Foodways Alliance cooks up recipe for enjoying food, exploring social issues

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Photo by Brandall Atkinson

Food served at a past Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held annually in Oxford

One of the country’s foremost food organizations was established on a hot summer day in Birmingham.

The late John Egerton, an author and activist, convened a two-day meeting of 50 people who lent their names to a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation, study and celebration of the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. The year was 1999 and what Egerton started was truly groundbreaking — using food as a way to learn about other cultures and to see how those cultures are interwoven with the culture of the South. The Southern Foodways Alliance provides the pathways to consider the history of the South as well as the future in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

John T. Edge outside his home in Oxford

The name most often associated with the Foodways Alliance is John T. Edge, who has served as director of the organization since its founding in 1999. He came to his position in a serendipitous way, beginning with his dissatisfaction with working in a traditional corporate job in Atlanta. Despite not having finished college, Edge worked in sales, then marketing and, finally, corporate engineering. And although he continued moving up in that world for a decade, Edge had a niggling feeling he simply could not shake.

“I was doing the same work as others in my company who had advanced degrees,” he said. “I felt bad and knew that I really wanted to finish college.”

About that time, the Georgia native was having deep thoughts about the South. He became increasingly frustrated with decisions made in the region.

“I felt myself often angry at the people and the place,” Edge said.

He had read about the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford. Following a business trip to Memphis, he drove to Oxford and toured the center. Within a month, he had sold his house, quit his job and moved to Oxford, where he finished his undergraduate degree at Ole Miss.

Feeling he had found his purpose, Edge went straight to graduate school, where he began exploring the many ways people thought of the South. He wrote his master’s thesis on potlikker, the broth created when cooking greens. He found a 1931 debate that examined whether cornbread should be dunked or crumbled into potlikker. Surprisingly, that debate, which ran in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, spurred many letters to the editor and, in addition to very strong stances on dunking and crumbling, the letters included larger issues such as race relations, gender and identity.

Photo by Brandall Atkinson

Grits is one of the Southern foods featured as themes at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance symposiums.

“Writing about food makes you think about the bigger issues at hand,” Edge said.

Those bigger issues are constantly explored through the many efforts of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Mary Beth Lasseter is the associate director of the alliance, and her enthusiasm for its projects is boundless.

“From Foodways symposia to film and oral history work, plus our quarterly Gravy print journal and Gravy podcast, our staff is always busy,” Lasseter said.

Each member of the alliance staff is passionate about what they do.

“Under the editorial direction of SFA’s Sarah Camp Milam, Gravy — both print and podcast — won the James Beard Foundation’s Publication of the Year,” Lasseter said.

The idea behind both is to tell stories in a compelling way.

“These are nuanced stories about a rapidly changing Southern narrative,” Lasseter explained. “The podcasts are long form non-fiction reports, exploring the untold and often hidden stories of the American South.”

The alliance also produces documentaries with Ava Lowery leading the film charge.

A Pihakis Foodways Documentary Fellow, Lowrey is a native of Alexander City, Ala., and her films focus on her Southern roots.

Content produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance is shared on the association’s website, www.southernfoodways.org.

“We are a financially independent organization,” Lasseter stated. “SFA is responsible for raising all of its own operational funding. We are member-supported, but we also rely on sponsors and donors who support us because they believe in what we do. They believe in our documentary work and mission to share truthful stories about our region.”

The cost to be a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance is $75 a year.

“That’s a $75 investment in the storytelling mechanism of the South,” Edge said. “Food is a cultural product, and the study of food as a product of a region is a way to learn about ourselves. People tell stories about food because we like telling stories about ourselves. It’s not about the latest hip chef, but instead, people are interested in the overall-wearing farmer who is raising collards and has been before collards were cool.”

The organization is an institution of the University of Mississippi, where the Center for the Study of Southern Culture agreed to act as an incubator for the alliance early on and provided start-up capital earned from the sale of the center-researched and written cookbook, A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South. When Edge became the executive director of the newly formed alliance in 1999, he remained its only employee until 2004, when managing director Melissa Booth Hall was added. Hall was introduced to the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2003, when she volunteered at the Fall Symposium in Oxford.

“We have grown to a staff of eight now,” said Lasseter, who also explained that all staff members are employed by the university.

Lasseter said the events the alliance presents are a celebration of a changing South.

“We embrace change,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we don’t ever use the word ‘preserve’ because we don’t like the idea of a static food culture.”

Edge continues his quest to spread the gospel of Southern foodways in his latest book, The Potlikker Papers, a Food History of the Modern South. The book begins in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott and shows how black cooks leveraged their skills of baking cakes, pies and fried chicken to raise money for the growing civil rights movement.

Photo by Danny Klimetz

John T. Edge sits inside his home office.

“I see this as a collection of untold stories,” Edge said. “When we respond to the South and when we respond to Southern food, we are actually responding to the stories embedded in that food. These are the stories I think aren’t told enough. Food is one way to see how the South has reinvented this region by finding beauty in the kitchen.”