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The Search for Food that Never Lies

For his book, Southern Belly, John T. Edge, a native of Georgia, traveled through 12 states, visiting restaurant and cafés throughout his journey and compiling descriptions of over 200 recommended venues.

Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South

Publisher: Algonquin
ISBN: 1565125479
Author: John T. Edge
Price: $14.95
Length: 352
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-06-14

“I crave honest food” is the sentiment that begins and sustains John T. Edge’s journey in search of good Southern food. Honest seems to be an odd word when applied to food. How can food lie? What makes some food “honest” and other food “dishonest”? In short, what does it mean for food to be honest?

I first encountered this perplexing expression when reading Maya Angelou. She was reminiscing about the time she cooked for M.F.K. Fisher, a renowned gourmand and food writer. Angelou had just moved, and her kitchen tools were still in storage. So she went out shopping for pots, and while the clerks at the kitchen supply store gasped to hear that she would be cooking for Fisher with untested pots and pans, she managed to impress Fisher. In writing to thank Angelou for the supper, Fisher ended her letter saying, “That was the first honest cassoulet I have eaten in years.” While cassoulet usually refers to a slow-cooked bean stew from the Languedoc region of France, Angelou never tells us what exactly she made.

Bob Jeffries, a Southern chef working in New York City, wrote in 1969, “To begin with, soul food is honest…It is delicious food, but does not allow for any frills. Sauces, for example, are used only because they taste good, never just to dress up a dish.” The last part of the quote certainly makes one think of the beautiful dishes one sees at an expensive fine-dining restaurant in New York with drops of emerald green basil oil on pale yellow beurre blanc sauce. While one can argue that this color scheme is merely the result of the flavor contrast the chef intended the client to savor, one still cannot deny that enjoyment for the eye is emphasized more in some cuisines than in others.

The words of Fisher and Jeffries are helpful in that they give one some idea as to what honest food could possibly mean. In both instances, the phrase “honest food” immediately evokes the image of a warm, wholesome, rather simple but delicious meal that is well prepared. It is honest as opposed to fake and merely decorative. It is honest as opposed to overly complicated and convoluted. It is also honest as opposed to covered and concealed. Another common thread among these three cases is the long tradition both cuisines (Southern and French Languedoc) boast, and their strong connection to the social and natural histories of the regions. In other words, the food there is honest in that it is authentic (in the sense that it comes from geographical necessity and tradition), open and simple, but good.

Reading John T. Edge’s Southern Belly therefore turned out to be a quest to find out what this “honest food” is, as well as a journey through a rich territory of Southern eateries. Edge, a native of Georgia, traveled through 12 states, visiting restaurant and cafés throughout his journey and compiling descriptions of over 200 recommended venues. The book’s organization is rather simple: he lists states in alphabetical order, and each state gets a chapter. Towns are listed alphabetically within each chapter.

Edge’s interest in both food and the people who make it is truly impressive. The kind of food he endlessly consumed in order to compare different establishments is neither light nor health-conscious. The dishes included B-B-Q, fried steak, fried pickles, tamales, and fried chicken, which some people supposedly eat for breakfast as well. Within every establishment he recommends, he sat down with cooks and customers, and wrote down what they had to share.

His stories indeed reflect various aspects of “honesty”. The issue of authenticity and tradition is especially interesting. Edge traces and incorporates each region’s economic and social history into his discussions of the food the inhabitants have developed and cherished. For example, around the turn of the 20th century, Italians from Veneto and Marche moved to what is now Tontitown, Arkansas, after their original settlement on the western bank of the Mississippi River proved too different from their previous life and agricultural styles, and therefore failed miserably. They made fresh egg noodles for the Tontitown harvest festival in 1898.

In the following years, they added roast chicken, and then fried chicken by 1910. Even today, the typical meal of the area is spaghetti with meat ragù and fried chicken. At Mary Maestri’s they serve spaghetti sauce with gizzards. He also describes a dainty teahouse in Atlanta, Georgia serving potlikker soup in a teacup, as well as an Italian family restaurant in Fayetteville, Arkansas serving tamales as the result of a meeting between the family and Mexican cotton-field laborers around the turn of the century.

Another interesting point Edge raises in relation to the amalgam of immigrants and a specific region is that an ethnic restaurant does not have to serve food that incorporates anything traditionally Southern in order to be considered “Southern”. A good example is a Greek restaurant in Bessemer, Alabama, called Bright Star. Their food is “Greek to the core.”

However, to Edge and to the town people, it is a Southern restaurant in that not only is it part of the community but it is also a place where community is formed. People gather there to eat and participate in big community events such as watching football games. Edge relates vividly how people dressed in the jersey of their favorite team while eating Greek food.

The issue of simplicity is also a prevailing theme throughout the myriad of stories Edge has to tell. Not only Southern cooks but also Southern critics, such as Duncan Hines of Kentucky, commend and take pride in simplicity. Hines, a printing salesman, started his restaurant guide as something to be shared only among his friends. However, this coincided with the beginning of mass travel on the highways, and soon his book was in demand.

He always wrote in a blunt, simple style, and recommended simple, unpretentious food. His remark, “The finest lemon pie I ever had was in a town of 50 people. It cost ten cents. One of the poorest was in a large New York hotel. That cost 40 cents,” would provoke cheers from owners and devoted clientele of Southern kitchens. This simplicity finds its ultimate expression at the “boiling points”.

A “boiling point” is basically a shack, or “oversized garage,” that has boiling pots in the back, and tables inside covered with old newspapers as well as a sink in which customers may wash their hands. The food is simple, and as one would imagine from the name, they serve dishes such as boiled crawfish, boiled crab, boiled potatoes and boiled onions.

Simplicity is also an object of marvel when it comes to the notion of simple perfection. There are numerous ways in which people believe fried chicken should be made. Some argue that the bird should be soaked overnight in ice water. Others swear by a buttermilk and hot sauce marinade. Some stick to wheat flour coating, others cornmeal. Some add a little egg in the coating, others never.

According to Edge, there was “a quiet season in this seemingly eternal debate,” during the thirty years Deacon Burton ran his little grill in Inman Park, Georgia. His ways were very simple; “Wash’em, put’em in some flour, season ‘em with salt and pepper and some grease. That’s all,” he said. And yet, people agreed that it was the best.

One of the significant implications of calling food “honest” is that there is a sense of anthropomorphism: food is treated as if it were a personality. And this is exactly the impression one gets reading “Southern Belly.” The cook pours into whatever dish he is making his passion for food, his respect and love for the family who has passed down the recipe, and his appreciation for the community that cherishes his food. In return, the dish he makes reflects his pride and integrity, and it comes to stand in for what he is as a cook and as a person. This is one of the most significant senses in which food can be honest, and of course, food does not have to be Southern to achieve this.

Even French haute cuisine, which the earlier quote from Jeffries may evoke in one’s mind as a negative example, can be very honest indeed. Any professional cook, whatever his specialty might be, would argue that everything he does is from the conviction that it is necessary for the integrity of the dish, and in this sense he should insist that his food is “honest.”

However, Edge achieved something very meaningful in this book; he brought out a very specific context in which Southern food may be said to be “honest.” What he weaves as a common thread in the collage of numerous stories is the very special connection people make with one another through food. That connection is sometimes among family and friends, sometimes neighbors of different ethnicity and race, and at other times among employers and employees.

This is not to say that people were always made happy through food. The relations among people, especially among different racial groups were not always warm or cordial. There is a story of a restaurant that fought to keep their establishment segregated, as well as a story of a man who chose to be a cook and became a great one, because that was one of the few professions that were then open to African Americans.

While these stories add a bitter touch, there are a few stories that truly demonstrate the power food has to connect people through the act of feeding and being fed. One such story is that of a restaurant in South Carolina called Jestine’s Kitchen. The proprietor, Dana Berlin Strange, a white Southerner, named her restaurant after the black housekeeper who raised her. Strange serves food using Jestine’s recipes “so that people would know about Jestine, so that she would know about the restaurant before she passed.” To the accusation that Strange is manipulating and exploiting the image of an old and loyal black nanny, or that Jestine was actually her parents’ slave, Strange shoots back lividly, “I loved her. I could have named this place after my mother.”

One can say that in general, we tend to accept and take in foreign food before we accept whole-heartedly the foreign people themselves. We can probably say the same about Southern food as well, about the food and the people of African origin that were uprooted and thrown into an unfamiliar environment. While Southern food does not have one single origin, it is accepted today that ingredients that we consider typically Southern, such as okra, peanut and rice either came from Africa or show strong African influences. It is also often told that there used to be very few jobs available to African and they had to do the “dirty job” such as cooking or heavy-lifting. As a result, there were many black professional cooks, who toiled and perfected their art.

One cannot say, however, that the Southern food we see and appreciate today merely developed through exploitation. There was a genuine admiration on the side of white people toward the skills, history and wisdom of black people, and Edge’s book, among other examples, contain several stories of whites walking over to black homes in order to ask for advice and help in their establishments.

Food in Edge’s Southern Belly is “honest” in that there was an honest, sincere effort to learn and appreciate the food of “the other”. In this manner, whites learned from former slaves and immigrants, while these groups learned from whites. This way of sharing food had significance that was different from merely sitting and eating together; it was a kind of sharing that was at earlier times not possible or manifest outside the culinary experience, but hopefully foreshadowed genuine, “honest” appreciation, respect and acceptance of what was different.

Edge, driven by his desire to find “honest food”, succeeded in bringing out different aspects of culinary honesty. Food is “honest” when it is simple and well made, and there is nothing to conceal with fancy garnish. The fried chicken by Deacon Burton of Georgia is a good example. Food is also honest when it has a deep-rooted connection to its geographical and historical background. Almost every food Edge tells of in Southern Belly is honest for that very reason. It is also honest in the sense that cooks delivered the food with the conviction that it was the best way to deal with a specific ingredient or cooking method. More importantly, their food is honest in that it brings people together through experience of eating together.

While this aspect of “sharing and connecting” has almost become a tired way of talking about Southern cuisine, Edge managed to show concretely how this aspect of honesty has contributed to the presence of bond within a very diverse community; people’s effort to learn and adopt each others’ foods was genuine, and Southern food’s rich, kaleidoscopic liveliness today owes to that special aspect of “honesty”. In this sense, Edge indeed delivered a book of social history, which he hoped Southern Belly to be, and reading this unpretentious but remarkable book makes one appreciate a culinary tradition in a deeper, more meaningful way.

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