As a new tide of Southern culture emerges and its beleaguered history continues to be discussed and dissected, food and agriculture fit prominently in the re-engineering of one of America's most influential regions.
Savannah's restaurant culture has played an integral role in weeding out the perennial inequalities that have long plagued the south and food culture in general, as John T. Edge points out in his latest book, "The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South."
Edge is obsessed with Southern food. The acclaimed Georgia-born food critic and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance has wanted to write the history of Southern food through the lens of civil rights for almost two decades now.
"I've always said to myself, OK, you're writing about food, but you're really writing about racism and the history of inequality in the south, and food is a great way of exploring it," Edge said.
"This book for me was in many ways a test of my own theories. A test of my own ego. As writers, I think we want to believe that when we sit down to write, we are writing about big issues that may be small in that moment, but we're trying to grapple with the big stuff. For me, the story that told me that I had a book is the story that opens the book. It's the story of Georgia Gilmore."
Often a footnote in the history of the civil rights movement, Gilmore's role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott spurned a new history of activism. Gilmore, an African-American cook, raised money to pay for alternate transportation for African-Americans during the boycott.
After she was fired from her job at the National Lunch Co., Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged her to open her own restaurant. She did so out of her own house, which became a home to the movement and eventually led to the Club from Nowhere, a food service that helped fund the civil rights movement.
"This was a woman who worked fiercely and who was of fierce intellect," Edge said of Gilmore. "She was a brilliant woman. Her example, and the very specific ways in which her work and her life tells the story of the civil rights movement and food, gave me this catalytic person on which to build the book and develop an arc."
From that beginning, Edge works his way through the decades, telling the story of how Southern food has found its way from the working class into mainstream American culture. Along the way, Edge outlines major figures like Mahalia Jackson, Colonel Sanders and Sean Brock.
In the 2010s, a new south has begun to emerge as artisanal restaurants focused on Southern cuisine and farm-to-table application breathe new life into an industry of often marginalized chefs and farmers.
"For the longest time, southerners, and Americans more broadly, tend to denigrate those who worked in food services," Edge said. "They denigrated farmers, cooks and in many cases, they denigrated the cooks, the barbecue pit masters, because those were roles that people of color played. They denigrated cooks because those were roles that women played. Now, we've come to a moment when food culture has ascended. Food is one of the great expressive outputs of the region. Now, finally, cooks and pit masters and farmers are having their moments under the lights.
"Then here comes this horrific rise of racism given to agency by too many of our leaders," Edge continued. "So the moment we finally pay honor to cooks and farmers and barbecue pit masters, we're sending profoundly mixed messages to them. We're saying your lives are profoundly more valuable, and yet your lives are in so much peril that a movement like Black Lives Matter has to arise to make sense of and broadcast to America the inequalities in the way we treat these cooks, farmers and pit masters."
Savannah's role in the changing tide begins in the 1980s, according to Edge, with Elizabeth Terry, who was the founding chef of Savannah's famed Elizabeth's on 37th. For a look into the current decade, Edge shifts his attention to Savannah in the penultimate chapter of "Potlikker Papers."
With an erudite touch, Edge highlights the story of Dora Charles and Paula Deen as an example of how the old gray ghosts that haunt the south were being exhumed and spotlighted. He then shifts attention to The Grey's Mashama Bailey, of whom he has championed in national press, as an example of a rising new South.
"The new southern food movement, driven by restaurateurs and chefs, Savannah is one of the origin points for that with Elizabeth Terry," Edge said. "It's important to think about her as a women. The way that story is told now, often times, in the early 1980s a band of chefs began to reinterpret the southern larder using French techniques and new sourcing ideas.
"She, like a number of figures in Savannah, from [Sema] Wilkes to Mashama Bailey today, broadcast this female entrepreneur drive, which has always been there in southern food. We tend to tell our stories about Southern food culture by way of male chefs. Savannah is one exception for that, as it pertains to Elizabeth Terry, Wilkes and Bailey, and depending on the way you fall on the Paula Deen spectrum."
In the book, he writes: "The Grey emerged as a restaurant fulcrum of a newer South, long on the horizon, now seemingly in reach."
Edge's visit to the Savannah Book Festival will be one of his many trips to the city this year.
"I like Savannah," Edge said. "I am a Georgia boy by birth. I am huge fan of Mashama Bailey as a chef and a human and The Grey as a restaurant.
"I come to Savannah twice a year for something. I usually go to Narobia's Grits & Gravyfor breakfast. Then I'll go for a second breakfast at Back In The Day. On the last trip, I stopped in Back In The Day for breakfast and I went to the record store right behind there. Such nice people. Real kind and sweet. I bought my wife a stuffed red fox from Graveface. They were kind enough to ship it home."
JOHN T. EDGE
Book: "The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South"
When: 12:30 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Jepson Center, Neises Auditorium, 207 W. York St.