John T. Edge is a Southern foodways expert whose work has appeared in Gourmet, the Oxford American and Saveur. He is also the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, where he runs an annual conference on Southern foods. The mission of the SFA is to celebrate, preserve, promote and nurture the traditional and developing diverse food cultures of the American South. Among his many books are Southern Belly: the Ultimate Food Lover's Guide to the South and Fried Chicken: An American Story.
Below, read an excerpt from "The Welcome Table," an essay by Edge that first appeared in the Oxford American in 2000:
Food writer and culinary historian John T. Edge
Hear Edge discuss the hidden kitchens of the South.
'Friendly Supper Club: What's So Funny About Grits, Greens and Understanding?'
After spending a week wandering the city of Montgomery, Ala., in search of the ghost of Georgia Gilmore, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that food -- good ol' grits and greens, fried chicken and fruitcake -- has played a transformational role in this city, the so-called cradle of the Confederacy.
On my first day in town, I met with Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). After clearing a series of guarded checkpoints worthy of a Cold War missile silo, I sat down with Dees, the force behind the 1984 "bankrupting" of the Klan, and perennial target of hate groups like the Aryan Nation. Turns out that, before he became a crusading lawyer, Dees -- along with partner Millard Fuller, who would go on to found the Christian service organization, Habitat for Humanity -- amassed a mail-order fortune, first selling layer cakes to fellow University of Alabama students. He called his company the Bama Birthday Cake Service, and profits from that effort, combined with a later enterprise, the Cookbook Collectors Library, would provide seed money for the SPLC. Dees was dismissive, however, of my "food as facilitator of racial healing" angle. "That’s a stretch, a big stretch," he said.
Dinner that night was at the Piccadilly Cafeteria out on the Bypass. I was there as the guest of Johnnie Carr, childhood friend of Rosa Parks, longtime president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and a founding member of the Friendly Supper Club, a loose-knit biracial band who gather once a month to share nothing more than food and fellowship.
Organized in the wake of a violent March 1983 confrontation between a family of black mourners and a pair of what has been described as "overzealous white police officers who mistook their post funeral visitation as a gathering of drug dealers," the first monthly gathering was called in April 1983 by a man identified only as Jack Smith. 35 people came to the first meeting, 75 or so to the second, nearly 150 to the third, where despite a bomb threat, black and white Montgomerians supped on corn sticks and collard greens, macaroni and cheese and meatloaf. "Think of it as a pyramid scheme for brotherhood," advised Smith in an open letter to members.
On the night I visited, there were but twelve club members in attendance. I was the only one talking about racial issues. The rest of the diners -- black and white, young and old -- mused about the upcoming Alabama lottery referendum and the startling sweetness of Piccadilly’s carrot soufflé. So what's the big deal? Club member Randall Williams let me in on a little secret: "My oldest son, Horace, came with me to the first Friendly Supper Club at a week-and-a-half old. And the network news was there to film him being passed around like a loaf of bread from person to person. Years later, they came back to film us again. Of course, they played up the idea that blacks and whites were sitting down at the same table but by then, for Horace, that was all he knew. So when they asked to interview him about it, he got all put out with me. He kept asking me, 'Why didn't you tell me that's why it was organized. Why didn't you tell me?'"
With all due respect, Mr. Dees, I think I'm on to something here.
Copyright 2000 John T. Edge. Used by permission of the author.