“There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” Martin Luther King, Jr., shouted from the pulpit of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 3, 1955. “There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.”
So began the first chapter of The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. I was instantly hooked.
Reading and Me
I love reading. In fact, I’m just as happy curling up with a fascinating book and a glass of wine (or hot chocolate. Depends) as I am watching TV. I don’t read a lot of fiction, and most of my current reading – as in the past few years – is primarily wine, food, and hospitality related. I’m not talking about the required reading for sommelier or specialist certifications, but the books that are just plain enjoyable.
In today’s busy world, I just don’t have time to sit down and read the way I used to. I started “reading” books through Audible a few years ago and I’ve never looked back.
Listening to books has advantages and drawbacks, of course. Listening allows me to enjoy a book while doing something that doesn’t require serious thinking, such as cleaning the house or ironing. However, sometimes you want to flip back a page, and it’s a little more difficult. You tap the back button and hope that you didn’t go too far. You can “clip” segments of a book, but it’s not quite the same as using a bookmark to hold a place to revisit later.
With all of the Audible books I’ve read – about 95 all told – I’ve purchased physical copies of probably half dozen at most. Some of them I purchased after listening to the Audible book because they spoke to me – no pun intended – in a way that I needed to have hands on them. Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines are two that come immediately to mind.
Two exceptions are fiction classics: Atlas Shrugged and Dune. When I first picked up Atlas Shrugged, I said hell no. Goddam thing’s a brick. Fortunately, listening to Scott Brick’s rendition was enjoyable enough that I didn’t “need” to read it. I’d already read Dune by Frank Herbert several times, so it was a pleasure to be able to revisit it under another format.
Potlikker and Civil Rights
And then there’s the book that’s the subject of this post.
Two things made me purchase it; it was newly published on Audible and I loved the title. The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge grabbed me from the intro and kept me entranced through the entire reading. I was totally unprepared for the raw history and the emotional impact.
So I bought the physical book. Hardcover, even.
First, a little history about me. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When I was a very young child, I spent summers with my grandmother in Asheville, North Carolina. This was from the mid/late fifties through the early sixties. I loved the summers there but had to adjust to different freedoms. For instance, I didn’t understand why we were required to ride on the back of the bus and not anywhere we chose, as I could in Philly. I didn’t understand why, after the age of ten, my grandmother forbade me from being friends with the white boys of the families she worked for. I didn’t understand why people were allowed to call us bad names, but we couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t understand why we had to drink out of a different water fountain, sit in a different waiting room, or not be able to sit at a lunch counter to have a sandwich.
Those were the bad parts. Looking at it through a child’s eyes, I remember the good parts, too. There was helping my grandmother create dishes when she would do catering for her families or for the church. There were the amazing aromas of food that would be simmering on the stove on Sunday afternoons. There were the lightning bugs, the clover in the meadows, the clean air, and the amazing water. There was always music, and my grandmother’s friends would visit regularly. My cousins and I would hunt for lightning bugs to put in jars and stare at their lights in the warm evenings. I learned how to clean chitlins so well that they would not stink when cooking. There should always be a rich, earthy aroma. If they stink, Grandmom always said, then someone didn’t clean them enough. Grandmom always had me in the kitchen.
When I heard John T. Edge’s voice begin to narrate the book, all of those old memories came flooding back in a tsunami rush. Suddenly I was no longer a grown woman, mother, and grandmother, but a little girl sitting on a porch swing on a lazy Southern afternoon.
Everything he spoke about – from the first civil rights protests in Mississippi and Alabama to the evolution of the “New South” – touched those places in me that had hibernated for so long.
Normally, I find that authors who narrate their own books really should have found another performer to do so. Some of them just aren’t good and sometimes makes listening to their books painful. Others such as Michael Pollan, Joanna Gaines, and Mr. Edge, bring you right into their worlds, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have done better.
The harsh realities of the racism (which is true racism, not the term as thrown around today which means nothing), eventual pushback, and conflicts at the beginning of what I feel is the toughest part of the civil rights struggle, are narrated in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner by Mr. Edge. There is no PC crap here – there is no “N” word. He uses all of the words – from colored to negro to nigger to black to Afro-American to African-American – whether quoting or relating events and all in the proper context. Zero punches pulled.
This is not a book. This is a journey in a time machine, and the ride is bumpy and – for those of us who lived through that historical time – a strongly emotional and powerful one.
So what does this have to do with food? All of it.
It begins in the home of Georgia Gilmore who began feeding the workers who’d have strategy meetings at her house. Rosa Parks set off a spark of defiance that eventually resulted in the Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott. People had to eat. Especially if they had to walk miles to work.
Then there were the lunch counter protests where young black people would go into, say, a local Woolworth’s, sit at the lunch counter, and politely order food. It brought out the worst of Jim Crow, and the young would-be customers faced name-calling (the real “N” word), having mustard dumped on their heads, salt thrown in their faces, and lit cigarettes burned into their skin. Because that’s how intense the hatred was.
You feel the pain of people who visited those in the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana and be confronted with starvation. Here, in the land of plenty, there were babies with swollen bellies, skin sores, and vacant eyes. The story of the doctor who prescribed “food” for the malnourished people touched me. When confronted that prescriptions were only for medical needs, he pointed out that in any situation, where there were malnutrition and starvation, the only prescription was food.
Midway through the narration, you begin to sense a shift, as young hippies move to the south in search of less expensive land and looking for a way to go back to the earth. Southern food begins its journey to becoming a “thing,” where, as Mr. Edge quips, “cracklins disappear from cornbread about the same time as pig ears become salad garnishes at high-end restaurants.”
He completes our journey by talking about the trials and struggles of the immigrants from South and Central America, and how, for a while, they were the new slaves. He also speaks about the evolution of Southern food with not only these immigrants, but those from Asia as well.
The chefs – and there are many – are as disparate as Fanny Lou Hamer and Paul Prudhomme, Craig Claiborne and Emeril Lagasse, or Justin Wilson and Edna Lewis.
About the title. Whether you call it pot liquor, pot likker, or potlikker, it’s delicious. In this day of raw, steamed, or stir-fried food, potlikker is the ridiculously flavorful broth that’s left over after collard greens (the BEST potlikker. Trust me) are simmered for hours with smoked meat, onions, and seasonings on the back of the stove. The greens become butter tender and the broth – the “likker” – is wondrous. Whether you crumble cornbread into it, use it on grits, or (like me) just drink it from the bowl after you’ve eaten the greens, there’s nothing better. And the recipes are as varied as the people who make them.
Even now, inspired by the book, I’m simmering a mess o’ greens in my Dutch oven on the back burner, and they’re perfuming the whole house. I’ll be sharing with Mom some collard greens, fried green tomatoes from my garden, and some cornbread. And some likker. I think I’ll take her back in the wayback machine, too.
I’ve rambled far too long. Please, especially if you’re interested in/lived in the South, read this book. While some like it for the writing (you’ll need an active link to Dictionary.com) and the history, I like it because I can still feel it, from memory and from reflection. And, by the way, Mr. Edge made a comment in the reading that’s not printed in the book. “And it’s AppaLATCHa, NOT AppaLAYcha, dammit.”
This is a book that I’ll “feel” for a very long time. Thanks, Mr. Edge. You done good.
Closing Note: Despite the memories, there are several reasons why I’d never move to the South, and none of them have to do with racial politics. Too many mosquitoes, a paucity of wine growing, and an abundance of humidity, hurricanes, and tornadoes. No bueno.
- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length:10 hours and 7 minutes
- Program Type:Audiobook
- Publisher:Penguin Audio
- com Release Date:May 16, 2017
- Hardcover:384 pages
- Publisher:Penguin Press (May 16, 2017)
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