Eating Between the Lines
Books for Cooks
Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the Southby John T. Edge
Hill Street Press, 270 pp., $24.95
Ten years ago, somewhere on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi, I chanced upon a migratory carnivore's holy grail -- a near-perfect pork barbecue sandwich. Inside a ramshackle clapboard general store, an old man served crispy cubes of smoked pork topped with sinus-clearing sauce and a dollop of cooling coleslaw. It was on a rural stretch of state Highway 49 that cuts through the river's broad bottomlands near the delta town of Marvell. In the years since, I can still see the dilapidated storefront in my mind, and if I concentrate real hard, I can remember the delicate texture of the flavorful pig and the surprising afterburn of the sauce. But for the life of me, I could never remember the name of the store.
Enter Southern food writer John T. Edge. Not only does he know the name of the store (Shadden's Grocery) but he knows a bit of its history, the outdated contents of its shelves, and its place in the region's culinary context. "Barbecue sandwiches are cheap as dirt, hot as hell," he writes, "and may well be one of the best bargains in the whole of the Southland."
In his new book, Southern Belly, Edge explores the changing landscape of Deep Southern food through its small-town restaurants, family dynasties, and distinctive local specialties. Through over 200 descriptive vignettes/reviews, Southern Belly takes the reader on a thorough tour of the region's dives, dinettes, and roadside shacks. From the peanut soup of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to the seafood shacks of southwest Louisiana, Edge reveals himself as a gifted storyteller and a trusted, hard-eating travelin' man.
On first glimpse, the book seems to be an edible travel guide arranged by locale. Got business in Atlanta? Edge provides you with a few days' worth of good eating (that won't take you near a national chain). On the road from Austin to Nashville? Edge steers you toward spiritual eats in small towns that wouldn't register on your retinas at highway speeds. On one level, this book is a godsend for frequent travelers yearning for good food away from home. But on another, Southern Belly is a standout collection of cultural history -- cooked up in changing Southern kitchens and told at table level. In each of his entries, Edge tells the stories that make these restaurants throwbacks and survivors. With an easygoing descriptive style, he bellies up to the bar and spins tales of the region's respected cooks, disappearing traditional techniques, and stubbornness that keeps "the old ways" alive and cooking.
From his vantage point behind the region's quintessential plates, Edge also discusses the larger issues that have swept this country (and the South in particular) during the turbulent 20th century. In his thumbnail sketches of landmark eateries, Edge deftly weaves in discussions of how race, religion, and politics influenced (and were influenced by) the way that Southerners eat. Over the course of Belly's 270 pages, he munches on evangelistic barbecue in Opelika, Alabama, and traces the culinary legacy of the civil rights movement from New Orleans through Atlanta and into Washington, D.C.
The book also contains a fair share of geographic and cultural surprises showcasing unexpected diversity in the least likely of places. Edge tells of Chinese immigrants who founded a pork cracklin' dynasty in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the hardy Slavic oystermen who helped harvest the beds up and down the Gulf Coast. With a series of informative sidebars, Edge explores the up and down sides of Southern food history -- from the basics of Carolina whole-hog barbecue to short biographies of local luminaries such as Austin Leslie (New Orleans' Creole virtuoso) and Alabama writer Eugene Walter.
But perhaps most importantly, Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, chronicles the edible legacy of his homeland with quick humor, solid research, and a deep respect for the fragility of tradition. In describing the survivors, he gives you bits of his personal eating history, recalling institutions that have passed away ("Like the late lamented Blanche's in Athens, Georgia where, if you asked nicely, the wizened proprietress would whip up a gamey goat meat omelet ...") and weighing in on technological "improvements" (electric barbecue smokers, etc.) that threaten these last remaining traditional holdouts.
All this is to say that whether you make it to Mason, Tenn., to sample the perfect fried chicken at Gus Bonner's place or to Shadden's for a scorching pig sandwich, Southern Belly is a substantial read that will entertain, educate, and make you hunger for more. As for me, I'm toting a copy to Tennessee this weekend, and I just gotta find that chicken.