A Southerner’s perspective on natural foodsA Southerner’s perspective on natural foods
John T. Edge is a leading voice at the intersection of food and culture in the U.S. South. Edge serves as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, and he frequently appears as commentator and curator at such media outlets as NPR and Iron Chef. Edge’s latest book is Truck Food Cookbook, a cookbook and travelogue of the modern American street food movement.
July 1, 2014
nbj: What’s your take on this natural and organic food movement?
John T. Edge: There is a barrier in the South, and I think it’s a language barrier. For many Southerners—especially working class Southerners—when someone uses terms like ‘natural foods’ or ‘organic foods’ or talks about ‘farm-to-table’ tethers, those terms were not minted in the South and were not minted for Southerners. We have a very specific way of expressing ourselves, so at times those words fall on deaf ears.
Photo credit: Tamara Reynolds
nbj: Is there aversion to the elitism of it? This is all well and good for Boulder, Berkeley and Austin, but not for us?
Edge: I am not arguing that it costs too much. I’m saying that the words being employed are not creating value in the minds of Southerners, and I include myself, to a certain degree, in that mix.
nbj: What kind of language would work?
Edge: I think the term ‘local’ is really complicated in the South. Our region of the country was the region where the economy was driven by agriculture for the longest period of time. We gave up the farm later than other parts of the country, and then when we gave it up, we gave it up quickly and fully. In some ways, the South is ready for that term ‘local.’ In other ways, the Southern idea of local is very expansive, because the South is comparable in size to Western Europe. You can talk to a chef like Lee Gregory in Richmond, who has a restaurant called The Roosevelt, and he would feel a kinship to a cultural proximity with someone like Donald Link, a chef in New Orleans at Cochon. So they would define themselves in an almost quasi-local relationship. They see connectivity between Richmond and New Orleans, even though those are the opposite ends of the South. Local can mean several different things at once.
nbj: Why would you even bother calling it local?
Edge: I think about what Bill Niman did, beginning in California and then moving to Iowa, and then forming partnerships in North Carolina to raise well-pastured, well-fed animals, and then selling Niman Ranch pork under his brand. He’s raising pork in North Carolina, and he’s raising it in Iowa, and then when it comes down to packaging it and selling it back to consumers in North Carolina, he just calls it Niman Ranch. I think he missed a huge opportunity to not refer to it in state-specific terms—this is Niman Ranch North Carolina pork—because I think Southerners would identify with the product and want to buy it more.
I have friends and colleagues based out of Alabama who have a partnership with a restaurant group out of Birmingham, and they are raising their own pigs. They operate their own slaughterhouse and they are going to work on the provenance of those pigs as state-specific, which I think is the way to go. You take advantage of the local-ness. Local might be defined more broadly by the South in other instances, but there is this sense of cohesiveness to the enterprise.
nbj: The gold standard for the natural products industry is that certified organic seal and people might seek that out for sustainability, health or animal welfare reasons. What’s front and center for Southerners?
Edge: I think all of those things resonate, but there are two opposing forces that Southerners hold in their head at the same time. One of those is that farm work lives in the era of sharecroppers, or even in the era of slave labor. It was something that you worked to escape. These are polar opposites—the deeply profound respect for the crops of the land and stewardship of animals, and an equally compelling drive to get the hell off the land, to get the hell out of the South. There are a lot more layers here given our history. It’s more complicated and even more tragic.
nbj: How does this tension work itself out in food choices?
Edge: There was a good piece by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Edible Schoolyard program and Alice Waters. It was a pretty hard but fair-minded critique, and one of the critiques centered around the Edible Schoolyard gospel as preached to Hispanic immigrants. Flanagan took that program to task because she said, so you are trying to engender a new generation of Hispanic kids to return to the farm when their parents wanted to do their darnedest to escape the farm? These are people for whom Cesar Chavez was a hero. The Southern approach to farming and to the farm is equally as complicated. The gospel of farming is not delivered without hesitation, without caution.
nbj: So the health message around food gets tangled up in that?
Edge: It does, but there are a bunch of ways to think about that. Think about working-class Southerners and African-American Southerners. It’s not that they abandoned the farm without a push. You know the message of the 70’s—get big or get out. There is also the systemic discrimination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture against farmers, which was answered recently by the Pigford suit—the largest class-action discrimination suit in the history of our country. It found systemic discrimination that disenfranchised and pushed people off land. Then comes the multinationals selling you on a fast-food diet or a processed food diet. You can’t wholly say that this is multinationals outside of the South, because Coca-Cola is an Atlanta company, KFC began in Kentucky and remains in Kentucky. Burger King began in Florida. We created our own problems too, but all of these cultural forces together make this a complicated place to talk about food systems.
nbj: Sounds like outsiders often miss the nuance.
Edge: I have seen lots of pasty white people like me with solutions to inner city and working-class blacks’ problems, and I am pretty dubious as to the outcome. I am not dubious as to their intention, but they are showing up with solutions instead of showing up to ask questions. There’s a ton of grant money, a ton of foundation money being poured into this and I am pretty darn cynical about that. I do see efforts that matter, that I think are well-argued and that impact the food systems.
I started going to church fairly recently, and I like my Presbyterian preacher who talks—if you listen closely—about gay rights from the pulpit. Until recently, I often defined myself, in terms of religion, by what I didn’t like, which was Jerry Falwell’s religion of the pulpit pumpers. I am in that phase now with much of how food systems work. I can see much that I don’t like, and I hope that I get to the point where I see more that I find respectful. I see a lot of food shaming going on, of telling working-class people that you are killing yourself with a fast-food diet. I find ‘you are killing yourself with your diet’ to be a wholly unproductive conversation to have with a working-class person. They are earning minimum wage. There are larger systemic issues for our country about pay and compensation and healthcare. Diet is part of that, but the bad diet is the symptom. What people eat reflects a larger systemic issue.
nbj: What conversation should we have with them?
Edge: The whole point of our work is that we are trying to pay down debts of pleasure and debts of sustenance to those people who have fed us through the years. And we are trying to tell those stories in a way that honors that labor, honors that knowledge, honors those lives. When we collect an oral history at the Southern Foodways Alliance, or make a film about someone that cares deeply and profoundly about what they do, about how the crops they raised or the oysters they harvest or the meal they cook sustains their community, people react to that with such soulfulness. One of those stories is Will Harris, a south Georgia cattleman who went from industrial feedlot cattle to raising an all-grass herd and diversifying into other livestock. Will isn’t preaching health, but Will is preaching cultural resonance and continuity with the past. You get a bigger audience, and you get to the same place but you deliver it in a far more palatable way. I want people to value—to understand the value of—the labor and expertise that working class folks do to put food on our table.
Will is not an arriviste hipster. Will is five generations deep on that land. So Will can talk about his own epiphany in going from industrial production to grass-fed and can talk about going back to the way his grandfather raised cattle. I think that story has a lot more resonance than the down-shifting double-clutch Wall Street drop-out who decided to be a farmer. There are a lot of stories out there, people with 100-year family farms across the South, people like Stanley Hughes in North Carolina, who went from raising tobacco back to raising sweet potatoes and collard greens. Those kinds of stories are far richer and, as a Southerner, more interesting to me than the story of the arriviste who is raising backyard chickens.
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