– The Potlikker Papers

The Potlikker Papers:  A Food History of the Modern South” by John T. Edge.  New York:  Penguin Press, 2017, 370 pages, $28

Distinguished food writer John Edge talks about the Civil Rights movement and the New South eating scene via the lens of its foodways and culinary traditions.  Subjects covered include black farmers and the U.S. Dept of Agriculture, Great Society commodities programs, social justice as seen through the eyes of domestic workers, and the Southern lunch-counter desegregation sit-ins.

Edge suggests that the kitchen was a source of expression and empowerment for many black household workers and a realm in which they could assert authority that had an impact on employers.  He observed, “At a moment when they had seemingly little leverage, cooking afforded brave black women intimate and essential power.”

The democratization of dining out, the rise of Southern-inspired fast foods, and the 1960s “back to the land” communal farm craze also receive attention in “The Potlikker Papers”  along with a description of the tradition of feeding farmhands and the family-style boarding house table known to generations of more urban Southerners.

Edge takes the opportunity to profile many Southern food personalities of all races including Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme, Craig Claiborne, Nathalie Dupree and Vertamae Grosvenor, among others.  He even turns his attention to such over-the-top Southern parodies as KFC founder Colonel Harlan Sanders, and Grand Ole Opry Star Minnie Pearl, the founder of a very short-lived chain of restaurants.

All in all, a fascinating history of how the South came to eat what it eats, interspersed with some telling social observations.  Just don’t expect actual recipes.  Edge is much more likely to quote social activist Fannie Lou Hamer than to quote pioneering cookbook author Fannie Farmer.

“The Potlikker Papers” will be discussed via Zoom on May 5 at noon as part of the Mayor’s Book Club series.        

Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Services Manager at ACPL. She can be reached at lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org

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