Bar), Tandy Wilson (City House), and Chef Paul Brennen and award-winning student Marcio Florez of the Nashville State Community College Culinary Arts program, which bears founder Rayburn’s name.
One of Music City’s most admirable happenings, Nashville Reads began in 2012 as a way of bringing the entire city together to read great literature, in an attempt to broaden the literary horizons of the city and to open up a forum for discussion. Partners include the Nashville Public Library, Parnassus Books, Humanities Tennessee, the Nashville Public Library Foundation, Bookpage, and the Mayor Megan Barry and the Mayor’s Office.
Following his talk in May, Edge will be joined in panel discussion afterward by James Beard Award-winning chef-owner Sean Brock (Husk); chef-owner and TV’s “Chopped” judge Maneet Chauhan (Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Tansuo and The Mockingbird); and Nashville native Caroline Randall Williams, author of the critically acclaimed book “Soul Food Love.”
“What we realized is that we want to document the South, and it’s the South of this moment, and it’s the South of this moment with a tether to the past. So it’s an old guard barbecue pitmaster who is four generations deep in the South,” the 55-year-old Edge has been quoted. “You want to tell his story, but you also want to tell the story of the new Mexican immigrant who is cooking barbacoa in southeast Texas. It’s not preserving a South of the past. It’s documenting a South that has a past.”
Edge has been a frequent Nashville visitor through the years, and ties to Music City abound in “The Potlikker Papers,” which was released in June 2017.
In fact, he laments that he had planned on having the book’s foreword written by the late, great John Egerton, the Nashville-based Southern food writer whose influential books on Southern food included the 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.”
I can relate. Before Egerton’s untimely death in fall 2013, he was nice enough to write the forward to the now out-of-print 2006 and 2008 editions of a dining guidebook that I co-authored, “Where the Locals Eat-Nashville.”
And I was John’s editor for a series of columns about Southern Food that appeared in the now-defunct Nashville Banner in the late 1980s. He was indeed a heck of a fellow, and could speak for longer than you could ever imagine on the glories of hot water cornbread.
Among the Nashville-based chefs lined up for Edge’s panel, Sean Brock features prominently in “The Potlikker Papers,” headlining a chapter titled “Restaurant Renaissance’ that dates from the 1990s to present day. First gained prominence as the twenty something head chef at Nashville’s Capital Grille, the Virginia native led the culinary charge toward reviving heirloom ingredients, particularly in Lowcountry fare, at his trailblazing restaurants Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C.
Brock is a regular presence at the Nashville outpost of Husk, which opened in 2013, and is also known for his appearances as a judge on TV’s “Top Chef.”
Fittingly, Brock was among the chefs who donated their time and their food for a reception after the filled-to-overflowing memorial for John Egerton in November 2013 at the downtown Main Library, at which Edge was one of the featured speakers.
At one point, before digging into smoked bologna sandwiches and apple hand pies, I visited the library’s stacks to read some of Egerton’s timeless prose.
You should, too. And John T. Edge’s fine books won’t be far away.
All of the Nashville Reads events are free of charge. For more information and a schedule of upcoming events, go to the Nashville Reads website.
Nashville Reads Kick-Off with Randy Rayburn and Company
Saturday, Feb. 24: 2 PM
Location: Main Library
Veteran restaurateur Randy Rayburn (Midtown Cafe, Cabana) facilitates a discussiion with top Nashville chefs Deb Paquette (Etch, Etc.), Margot McCormack (Margot Cafe and Bar), Tandy Wilson (City House) and Chef Paul Brennen and award-winning student Marcio Florez of the Nashville State Community College Culinary Arts program.
Nashville Reads Finale with John T. Edge
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 6:15 PM
Location: Main Library
John T. Edge discusses “The Potlikker Papers,” followed by a panel discussion with Sean Brock of Husk, Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Tansuo, and The Mockingbird, and Caroline Randall Williams, author of Soul Food Love.