Southerner in the City: John T. Edge Takes on San Francisco

| September 12, 2012 | 1 Comment
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John T. Edge. Image courtesy of Lou Weinert
John T. Edge. Image courtesy of Lou Weinert

Food celeb alert! One of the most intriguing parts about La Cocina’s Night Market last month was spying a smiling John T. Edge at the entrance. The Southern food and culture expert is good pals with La Cocina’s Caleb Zigas, and was in town to yes, eat, but also help with the SF Street Food Fest and third annual Food & Entrepreneurship Conference from La Cocina.

Edge is the author of the recently published The Truck Food Cookbook, which is billed as “a cookbook and travelogue that catalogues modern American street and truck food.” He has authored and edited more than ten books and is well known for researching and championing food via his work with the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Next month, the Southern Foodways Alliance will hold a symposium in Oxford, Mississippi and Edge wears many caps: organizer, host, and master of ceremonies.

He is also a columnist for the New York Times, the Oxford American and Garden & Gun. Radio fans can catch him often on NPR’s All Things Considered and he has appeared on Iron Chef and has a MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation under his belt. His work has also been featured in 10 editions of the Best Food Writing Anthology, and yes, you may at this point wonder when he ever sleeps, too. Bay Area Bites interviewed Edge on the phone recently.

Bay Area Bites: You were in San Francisco to help La Cocina with its conference and Street Food Festival and for years have been good friends with Caleb Zigas. How did that all come about?

Edge: I write about food for the popular press: magazine, newspaper pieces and books. I’m also interested though in relation to my academic work at the University of Southern Mississippi in how food plays a part in social justice issues. When I began working on my truck food book, I saw two real models that address social justice issues and street food truck and food cart food. That framework is what Caleb and La Cocina does and what the Vendy awards in New York also do.

Both are populist responses in effective ways to advocate for street food vendors. I am someone who thinks that writing about food need not be vacuous work, and that food isn’t always about celebrity food. It’s not always about the fancy pants dinner but about working class American food and especially how that relates to new immigrants. That’s important to me as a writer — as a progressive thinker and doer in America.

Bay Area Bites: Events and travel seem to make up much of your work when you’re not writing. What’s that like?

Edge: I travel probably one-fourth to one-third of my time and that travel is half the time for writing assignments and research and the other half is for Southern Alliance Foodways events and fundraising. I love that kind of intense time with colleagues and friends who arrive like bandits. Those kinds of quick intense periods of “work ‘til 11, drink ‘til 3” I love… but you know I also live in a small college town that I dearly love and have an eleven year old and 40-something wife, both of whom I love, too. As time goes on, I’m trying to balance that time at home and time in the office. I am not just saying this about the Street Food Festival and La Cocina but it’s gonna get harder and harder to get my butt on the road. However, anytime I can do something for La Cocina and Caleb, I will.

We live in a time of xenophobia, especially where I am in the South where immigrants are pilloried. I was raised in the South and appreciate the import of the Civil Rights movement. I see a new era in which the divisions are based along ethnicity and class and I see what La Cocina and the Street Food Fest does is one creative way to address that.

Bay Area Bites: Where do you get your information about food? What’s on your nightstand reading pile?

Edge: On my nightstand, there are about four copies of the New Yorker that I’m way behind on. There’s a copy of Knife and Fork, a brilliant food letter out of Atlanta edited by Christiane Lauterbach. Her writing is full of spirit and venom and I’ve been reading her for 25 years. There’s a new copy of the Oxford American, which I’ve long been writing for…. Then there’s The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones by a guy named Jesse Hill Ford. And I’m reading a book called the Price of Defiance about the 50th anniversary of the riots at the University of Mississippi. There’s not a lot of food stuff on my nightstand. I read and subscribe to Bon Appétit, Gastronomica and a number of other magazines.

Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?

Edge: John Egerton. The name sounds familiar, I know. He has two books that speak about the generation before the civil rights movement and around the Brown decision….You see Southern food at home, on the road and here’s a popular history of southern food. His is the first book to pay down the debt that the South owes to the cooks who have sustained us cooks who are and were African American.

Jessica Harris is another one of my mentors.

Bay Area Bites: What are your thoughts on the state of street food in the Bay Area given you just published The Truck Food Cookbook? Where are we with knowledge and appreciation?

Edge: When I was researching this book in 2009 and 2010 in many ways the Bay Area lagged behind much of the country. Incubator events like La Cocina and Off the Grid coupled with entrepreneurial acumen in folks like Liba Falafel and the Kung Fu Tacos guys and certainly Roli Roti. Those systematic efforts and singular efforts of entrepreneurs delivered a vital street food scene. I assumed if street food was growing in the U.S. and San Francisco is such a great food town, you’d see that reflected. But at the time I was researching, San Francisco wasn’t a strong street food city. Now when I return it is. It’s the working class end of things. If you’re going to define a street food scene as vital it has to encompass both ends of the spectrum.


Bay Area Bites: What were some of your favorite food and drink finds while you were in town?

Edge: I don’t know (laughs). I had a crazy beautiful dinner at Coi. A kind of elegant bowl of grits of ground corn with a garnish of popcorn. That was one of many beautiful dishes in a night. The ballsiness of [Chef-Owner Daniel] Patterson and elegance of his cooking in one dish: I admired the heck out of that. “I’m going to serve you grits with an ancient native American pedigree and serve it with something you already recognize. I’m going to do it in such a way that I can honor the commonalities and also celebrate my own way with ground corn.”

Bay Area Bites: Did he know you were coming in?

Edge: He did.

Bay Area Bites: Do you have any foods that are a guilty pleasure?

Edge: No. I like trash and treasure. (laughs). I live with an eleven year old son, Jess. He loves pork rinds from a bag like I do. He likes crinkle cut French fries like I do. I kind of like the extremes on the spectrum. We each had a trashy sausage biscuit today. I like excellence in both forms. You can be really good at trashy food and elegant food and I appreciate that.

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About the Author ()

Mary Ladd is a freelance writer and event professional based in her hometown of San Francisco. Her writing has been featured in SF Weekly, Tasting Table, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. She has shuttled Anthony Bourdain around town and mastered the art of properly loading a catering van in a flash. Mary has eaten the world’s hottest burger and loves to cook and eat. Follow her at @mladdfood