The Proselytizer of Southern Cooking

Writer John T. Edge has been connecting travelers to backroad barbecue shacks, side-street soul joints, and inner-city food trucks around the South for more than a decade. Road-trippers can’t find a more authentic Dixie dining experience than by heeding his words, but he’s not writing them down just to charm a few palates.

John T. Edge stands on a table in Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q     Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance

Helen Turner, the SFA’s 2013 Queen of Southern BBQ

Southern Guide

Road tripping south of the Mason-Dixon line? Check out some of John T. Edge’s favorite stops.

BBQ Nation: The Preservation of a Culinary Art Form,” Saveur

My Cheesy Passion,” The Oxford American

United Tastes,” The New York Times
 
100 Southern Foods,” Garden and Gun

Director’s Cut: Buffalo, Barbecue, and Heifers in Little Rock,” SFA Blog

 

In order to call attention to someone else, John T. Edge realized he needed to stand on a table and shout. It was the fourth night of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and the crowd inside Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q was too busy talking about “real” bologna and sipping ten-year-old bourbon to notice him talking on their level. So, with a half full City Slicker whiskey cocktail in hand, the 50-year-old excused himself to those seated at the booth behind him, stepped onto their seat, and then onto their table. The guests had just paid $125 a plate, and likely didn’t expect their third course to be a serving of Edge’s size 9 ½ Billy Reid wing tips, which had logged a mailman’s miles over Charleston streets the last four days.

Just about anywhere else, Edge would have stood out. He wore a dark brown suitcoat, a checkered shirt, a blue sweater, brown pants, thick black-framed glasses, and a beaver pelt hat. But the clientele at this BBQ was mostly upper-middle class and decidedly Southern; even the staff wore plaid and checkered shirts. So Edge blended in, until he stood above the crowd and yelled for everyone to hush up. Then a man with the band handed him a microphone. 

Edge calls himself the proselytizer in chief of the Southern Foodways Alliance. As the group's motto goes, “We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor—all who gather—may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.”

That sentence blossomed out of a symposium on Southern food that Edge organized as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in May of 1998. He grew up in a small town in Georgia and loved Southern traditions, but hated the class divisions and racism that went with them. Once at Ole Miss, he struggled to find a simple way into difficult discourse on the South, until he attended a symposium on Elvis that used to the musician to jump into bigger discussions on race and class. Edge substituted fried chicken, grits, and okra in the Memphis rocker's place.

The symposium was such a hit that in July of 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance formed and voted Edge director. As the sole full-time employee, he had one important decision to make. He could focus his efforts on preserving and sharing recipes in a cookbook, or on preserving and sharing the stories of Southern personalities through oral histories. He chose the latter.

The SFA now has seven full-time employees who have created more than 500 oral histories, more than 30 films, countless articles, and, yes, several highly successful cookbooks. Edge now pens articles about Southern food for The New York Times, Oxford American, and Garden and Gun. All of the growth and attention sometimes leads Edge to worry that the Southern Foodways Alliance may get fat and lose its soul. That’s why he thinks it’s important for him to admit that his organization often fails.

EDGE STOOD ON THE TABLE to call attention to Helen Turner, a barbecue pitmaster from Brownsville, Tennessee. She was in the back cooking, so he introduced a film, put together by his colleague Joe York, which chronicled a day in her life.

Turner barbecues the old-fashioned way, by shoveling oak and hickory coals under hog shoulder in a room filled with so much smoke that it makes her cry. Normally, she cooks in a roadside shack. On this day, she cooked in the alley behind Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. The weekend marked her first time out of Tennessee and her first time on a plane. “The only thing about the flight was it just made my ears hum for a minute,” she said. “They told me to chew some gum, but it didn’t work.” 

For 17 years, she’s spent six days out of the week barbecuing hog shoulders in her own restaurant. Every morning, her husband, Reggie, wakes up at 5 A.M. and stocks her pit with oak and hickory. She wakes at 6:30 A.M., and sometimes cooks nine hours out of the day. Before she took ownership of the place, she had zero experience with barbecue; she learned by watching her ex-bosses. Now, she charges $3.85 for her doorstop of a sandwich, a pile of pulled pork spattered with secret sauce and topped with coleslaw on a white bun. She has written the recipe for her sauce down zero times, and has never shared her secret ingredients with a stranger. On that Saturday morning in Charleston, she made a batch for 130 people by herself.

Her favorite moment every day, she says, is when she opens up her doors to her customers. They offer something she can count on. One old man shows up every morning and says, “Helen, fix me one of those nasty sandwiches.” There are surprises too, like the Chinese tourists that crammed into her shack the other day, or the old man whose order made her laugh too hard, and work even harder. He said, “I don’t have any teeth, so chop the hell out of that meat.” 

At Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Turner had a toothier audience. She cooked for Food Network chef and 2013 James Beard nominee Chris Cosentino, who sat in a booth at the edge of the room. A boar boccalone salumi starter platter at his San Francisco, California, restaurant Incanto costs almost ten times more than a Turner sandwich. At the end of the night, he and fellow 2013 James Beard nominee April Bloomfield asked Turner if she would take a picture with them. Julian P. Van Winkle III sat in a corner booth. A single bottle of his bourbon—best described as the Tickle Me Elmo of southern spirits—can fetch more than Turner makes in a day selling sandwiches to 100 or so customers. As the night wore on, Van Winkle offered up a toast.

After the crowd watched Turner's story in the movie, they gave her a standing ovation. The applause had a powerful effect on Turner, though not quite as powerful as a roomful of smoke. “It almost brought me to tears,” she said.

Edge said the point of the event was to trumpet Turner’s expertise to another world. “I want to telegraph to the foodocracy that Helen Turner is the one who should be in the kliegs—for her smarts, her grit, and her great food,” he said.

Still, Edge wasn’t satisfied with one successful event. After he returned from the Wine + Food Festival, he wrote a blog post about the biggest SFA failing he hopes to overcome. “Membership in the SFA is still too white and too wealthy. Too many of our events offer great food and drink, but deliver too little intellectual and emotional substance,” Edge wrote. “But still we try.”

THOUGH EDGE OFFERS EASY introductions between celebrated chefs and blue-collar cooks at events, he connects people most powerfully through his writing. He seeks to repair the damage done by centuries of a flawed culture by elevating the profiles of unknown, often poor, food personalities who have perfected their crafts.

“If you’re asking somebody to make a leap, or if you’re asking somebody to do something that may be uncomfortable for them, one way is to let them know that you’ve struggled with the same issues,” says Edge’s colleague Joe York. “In that way, admitting your failings isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength.” 

To understand Edge's unique career path, there are two articles you must read. In 2003, he wrote a story called “Open House” for the Oxford American about a restaurant where he partied as a student at the University of Georgia. He reveled at the haunt, even though rumors connected the joint’s owners to the Ku Klux Klan. As an adult on assignment, he returned to confront the owners. The ending is not celebratory, but Edge’s honesty throughout the quest is redemptive. 

In 2012, Edge won the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing from the James Beard Foundation for an essay titled “BBQ Nation.” He begins by reflecting on a childhood hangout, a local barbecue where he didn’t bother to learn the names or stories of the black pitmasters who prepared his food. Edge admits their stories are lost. It’s one of the reasons, as an adult, he maps out a trail of Southern barbecue joints and profiles their owners.

One of the men he mentions in that article is Rodney Scott, the pitmaster at Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina—population 459. Edge first wrote about Scott in a 2009 story for the The New York Times. Before that, Scott’s biggest publicity was a brief appearance on a local TV station. His steady stream of customers was mostly local and regional. After the article, business picked up, additional national press coverage followed, and Scott’s clientele diversified. “We now have a lot of tourists from all over the world,” he said. “We’ve had people in from London, Bosnia, California, and Australia.”

Scott appreciates that Edge goes his own way. “He’s an amazing artist who chooses what he does, who he do it for, and who he do it with,” he said. “He just pretty much lets you know where some of the great spots are that aren’t in famous or prime locations.” 

Mostly, though, Scott appreciates Edge’s honesty, on everything from other’s people cooking, to his personal beliefs, to the food industry. “He don’t just blow smoke up your ass about what goes on, neither,” he said. “He’s straight up.”

To find out what drives Edge to raise the profiles of unknown Southern food personalities by reflecting on his own failures, I interviewed him on the first night of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, during a walk from a dinner to an after party.

SPRING: So you grew up in Georgia. Where did you connection to food begin?
EDGE: I grew up in town called Clinton, about 12 miles north of Macon. Clinton was maybe 50 people, so it’s not really a town. More significant to me, it was home to a really good barbecue joint called Old Clinton Barbecue. My family had a charge account there.

How often would you eat there?
Every Saturday. I could charge a sandwich and a half Brunswick stew, not a whole Brunswick stew, and a Mountain Dew. The Mountain Dew was the one that had the hillbilly and the bottle top that went off—that era. But that place meant a lot to me. It was a clubhouse for that town. I loved the barbecue, but I was also fascinated by this culture and this lady, who was the pit mistress, although, she didn’t do the work. Black men did the work.

Miss Coulter was probably in her sixties when I started going there. She had this cumulus of grey curls and she sat back and chopped the hell out of shoulders—chopped them up into little bits. All those things fascinated me: the black men doing the work, the white woman doling out the sandwiches—although, I wouldn’t have thought of it in those terms—the kind of clubhouse of that place. I loved it.

For me, food mattered as much as it did as a commercial product as it did as home cooking. You talk to most people in the South and they talk about their momma’s great cooking. My momma was a great cook, but I grew up as fascinated with food outside the home as I did with food inside the home.

What did your parents do?
My father was a lifelong civil servant, a probation officer in the federal court system.  My mother worked in various government jobs too, and retired from that to raise me.

My father was, is, a really curious cook. We went to Atlanta a lot, which was only an hour away. My father would drive down Buford Highway, which is Atlanta’s multicultural corridor, and literally go rooting through a freezer at a Chinese grocery store, and go, “What’s this?” My mother was more of a vegetable soup and cornbread kind of cook, in a good way. Like salmon croquettes and catfish stew. But, you know, for me, those things held equal fascination.

When you were growing up, did you want to go into food?
No. I wanted to be an archeologist. As a kid I literally dug up Confederate relics and shit.

Confederate relics? In your backyard?
It’s a twisted story, because I grew up in a town at a time when my parents were more interested in the Civil Rights movement than they were in, I guess, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. But I grew up digging, thinking I was going to find cannon balls in the backyard. The guy who built our house—his son finished the house—was a Confederate brigadier general.

So, I was interested in Southern history from an early stage and I was always interested in the kind of tension … No, I wasn’t interested in the tension between shit. I didn’t know.

When did the idea to become a writer hit you?
I had no notion to be a writer until I went back to grad school, back to school even. I flunked out of the University of Georgia. I drank a whole bunch. I had a really great time. I started at Georgia in 1980, which was a great year for music and a bad year for my grades. But I didn’t give a damn about school. I didn’t care.

So what happened in the time between dropping out and …
I took a corporate job. I sold a datastream of financial analysis to foreign exchange traders and fixed income brokers, and wackiness like that.

And then I moved. I had a pretty good life. I lived in Little Five Points in Atlanta and bought my own little house. I was a budding corporate swine, but I didn’t like the people I worked with and I didn’t like what I did. I didn’t dislike the people I worked with, but I just dealt with this sense of defeat everyday. I didn’t give a shit. It was kind of like a redux of college.

I wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to figure out why I loved the place I’m from and why I loathed the place where I was from. So I went back to finish my undergraduate degree in Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. I was really interested in race relations. That’s why I really loathed the place. Because if you’re going to be mad at your region, that’s why you’re going to be mad at your region.

How did the food come into it?
I remember reading an article in USA Today about Rick Bayless. He was taking these trips—taking his staff to Mexico. He called what he was doing with his staff culinary anthropology. And I went, “Oh shit, I guess I could do that.” I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t dig that deep into it at that point.

When I was in grad school I worked on this effort to erect a civil rights memorial at the University. It went off track, but it was exactly what I still care about, what I’m proud of, and what we fail at every day with SFA, but we keep trying: to use food to bridge race and class gaps. That’s what I give a shit about.

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