Restaurant Review - Cutting Edge

Southern writer John T. Edge ventures forth to fathom America's favorite foods

"Fried chicken is best served without a side of provincial bluster," begins John T. Edge's just-published treatise-cum-travelogue, Fried Chicken: An American Story. Startling words, perhaps, from a food writer who has thus far made the South his primary subject of discourse. But Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, knew the time had come to broaden his musings beyond his beloved region.

Fried Chicken, and the simultaneously published Apple Pie: An American Story, are the first two in a series of four in which Edge explores the rich, quirky culture around our county's iconic foods (hamburgers and french fries — a combined subject — and doughnuts are next). Is your sense of American pride in need of bolstering these days? These books, with their succinct tales of culinary touchstones and the characters who cook them, provide welcome salve.

Edge spent a year on the road, seeking both singular and prototypical stories and recipes. At turns comic, giddy and philosophical, he introduces his readers to Leslie Austin and his Creole fried chicken; fried pies flavored with Coca-Cola; the odd marriage of chicken and waffles; and a New Mexican who adds green chili to the apple pies he sells. His prose is the kind you want to hunker down with on a rainy day — the kind that leaves a lasting, lopsided grin on your face as you read.

A native of Clinton, Edge lived in Atlanta for nine years prior to his life as a writer and scholar in Oxford, Miss. He's headed back to town Nov. 12 for a lunchtime book signing at Son's Place (prominently mentioned in Fried Chicken) and a reading later that evening at A Cappella Books.

During a recent conversation, Edge discussed his series' inception, his favorite discoveries on the road, and recollections of restaurants in Atlanta.

Creative Loafing: How did you come up with the idea for the series?

Edge: I had a meeting with my new agent, David Black, to discuss topics for a book. We connected, and I exploded in turretic bursts of excitement over different subjects — "I want to write about hamburgers and fried chicken and doughnuts ... ." We crafted that excitement into a method of approach.

How did the research process of writing this book turn out differently than what you predicted?

I expected to have a harder time getting my head around the whole of the country, and to have a difficult time in narrowing things down, to honing a book out of all the flotsam. But it hasn't been difficult because somehow the stories self-select. When I come home from a trip and I feel myself telling a story from either the road or library research to my wife, Blaire, the story starts to assemble in my head.

As you traipsed around the country in search of fried chicken and apple pie, what were some of the discoveries that surprised you the most?

New England surprised me in terms of apple pie. If you're a good eater and a student of American food and curious about the subject, you have an inkling of what's out there.

You know, people ask me, "Where's the best pie in America?" That's not the point of the book. But I'm almost inclined to say, the most confounding and delightful is Marlborough pie [a single-crust variation filled with a lemon- and sherry-spiked custard of pureed apples and eggs]. Here's a pie originally made from wormed fruit; a pie that's earned its integrity and peculiar taste; a pie that is very much a regional dish of Massachusetts and New England; a pie that was once so popular that it was the Thanksgiving pie but that has fallen into ill favor. I had a book signing in Oxford last week and we served Marlborough pie. People went gaga for it.

Anything in the South that surprised you?

Well, if you look at the fried chicken book, I think it might surprise people who study the South. There's a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over whether Atlanta is a Southern city. Yet a lot of the Southern portions of my fried chicken book take place in and around Atlanta.

I think that for people who believe that Atlanta's Southern character is on the wane, this might be an answer. It wasn't something that I purposefully set out to explore. I can't claim a scientific method, but, in my opinion, fried chicken still matters to Atlanta. I see it in the stories people still tell about Deacon Burton. I see it in the sense of excitement that surrounds Scott Peacock's Tuesday fried chicken night at Watershed. And I see a measure of what Atlanta's become at the Harue Cafe [where they serve Korean-style fried chicken].

What was the dining scene like during the nine years you lived here?

During my time there, I was fascinated with Atlanta's ethnicity. I became a fool for dim sum, a habitue of Buford Highway.

And yet, I remember an experience at Bacchanalia seven years ago with my wife-to-be, and my father and his wife. We'd ordered a cheese plate and the waitress noticed that I like the heels of the bread to put my cheese on, and so she brought out, unprompted, a whole plate of bread heels. This was before I was Food Boy, you know — this woman didn't know who the hell I was. That sense of caring was, for me, a moment where I realized dining in Atlanta was no longer the redheaded stepchild of other American cities.



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