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Food and Culture
September 18, 2009 - 8:47pm


I know a couple- or three-dozen writers well enough to know that none live by writing alone. (I don’t know Stephen King.) I’m guessing one of them does earn enough from his novels that he could retire his endowed chair, but why would he? A couple more could write full-time if they scaled back to grad-student level existence. But most teach, live in dual-income homes, or rob graves for mad scientists to feed their art. (And before you send me nasty-grams, let me say that some of us love robbing graves too and see no compromise in it.)

That’s why it’s always a little thrill to meet a writer who seems to make a living solely on the writing he most likes to do. This past week John T. Edge was in town as our program’s visiting writer, and from the outside, anyway, he seems to be living many people’s dream. He’s a food columnist for the New York Times, a contributing editor to the Oxford American and Gourmet magazine, and Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Over the Halloween weekend he’ll preside over a national symposium on gravy.

John T. Edge’s books include Apple Pie: An American Story; Fried Chicken: An American Story; Hamburgers and Fries: An American Story; Donuts: An American Passion (in writing terms, he’s evidently performing an anatomy of American comfort foods); Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South; and the forthcoming Truck Food. Generally, he looks at culture, race, class, and regional identity through the act of eating, by making connections between foods and the people who produce and consume them.

On Wednesday Edge was on the radio with the indefatigable David Wright and was interviewed by a local website. He also did a talk at our Author’s Corner about the book White Trash Cooking, telling the sad and funny story of its author, Ernest Matthew Mickler, and drawing comparisons between Mickler’s photography and that of Walker Evans’ in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

But the real treat was going to dinner with Edge (“John T.” to his friends). Obviously when a professional foodie comes to town, you want to fete him at a good restaurant, and the one that was chosen is so good that I didn’t know where it was. As a way of supporting Edge’s work we went through platters of fried squash blossoms, crab/avocado/watercress salad, prosciutto with local goat cheese and peaches, local lamb loin with stewed beans and corn salsa, local beef, and much more, followed by several desserts including an excellent, near-savory bread pudding with caramel ice cream, and finally a cheese plate and neat rye whiskey.

When I realized two hours into dinner that the department couldn’t possibly be paying for this bounty, I whispered a question or two (“Would it be okay if I left a little early?”) and was told the tab would go to one of Edge’s local friends, who obviously has tenure, no children, and a heroic sense of sacrifice. I relaxed and asked the waitress to bring another bottle of the excellent Cabernet so I could pay full tribute to his selflessness.

Despite his relatively high profile in his field, Edge was cautious about the future of food writing in national publications, with newspapers everywhere in peril and magazines becoming more conservative about using longer pieces. He’s been thinking of TV as a possible outlet for his work, and we discussed some food shows that are on now, none of which were the sort of thing he’d like to do.

For me, the formats of food shows are like voices in writing: They determine which topics can be examined, as well as the range of attitudes and degree of complexity that can be brought to bear. If your shtick as a host is to be bubbly, grinning, and all-admiring, you can’t easily look into hunger and poverty. Even Anthony Bourdain, who I believe has one of the most ecumenical approaches, recently aired a tense episode filmed while he ate dinner with the family of a man maimed by American landmines. Bourdain’s usual New York wise-guy persona failed, and he had little to say and looked very uncomfortable. (He kept the episode going by discussing his failure in voice-over.)

Imagine locking yourself into an apparently successful but very limited format such as Man v. Food. Wouldn’t it be a drag to get out of bed each morning, knowing you had yet another 30-pound burrito or stack of pancakes the size of a car tire to eat that day? It's tiresome to watch.

We’re at least four generations into food TV now, with the kind of glut and banality in the programming that one might expect near the end of any empire. Parody reigns—not only in gorging (though there is still the vomitorium to consider for a series) but also exotica, like the guy who eats gargantuan live maggots—and is framed as educational, but it’s mostly performed for its low-level shock value for suburban America.

The most interesting series to me have been hosted by interesting people with range and depth, such as Julia Child, the Two Fat Ladies, or the slightly campy but exuberant Floyd on France. Like any good writers, they serve as lenses with which to see the world.

I’d welcome a new food show with a format big enough to be intellectual, sensual, funny, scabrous, spiritual, sad, frightening, and angering, one that was anti-formulaic and more like the best food writing, such as MFK Fisher’s. That is to say, I’d prefer my food TV, like my food writing, and my food itself, not be banal or lacking in nutrients.

Edge has set an interesting task for himself as a food writer: To discover “artisanal food on a paper plate,” wherever it might be. By that I don’t think he means unselfconscious food. He pointed out in the radio interview that Southern cooks like himself will now as readily reach for the bottle of olive oil as for the tin can of rendered bacon fat, and they’re fully aware of the tradition they’re breaking while appreciating the evolution of process. Artisanal does indicate perhaps "deliciously crafted," “complex with the appearance of simplicity,” and even “authentic,” all difficult terms. Like any product of genius, great food is both unique and shot-through with an understanding of its own basis in culture.

Envy John T. Edge, a writer who lives on the effort to explore that.


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