Thursday, October 8, 2009

AFJ 2009: Writer in Residence John T. Edge

After an introduction by Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson citing his stereotypical Southern, whiskey-swilling and eating skills, Association of Food Journalists writer in residence John T. Edge opened by suggesting an alternate title, “A Guilty White Southerner Eats His Way Through America.” Edge has chips on his shoulder – being a Southerner, writing about food (is it worthy?). The Southern part comes first with Edge riding his Schwinn from the farmhouse in Jones County to the Old Clinton BBQ for smoked pork cut by a cleaver by Miss Maddie. But Edge couldn’t recognize the black men who cooked the BBQ so he works under that debt of pleasure.

Edge’s father worked for the Federal courthouse and watched his father put away white men involved in illegal activities in civil rights. At school in Athens, Edge went to Bertha’s scarfing eggs and grits with the same white men, likely Klansmen, his father had tried.

Edge went from University of Georgia to Mississippi to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. The society wasn’t integrated but the food was – black-eyed peas and okra from Africa, chess pie from those Anglo-Saxons. When talking with writers here, he heard a reluctance to embrace their sense of place.

According to Edge, those of us who write about food work under a burden of pleasure. Food, not sex, is our most frequently indulged pleasure. Food is our greatest cause of disease and death, but the serious-minded dismiss it. Food offers a non-threatening way to discuss big issues. Warren Belasco wrote “Food: The Key Concepts” can get you up to speed on the basic concepts, but it is dense.

Edge introduced us to four key New Orleans stories, saying that knowing New Orleans well represents a certain cultural literacy. His first magazine piece was about the Lucky Dog Bordello, and Edge worked a Lucky Dog cart for four days leading up to New Year’s Eve for the celebrating drunks. Alice Clark took care of Edge and he wanted to convey a deep respect. Clark is dead now, felled by a stroke. Austin Leslie, proprietor of Chez Helene in Treme, was basis of Big Arthur in the television series “Frank’s Place.” Austin’s chicken was capped with confetti of garlic, parsley and pickle slices. Austin died in exile in Atlanta after Katrina. Thomas the shucker at Pascale Manale's, still gives the best patter of oyster shuckers including a mean impression of Mighty Mouse.

Edge read a section from a story about Middendorf’s in Manchac that is impossible to recreate here because its rhythms and use of language spring from the peculiar polyglot of Southern culture, food, absurd detail (Renaissance reproduction portraits all with the face of one party’s husband) and class. The economy of repetitive motion, family advice handed down and the tendrils of Katrina that cling to all food stories in the state are all there.

Sometimes dedicated patrons and writers ascribe too much significance to a restaurant. Take the read of the restaurant and the story to absurd levels (e.g. study of mules in Faulkner), Edge said.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

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