As someone who is passionate about English history and culture, I also find myself fascinated by, and drawn to, the United States, in particular the American South. This is unsurprising, for the United States was, at its inception, a product of the people and culture of England and the British Isles. While, of course, the modern United States is a manifestation of the meeting of a vast array of peoples and cultures, it still remains arguably fundamentally European, and people of European ancestry (non-Hispanic whites) are still the majority. For someone interested in the British roots of American culture, the Southern states are particularly fascinating. And for someone who loves delicious food, the American South has great appeal on that front, too (indeed, one of the reasons I travelled to Mississippi in 2015 was to enjoy a Southern barbecue sandwich in its native setting).
If you start reading about Southern food and its history, it won’t be long before you come across the work of John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance, of which he is director. In that field, Edge is something of a minor celebrity: his name pops up in numerous books and articles and he is ‘a go-to authority for publications including the New York Times and Gourmet‘. As such, it is worth looking at exactly what the message of Edge and his organisation actually is. Far from Edge being simply a scholar who objectively studies the food of the South, what actually emerges is a picture of a stereotypical white liberal academic who uses the topic of food as a vehicle through which to push a leftist multicultural vision. In other words, Edge is not just a food writer, he is actually an ideologue, and he seems less concerned with celebrating Southern culture than he is with seeking to radically change it.
Edge holds an MA in Southern Studies—with a special interest in race relations—from the University of Mississippi, and is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. According to Becca Walton of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, ‘at the Center, we imagine foodways as a way to open up big conversations about labor, and class, and race, and sexuality’. The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) states that ‘we honor people working toward race, class, gender, and environmental justice with John Egerton Prizes’ and talks of being ‘inclusive’, ‘collaborative’, ‘egalitarian’, and devoted to ‘diversity’. Students associated with the SFA are committed to the notion of ‘foodways and social justice’ and have interests such as ‘the intersection of southern identity and race, class, and sexuality’ and ‘the intersection of food justice, race, class, food politics, and social movement activism and organizing’. The 2017 SFA Graduate Student Conference featured presentations on topics such as ‘The Grocery Store as Gendered Sphere’ and ‘Resisting Gender Norms Through Craft Butchery’. For his part, at the University of Mississippi, Edge ‘discovered a common thread between food, social justice, politics, and fun’. Remove the Southern food aspect, and this could be any politically correct leftist academic clique anywhere in the United States. If all this sounds more like the content you’d associate with a ‘social justice’ Tumblr blog than with actual food writing, that is because it arguably is. The public face of the study of Southern food, it turns out, is more a left-wing activist movement and advocacy group than anything else, and its chief spokesman, John T. Edge, is every bit as ideologically-driven as his younger charges.
In a 2016 Oxford American article, Edge states:
If you live on the same street as me you know I’m a liberal. If you follow my Twitter feed, you recognize that I reserve a circle in hell for the neo-Confederates and country club privilege jockeys who knead and twist and shape the history of this region until they render themselves victims… I think of myself as a progressive.
As someone who likes to boast of his Twitter activity, it is unsurprising to find that in the same article, Edge also feels the need to drop in a reference to Donald Trump being a man who supposedly ‘incites racial violence’. It is also perhaps unsurprising to read that Edge reportedly recently dressed his pet dog in a feathered boa and took her to a gay pride parade. Virtue-signalling all round.
Edge, then, is very much a ‘political’ person, and this shows both in his work and in his statements in interviews of recent years (he does a lot of interviews). In an April 2017 Saveur interview, Edge asked, introspectively:
Why am I obsessed with Southern food if in reality what I’m obsessed with is the South’s tragic history and the imprint of racism on this region? Why do I write about food if that’s what’s really in the back of my head?
In a Wall Street Journal review of Edge’s 2017 book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, Padgett Powell writes of ‘the huge naïveté of thinking its author a food writer’. Edge, argues Powell, is ‘not a food writer to the first power’, but is someone who instead produces ‘food writing that is not food writing’.
The answer to Edge’s question about why he chooses to write about food is probably a fairly mundane one: he enjoys food. A lot of other people like food, too, so it is arguably a good topic to use a cover for promoting a political agenda. But exactly what is Edge’s political agenda?
Sifting through various interviews and articles, a pattern emerges of Edge as man shaped by the 1960s and dedicated to a two-pronged approach to changing the face of the South. The first is to undermine any sense that white culture is an important or legitimate part of what constitutes Southern culture as a whole, and the second is to seek to rid the South of any traces of white Southern identity through an embrace of a multicultural future.
On a certain level, one can sympathise. To speak of the white contribution to the creation of Southern culture, and to look at the fundamentally British and European nature of much of Southern history, is also inevitably to have to reckon with the tragedy and injustice of slavery and segregation. Beautiful antebellum estates were at the same time slave labour camps. Black cooks who added new flavours and dishes to the table of white Southerners did so under compulsion. There is much ugliness to be faced.
For Edge, the ugliness is too much to bear, so he simply wishes to throw out the white contribution to Southern culture altogether. In a misleading and historically nonsensical recent utterance, Edge claimed that:
Southern food is black food. Full stop.
Anyone who has taken the time to look at the history of classic Southern dishes can see the absurdity in Edge’s statement. Edge grants that ‘the evolution of that food has been helped by white people, Mexican people, Vietnamese people’, but in doing so, he turns the truth about Southern food upside down. The truth is that Southern food has a core of European recipes that were adjusted for the new environment (particularly through making use of Native American techniques) then added to and developed as a result of the presence of blacks in the South. To read Edge’s ‘authoritative’ statement on what traditional Southern food is—’black food’—you could come away with the impression that whites in the South were sitting around starving until black slaves arrived and gave them their new cuisine. So, why does Edge want to deny or minimise the importance of the white contribution to Southern food and culture? For ideological reasons. For Edge, the only South worth talking about began with the Civil Rights movement:
Definitions of the South typically depend on geography or secession. The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South… [T]he struggle that defines my South was the Civil Rights Movement, not the Civil War. That’s the tipping point. That’s the beginning of the South that I embrace. It’s the beginning of the South that is forward-thinking instead of backward-looking. It’s the South that inspires me.
Edge sees any positive view of white Southern culture as being based on a fantasy of ‘Moonlight and Magnolias’, and dreams of a future South in which whites are relegated to being just another minority among many:
The one thing I know is that as the South realizes its demographic destiny and the nation realizes its demographic destiny, we become a majority-minority country.
Edge is a fervent multiculturalist, so, for him, this is the ideal. When it comes to Southern culture, Edge states he is no longer interested in ‘affirmations’ but is instead engaged in ‘a willful act of self-creation, an attempt to redefine the region in an inclusive and progressive way’. Having dispensed with the pre-1960s South (with the exception of ‘black food’), Edge also dispenses with any notion of the continuation of an Anglo-American South in the future (or, seemingly, even a black South):
You can glimpse a better South on the streets of Houston at lunch at Cali Sandwich Shop, where I had beautiful banh mi yesterday. I looked across the room and there were Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Anglo American folk all eating banh mi as if it were their birthright. That is, for me, hopeful.
(Edge perhaps shows his age here. I’m not sure today’s generation of ‘cultural appropriation’ obsessed bores would be impressed by a white academic eating Vietnamese food ‘as if it were his birthright’.)
So, for Edge, the ideal of a ‘better South’ is a South that isn’t recognisably the South at all: a South that looks like America’s most diverse city, with a completely new cuisine. Or perhaps not completely new. There is room for boiled crawfish cooked by a Vietnamese American, or a barbecue restaurant ‘owned in part by a former Korean pop star’. ‘That, to me, looks like a truer South on the horizon’, claims Edge. ‘We need to look towards a future-tense South, which means uplifting immigrants and international food’, states Edge, who, one starts to suspect, is not even particularly interested in traditional Southern food anymore:
I’m as likely to pull into a taqueria in search of a Saturday bowl of posole as I am to drive to a biscuit hut for a tenderloin-stuffed cathead… I rarely detour for a whole-hog sandwich capped with vinegar slaw… Instead, I downshift off the interstate into Taste of India, where the shelves are stocked with sesame chaat, and the tables are set with plastic tubs that once contained Hillshire Farms turkey breast slices, and now brim with sweet mango pickles and sour lemon pickles.
One of Edge’s favourite restaraunts (where he ‘often snacks‘) is ‘Snackbar, the Oxford brasserie presided over by Vishwesh Bhatt, a native of Gujarat, India’. It ticks the boxes: run by a non-white immigrant, Snackbar features upscale versions of Southern food, mixed with trendy dishes such as okra chaat, which, reports Edge, ‘tastes like a street vendor’s answer to Suvir Saran’s elegant bhindi’ (Edge really likes that okra chaat, also mentioning it in an NPR interview and on the SFA website). Snackbar has also named a cocktail after Edge’s feathered boa-wearing pet dog, Lurleen.
Despite Edge’s disparagement of old South ‘moonlight and magnolias’ culture and his embrace of a seemingly non-Southern future South, his love of Oxford’s Snackbar does raise some questions about the consistency and authenticity even of Edge’s apparently left-leaning and ‘progressive’ identity. Of Snackbar, we read: ‘Top shelf whiskies and an extensive glass wine program round out an inviting and cozy bar setting likened to an “English Hunt Club”‘. Likewise: ‘When the bar is packed, it maintains a pleasant, muted chatter that allows for intimacy and good conversation, reminiscent of an Old-World country club’. An English hunt club? An old-world country club? Doesn’t that sound a little too ‘moonlight and magnolias’? Doesn’t that sound like a place that would be overwhelmingly patronised by wealthy whites? Photographs of Snackbar’s staff and patrons seem to suggest so (see here, here, and here). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with white people getting together in a faux country club environment and enjoying ‘exotic’ cooking. But I’m not trying to sell the idea of ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, and a rejection of the old South. Edge is.
Edge has written articles for the excellent Southern Living magazine, described by the New York Times as ‘that anodyne, 51-year-old war horse with the best cheese-straw recipes, and an audited circulation of 2.8 million’. This is the same Southern Living magazine that enjoins its readers to ‘Embrace Georgia’s Antebellum Charm‘ and ‘Find the Magic of Magnolia Gardens‘. Edge has also been a contributing editor at Garden & Gun magazine from its inception. Writes a critic at the Oxford American:
Add up all these gorgeous pictures of fox hunts, mint juleps, turkey hunts, polo matches, refurbished mansions, forest-sized gardens, pure-bred beagles, expensive fishing reels, silver flasks, artisanal knifes, engraved rifles, sexy riding crops, and what do you get but a near-replaying of The Old South Plantation Myth?
Consider a 2015 Garden & Gun article entitled ‘The Scent of the Magnolia: A love letter to the fragrant South’. We read:
And on a summer night when I raise the window, the soft, waxy sweetness of the ethereal flowers suffuses the room. That’s when I think, “Why live anywhere else, ever?”
It’s hard not to notice the heavy dose of ‘moonlight and magnolias’ here.
Consider also Garden & Gun‘s October 2018 ‘International Sporting Excursion‘, which took place in England. The elite event offered ‘a quintessential English experience’, which included ‘a private tour at historic Spencer House, arguably the finest house in London, built in 1756 for the first Earl Spencer, ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales’, and an ‘intimate cocktail hour and welcome dinner in the Stafford Hotel’s 380-year-old wine cellar’. Also on the agenda was a private tour of the Houses of Parliament hosted by a member of the House of Lords, followed by ‘dinner with Lord Watson at the Royal Automobile Club, one of the world’s most pre-eminent members’ clubs’. Guests then spent three nights at ‘Lucknam Park, a gorgeous 500-acre estate in Wiltshire’ and enjoyed horseback riding, croquet, and Afternoon Tea. They were also able to ‘experience the best of driven shooting with a day at West Wycombe Estate—a 5,000-acre estate in the scenic rolling hills of Buckinghamshire—one of the top shoots in England’. And so it goes on. All this could be yours for a mere $6,670 per person (flights and travel insurance not included). At a guess, I’d imagine there weren’t many black guests travelling from the Mississippi Delta (wealthy Delta whites, quite possibly, however). The fact that this was organised by a magazine Edge is so closely connected with might raise a few eyebrows in the ‘social justice’ crowd.
Edge is perhaps aware of this glaring contradiction between his stated opposition to ‘moonlight and magnolias’ and his close proximity to it, for in a 2016 article which he shared with the Nigerian-born radical ideologue Tundey Wey, Edge set himself up for a rhetorical beating and cravenly states that ‘I got what I asked for. What I deserved’.
Wey is a racial demagogue who states that his work is ‘at the intersection of food and critical discourse’. He made headlines in March of last year by encouraging white liberals in New Orleans to pay $30 for a meal that Wey was offering to black patrons for $12. The idea was to ‘impact racial wealth disparity’ by redistributing white customers’ money to black customers, ‘regardless of income’. This obviously makes no sense (except in the fantasy world of the social justice warrior and the guilt-stricken virtue-signalling white liberal), but anyone who questioned exactly where the extra money was actually going stood accused of attempting to use white ‘power and control’. When faced with Wey’s request for the additional $18, many whites handed over the cash: ‘People look on the other side of the till and see me standing there and they’re thinking that I’m judging them’. He probably is.
Edge apparently welcomed Wey’s judgement and, with his head no doubt bowed meekly, was referred to as a ‘white boy’ and lambasted as follows:
John T., you have endorsed and celebrated the appropriation of black Southern food without consequence, and the consequences have compounded with interest. You have to return what you took to the place where it was, to the people to whom it belongs. And, after this principal has been repaid, the interest is due. You have to strip yourself of the marginal benefits of this appropriation willingly, with grace, or unwillingly by force.
I aim to listen more and speak less. I pledge to cede what is not mine and try to understand the difference. And I aim to do this, not out of noble obligation, but owing to the thoughtful path Tunde charts.
This pathetic self-flagellation reveals Edge as the archetypal politically correct white liberal. And even though he celebrates Southern food as ‘black food’, even though he tries (somewhat unconvincingly) to disown his white Southern identity, even though he dreams of a South where whites are a minority and seemingly everyone is an Asian-food-eating ‘progressive’, even though his organisation spouts the rhetoric of ‘social justice’ and ‘intersectional’ writing and activism, this is still not enough for the race-baiting crowd of the modern Left.
John T. Edge has written voluminously on Southern food and to deny the significance of his contribution to scholarship on the topic would be foolish. But it would also be foolish to blandly view him as an objective writer, whose primary concerns lie in a love of Southern food and the South itself. Edge manifestly does not love the South and his work should be approached critically, always bearing in mind the fact that it is not simply ‘about food’, but is instead a vehicle for liberal ideology, and, perhaps more than that, about Edge himself.