How many stories lie in a plate of food? There’s the story of the ingredients and where they grow and how they’ve been prepared through generations. There’s the story of the technique and artistry and hard work that made them shine. There’s the story of how they were consumed and whom they nourished — in a restaurant, maybe, or around a table at home.
All of these stories, every one of them, are really stories about people. And they are as relevant today as they have ever been before.
Last week at Charleston Wine & Food we had the pleasure of speaking with John T. Edge, Executive Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Since its founding 20 years ago, the SFA has been devoted to documenting, studying, and exploring the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. From oral histories and podcasts to visual and performance art, the SFA has stretched our appreciation and understanding not just of Southern food, but of what food can tell us about our shared history, culture, and humanity.
In our conversation, John T. shared insights on the evolution of food studies, how to tell stories that resonate and persist, and the biggest misconceptions about Southern food today. Read on.
You helped found the SFA — how has the organization’s mission evolved since its beginnings?
The SFA began its work in 1999 at a point where the foodways field was in its infancy. We took a lot of chances, we didn’t know what the heck we were doing, but from the beginning we recognized that the South has long been a broken place. The field might be a study of food, a deep appreciation of food, and it might also offer us one path towards reconciliation.
Now, thinking about divisions in America today and deep fights over immigration, there are lessons to be learned from the South that can be applied in this moment. Food is a part of that puzzle. Southerners and our organization spent lot of time over the last 20 years thinking about where our food comes from, and thinking about that as a human resources question, not necessarily a natural resources question. We’ve begun to grapple towards an answer and pay down debts of pleasure to the people of color who have long grown and cooked and served the food in the South.
It may get us to a point where we’re not even thinking of them as immigrants, they are Southerners. That’s where we’re headed: to take away the modifiers, to take away the hyphenations, to recognize that new arrivals to the South are active Southerners actively claiming this place.
When it comes to people making food, what do you and your team look for in a story?
A number of things: Is the narrative complicated? Does the storytelling we might accomplish about a particular subject or person offer nuance? Does it complicate stereotypes, does it also deliver some ringing truth about the region and its people, too?
It’s not enough to subvert the reigning narrative, there also has to be some resonance beyond that moment. Will this story matter in 20 years? We don’t put that pressure every subject, but we put that pressure on the larger collection. We’re attempting a WPA-like project for the 2010s.
You often partner with chefs who have name recognition in an attempt to shine light on people who don’t have that recognition, but may deserve it. How do you think about that balance?
The smartest and most empathetic chefs recognize that like all grand cuisine, their work is riff off another cuisine. Smart chefs value the work of working-class cooks, and they see us as an organization (I hope) that tells honest, true stories about the American South through food.
We’re not telling chef stories. Chefs have megaphones, bigger ones each year. If journalism is the first draft of history, the work of people like Bertha’s here in Charleston is the first draft of white tablecloth dining in Charleston. The smartest chefs see the value in that work and interpret it — and look to us for pathways to discover those cooks and frame their work.
At the same time that there’s growing interest in where our food comes from and how it’s grown, there’s also more interest in the story behind it.
A good meal is a good meal. What makes a great meal is a sustained narrative throughout that experience, that it connects you not only with who cooked your food but who grew your food. And it doesn’t stop there.
My friend Tunde Wey said to me the other day, “Consumption is not resistance.” It’s not enough to go eat the food of working-class Southerners and by consuming their food you’re somehow simpatico with them. What is required of a diner today is to do a deep dive into where their food comes from and connect with the story of that migrant tomato picker in the fields of Florida and what they’ve had to overcome to get that tomato on your plate.
That sounds like we’re asking a lot of diners. I think that’s okay. Richer experiences at table require of us a command of the full narrative that gets food on a plate. It’s beyond, is this a pastured pig? We’ve gotten there. Now the next step is, who are the humans, what are their stories, and what sacrifices did they make? What excellence did they develop over generations? It’s paying tribute to that, understanding that, and the food is going to taste better.
What misconceptions do you think people have about Southern food? What would you tell them?
One great misconception people have about Southern food is that Paula Deen is somehow an interpreter of Southern food. She is television personality selling a persona; she is not interpreting the South that I know. The South has been selling itself and selling ideas about Southern food for eons. Justin Wilson in the 1970s and ‘80s sold us on this idea of Cajun buffoonery as Cajun cookery. In the early ‘90s the new Southern food movement takes hold, and Louis Osteen, who was at one point the grand chef interpreter of low-country cuisine here in Charleston, sold us on an idea of what Charleston might be that’s now being realized. Be a discerning consumer and don’t always trust the narrative.
Podcasts, oral histories, documentaries, quarterly journals — the SFA has done it all. What do you think is the future of food media?
The thing I’m proudest of that we do is one step away from media as we might traditionally define it. We have focused a good bit of late on arts programming to tell food stories. We commission a visual artist each year in partnership with 21c Hotels, with the idea that if you’re going to tell humanity stories, we can use a broad range of arts and humanities to tell those stories. Through sculpture, through painting, and now we also do performance commissions, too. Each year we work with a musical composer or a poet or other creative folk to bring to stage in performance a challenging piece of art that offers us new ways to think about food.
I think the frontier for food media is stepping out of traditional print. Podcast is now maybe even lumped together with traditional. It’s taking to the stage and developing smart art that confronts challenges.
What have the reactions been to those formats?
When we get our evaluations back for our Symposium, consistently the most popular pieces are the presentations by the poets. A poet has this great ability to distill down belief and emotion into bursts of words and beauty. That’s what we hope for out of the experience. I think people trust us to take things into the further flanks. I don’t want to go there in a way that is self-congratulatory or merely about having done something, but I want us to embrace art as another means of storytelling. I don’t think it’s a big leap. Of course, I married a poet so I may be biased.
Most people don’t have a lot of opportunities to experience art in that way, unless they deliberately seek them out. It’s an unfamiliar way to explore familiar themes.
It is. The food world… festivals are soon going to change. Small bites that you enjoy with a glass of wine— that will soon be so past tense we’ll be laughing about it. What will evolve out of this is meaning-making performance beyond recipe demonstrations or a tasting tent— that’s what we’re grappling towards. Poetry may not be for everybody, but poetry will inform how people tell good stories.
The SFA’s 2017 theme is El Sur Latino — tell me about that and some of the people and stories you’re illuminating.
Our speakers include people like Lisa Donovan, a Nashville baker obsessed with panaderias, who has been for the last five years obsessively documenting panaderias across the American South. The highest rates of Mexican immigration are to the South — people want some sweets. One of the ways you can tell the impact of Mexican peoples on the American South is by looking at the sweet tooth of the South that’s been transformed by Mexican-Americans.
Sandra Gutierrez, a writer based in North Carolina, writes beautifully about the larger Latino experience. What we’re hearing from a lot of people is, when someone from Oaxaca moves to the American South— they arrive and think of themselves as Oaxacan. Now, they’re beginning to construct an identity that is Latino or Latina. They’re finding common purpose among other people from Latin America and Mexico and forging a new identity. Sandra Gutierrez is going to talk about that idea of Latina Southern identity through food. She’s sorting through multiple ethnicities and finding common purpose in the kitchen who people from different countries, and how that happens in the South.
For a nonprofit attached to an academic institution, the SFA has an incredibly enthusiastic and passionate following. To what do you attribute that success?
I think in a way we pitched this kind of tent, 20 years ago now, that we hoped would be welcoming to many different Southerners. It’s not only black and white and Mexican-American, it’s political difference as well. I hope we’ve created a space where people can look truthfully at their region, grapple with their past, and think about their future all through food, and find common purpose, common humanity.
That sounds kind of kumbaya, but I believe it. I believe it’s realized when we stage an event. People find something common in conversations and events, they realize that it’s possible to bridge their differences. Or maybe not, but the possibility is there.
What are you most excited to eat in Charleston this weekend?
Rodney Scott’s BBQ. I haven’t been to his new place!
Photo Credit: Charleston Wine & Food