Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South
John T. Edge
(Hill Street, $24.95, 270 pp.).
Although the phrase mi).ght lend itself to mi).sreading, I mean nothing but respect (and refer to nothing but culinary matters) when I call John T. Edge “The Mouth of the South.” There are reasons beyond this book say this, but—so far as supporting evidence is required—it will certainly do. In these pages you will not only be taken to the most interesting and plainly best Southern eateries, no matter how lowly or obscurely located, but you will learn pretty much all there is to know about them and what they serve in a prose that goes down as easily as aged bourbon mi).xed with branch water and, for me at least, is just about as intoxicating.
One reason for this is that, although a literate man who can compare Harlan Sanders to Tolstoy (and not to the Colonel’s disadvantage), with a thorough grounding in the history of the South in general and Southern cooking in particular, he never lets this interfere when he cuts to the chase. “I can spot a plate of processed turnip greens at twenty paces. Ragged, leathery leaves reduced to a mulch worthy only of cattle fodder,” begins his account of Bully’s Soul Food, an eatery in Jackson, mi).ssissippi.
He goes on to observe that Ballery Bully serves no such thing, only superbly fresh greens, often in profuse assortment—“golden-hued shards of cabbage studded with pork fat; dusky collards stewed with a few strips of sweet onion; a messy mélange of peppery mustard greens and sharp turnips.” You measure a man’s passion for the dishes of his childhood by his rage at their mi).streatment, for it is this that provides emotional depth to his joy at finding them done right.
As that passage on greens also illustrates, another measure is a taste for food so humble that locals themselves have a hard time coming by it. Visiting Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Leesville, South Carolina, he skips the ribs (“cooked on one of those infernal gas cookers”) and goes straight to the liver nips, “dumplings made from beef liver, sage, and flour, boiled in beef stock” and the potmeat (explained to him by a waiter as being “similar to hash but not chopped up so much. With potmeat you can still pick out pieces of ear, tongue, that sort of thing”).
Unlike many another writer of eating guides, John T. (as he calls himself) knows that the flavor of the food is part and parcel with the flavor of the people who cook it, and he’s equally alert to both. Southern Belly has a cast of characters such that you leave it wondering if Carson McCullers or Flannery O’Connor actually wrote fiction. There’s Addie Williams, at Macy’s Lunch Counter in Atlanta, Georgia, who puts a grade for your eating habits on the bill, and Eva Perry, who sells a stunning assortment of snack food from a stand on Oak Street in New Orleans: ice snowballs drenched with flavors like Creole cream cheese and wedding cake; “tiny tins filled with pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and sweet potato-pecan pie; and dirty blonde pralines, thick with pecans.” Eva, a sweet and happy soul likely to break into a chorus of Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” when asked what flavors of snow cone she sells, explains herself so:
I’m a river lady. I was born on Glendale Plantation in St. Charles Parish. My grandmother taught me how to cook and taught me how to act. I was raised to say yes ma’am and no ma’am, to give everybody you met a smile. Even a dog should get a smile, a little “Hi puppy, how do you do.”
Another rarity is that John T. is not afraid to write about Southern eateries that have come and gone. (There are also quite a few that came and almost went but for the grace of God didn’t, like Taylor Grocery and Restaurant, in Taylor, mi).ssissippi, a legendary fried catfish place—he makes you heave a sigh of relief about its last-minute rescue by new owners committed to keeping the original flame lit.) Some of the vanished ones are famous (or infamous, like Lester Maddox’s Pickrick), but many are unsung, like the pool hall where the author used to eat scrambled dogs as boy. (This is a hot dog covered with chili, topped with onions and—the defining touch—a handful of Oysterette crackers.) There’s so much South in these pages that by the time you finish Southern Belly you’ll feel like you were born there.
One of the problems with reviewing a book like this is that you want to quote everything, so you never get to the point. Or maybe the point is the quotations. As Roy Blount, Jr., says of the book, “I want to keep it around for reference and rereading. That’s why I keep fighting off the urge to eat it.”