The Potlikker Papers

In John T. Edge's thoughtful history of Southern food and culture, the former emerges as a lingua franca used to carry the culture of the South all over the world. The Potlikker Papers offers an unobstructed view of the positive and negative events that led the South into its modern appreciation. His years of research and careful attention to detail truly make this book one that needs to be savored like a classic Southern dish.

Beginning with the Civil Rights Movement as its backdrop, The Potlikker Papers place a value on food. After Rosa Parks' historic refusal kicked off the Montgom-ery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. and others were busy organizing the physical efforts necessary to get those who normally used the city buses to get to work.

Outside on the steps, with just a basket in her arms, Georgia Gilmore sold fried chicken sandwiches to the workers assembled there. Just like so many cooks who have the foresight to see how a list of common ingredients can be combined into a dish that feeds everyone, Gilmore saw that taking this initiative would pay for gas and maintenance for all the cars, vans and sedans that were immediately necessary and that this process could go on for much longer than intended.

Edge examines the ordinary heroism of figures like Gilmore, Zephyr Wright and many more. These figures seem to see the necessity of food as a catalyst for change in a world that does not seem to welcome it so readily. Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer emerges from the pages as one who took on the Herculean task of not only feeding the hungry in the poorest counties in America – the Delta – but purchasing land, supplies and even hogs to teach these destitute residents just how they could put the rich, alluvial soil to work for them.

In The Potlikker Papers, kitchens and diners are first places of protest and then cauldrons of ingenuity. Edge talks about how the history of American fast food really originates with Colonel Sanders and how those entrepreneurs who could harness technology, take advantage of the other elements of change (Eisenhower's interstate system and the growth of highways bisecting the new South in varieties of patterns) and their dedication to Southern tradition could make food that was desired everywhere.

These are all well-chosen, well-researched stories that illuminate the South as the chefs responsible for a bouillabaisse of culture. Even as early utopian movements fester away in urban centers, it is the hippies of Haight-Ashbury who come South to "get back to the land."  The Farm in Summertown, Tenn., makes a riveting case study of how a community as misunderstood could easily contribute to all those longtime residents around them and find the commonalities that allow everyone to live in harmony.

The Potlikker Papers uses the same eloquence and attention to detail to illustrate where this necessity would lead the South and in turn the rest of the world. The diaspora carried Southern recipes and culture to the major cities of Detroit and Chicago where "soul food emerged as a sacrament."

In addition, Edge explains that erudite publishers saw the future of not just cuisine but publishing and broadcasting in the "celebrity chefs" and their imaginations. Paul Prudhomme made Louisiana cooking a household staple as he and dozens of others took advantage of the modern America that looks to cookbooks for guidance and culture.

­Finally, Edge most successfully ties all of these disparate threads together in painting a vivid portrait of the South being modernized. From these kitchens and roadside food stands, a movement emerges where people from everywhere in the United States move to states like ours to imbibe the culture that the nutritious Potlikker of states like ours still has left in the pot.