A Moment with John T Edge

On my list of lifetime goals, an invitation to the prestigious Worlds of Flavor Conference figured prominently…and at long last, I was on my way.

Weeks before the conference, I studied the speaker lineup. The list read like a proverbial who’s who of chefs, writers, and anthropologists. Among the culinary luminaries, I was particularly interested in one person: John T Edge.

John T ranks high among my favorite writers and I’ve been collecting his work for years. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Saveur, Southern Living, The Oxford American and he currently writes a monthly column for the New York Times called “United Tastes.” In 2009, he was inducted in the James Beard Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.

John T is also director of the Southern Foodway Alliance where the demand for their annual Southern Foodways Symposium is so high, spots have been awarded by lottery. (I have it on good authority that begging for admission will get you nowhere….)

My admiration for John T goes beyond anything I can properly express. His writing is like a well-seasoned cast iron pan, richly layered in both past and present, reverent with a sense of place.

At the Worlds of Flavor Conference, I worked up the nerve to say hello…and stifled a hint of Beatle mania-style giddiness whenever he walked by. While there were several near misses, eventually I gave up…and succumbed to a rare bout of shyness.

On the final day, I was standing in the back of the room, listening to a particularly moving speech by Jessica Harris. As her speech concluded, I wiped sentimental tears from my eyes. John T suddenly appeared next to me and said, “Did I miss it?”

A moment later…he was gone.

John T Edge at Watershed Best [Photo credit: Yvonne Boyd]

For this fourth installment of Books that Paved the Way, I reached out to John T by e-mail, holding my breath while I hit “send.” His gracious response left no doubt that my respect and admiration was well-founded.

John T's Most Influential Books:

White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler --

At first glance it's a campy sendup of working class white folk cookery. But look closer and you'll see the influence of Agee and Evans and their masterwork Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Smokestack Lightning by Lolis Eric Elie --

A history of barbecue in America, masquerading as a road trip. Smart and well-observed, this catalog of essays and photographs shines a bright light on unheralded pitmasters across the South and beyond.

Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen --

We all love the city of New Orleans. We all want to be situational New Orleanians, with easy access to fat oysters and fatter po-boys. Roahen is the outlander with whom you can identify, the nose beneath the gumbo curtain.

Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, and in History by John Egerton --

The reigning tome in the category. Elegantly written, generous and inclusive, and cognizant of how race and class define what we eat and with whom we eat, Egerton's book remains relevant as it closes in on the quarter-century mark.

American Fried by Calvin Trillin --

He started out exploring race and various American dilemmas. Trillin has continued that tack, while writing some of the best prose on any damn subject. Along the way, he's made brief detours into the world of food. American Fried, from the 1970s, was his first collection of food writing. It's a brilliant hymn to local eats and local people, with prose that still leaps off the page today. (In his most recent piece for the New Yorker, Trillin wrote of poutine, and managed to craft a paragraph that referenced both cheese curds and teenage circumcision.) In other words, the man is a gimlet-eyed genius.