Ask anyone to define the South and there’s a good chance food is going to come up. Fried chicken, barbecue, gumbo, po boys, you name it. Food is the most immediately recognizable export of Southern culture. It’s also something that unites us and may be the key to unlocking the stories and the history of the South itself.
At least that’s the mission behind the Southern Foodways Alliance founded 20 years ago by John T. Edge.
John T. is also the host of True South an SEC network show that highlights the southeast restaurants and cooks.
On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview, John T. makes some bold claims about Alabama barbecue and white sauce. He explains the historical significance of a cornbread debate. We talk about what makes a good bar and he explains why the region’s immigrants may just hold the key to the continued life of Southern cuisine.
Here’s an excerpt from the episode to get you started.
John T. Edge on white sauce
White sauce is a North Alabama thing. It is only recently that that white sauce has spread outside of Decatur and adjacent cities. It’s only recently that that’s become an Alabama thing. I would say that the Alabama thing for a sandwich is chopped pork on a bun with a sweeter than North Carolina sauce dripping off of it like I think of like the sandwich at Golden Rule in in Hoover. Like that sandwich, to me, tastes like an idealized Alabama example of what barbecue is. And I don’t think about white sauce that way. White sauce is a very specific thing that only spread recently.
John T. Edge on what makes food “Southern”
I would say that what makes food Southern are the people who have cooked, do cook it, and will cook it. I’m more interested in and compelled by the stories of the cooks who have made this food over time than I am the origin point of those ingredients.
So I’m interested in the story of the working class cooks, working class farmers who have sustained this place. So it is that interplay of rich and poor, of black and white, and that kind of fitful dance between them.
That’s what makes Southern food. I don’t think it is technique. It’s not, you know, food that is deep fried. It’s not food that’s smoked.
And there’s a unique and tragic history to this place. And that informs this food. And that’s what makes it distinctive. And that’s not an easy answer. It’s not a sound bite answer.
I think Paula Dean is probably too easy to pick on here. But I do think that this kind of super sizing of Southernness and saying, “it’s only Southern if we do this,” essentializes a story, obscures the real food, and gets us fat.
John T. Edge on Oxford, Mississippi
The physical environment of Oxford is beautiful. It’s a Courthouse Square centered town. But what makes that town are the people who live there, the artists, musicians, the writers, people who kick ass every day.
My wife, Blair, was born in Oxford. She moved away when she was three. Her father took a job as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Auburn. And so Blair grew up in Auburn. But then she moved back to Oxford after getting an MFA at Michigan about the same time I moved there. And so we met there. We made a life in Oxford. We made a boy in Oxford.
So it’s home. I mean, as much as the place I grew up, more than the place I grew up, which is Georgia. Oxford’s home.
We raised our child there. I’ve lived in Oxford longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life. I claim the place and I think so many people in our friend orbit claim Oxford, both for the promise of that city and that artistic community and the peril of Mississippi.
You know, we have leadership at present in our state that is not acting in the best interest of its citizens. We suffer from divisive politics that pull black and white apart and poor and rich apart. And yet, I don’t want to say that we stay in Oxford to fight the power.
We stay in Oxford, because my friend Wright Thompson with whom I make True South, lives eight blocks from me. We stay in Oxford because Tommy Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, novelists, writers, poets, their daughter and our son grew up together. And Tommy, we celebrated his birthday two weeks ago in a big group of writers and creative folk. Like that place enriches us. And I hope we contribute to it in a small way.
Like that’s life. To be a part of a group that recognizes your value and to contribute to that group. That’s all it is. You know, I mean, that’s all I want. And I want to be stimulated, I want to be challenged. I wanna find joy every day.
For more about John T. Edge, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and what makes a good bar (and where the hangovers are still worth it), listen to the full episode here.