Local People

Published on July 9th, 2020 | by Elizabeth Tettleton

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John T. Isn’t the Problem, Reactionary Responses Are

Is removing an ally forging a path for another, or is it destroying the ground that has been laid?

In a cloud of smothered Black voices, John T. Edge has given a platform, a voice, and agency to people of color since founding the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in 1999 with 50 others. In a recent New York Times article, “A White Gatekeeper of Southern Food Faces Calls to Resign,” columnist Kim Severson cherry-picks sources who, with broad-stroke claims and minimal rationale, make assumptions questioning Edge’s intentions. Deeply nested into the mission statements and goals of the organization and upheld by its board, diversity has always been at the forefront of the SFA’s actions, so much so that the swath of opinions touting otherwise seem at the least suspect, and at the most, libelous. 

I’m not the only one close to the situation who disagrees with the way John T. Edge and the SFA were depicted in the article. Amid an outpouring of opinions in the comment section of the article and heated statements far and wide on social media, some of Edge’s SFA colleagues have come to his defense.

Oxford writer and food service veteran Jenna Mason, who was employed for five years by the SFA before becoming a freelance writer and digital editor for the Alliance’s quarterly publication, Gravy, said, “I believe the article showed a clear bias in the people they chose to interview. Some important information they either left out or did not verify. The statements about SFA not compensating contributors are patently false. I found the article unbalanced and not on par with the journalism I expect from the New York Times.” 

Regardless, passionate voices should be heard, and, as one SFA board member reminded me as we reflected on the chatter circulating in the food world, the feelings expressed in Severson’s article should not be dismissed, but rather be cause for reflection. However, along with that reflection has come speculation about the motives behind the narrative: What evidence proves wrongdoing by Mr. Edge that warrants this Trial by Social Media? 

Personally, I saw Severson’s article as waffling between applauding Mr. Edge and tearing him down. Although I have never been employed by the SFA, I did work in close proximity during my position as Director of Special Events and Catering at City Grocery Restaurant Group, and many of the accusations against John T. seem unfathomable. Now, is John T. a human who makes mistakes? Yes. Is he a racist who tokenizes women and people of color to fill an affirmative action quota? If you believe that, you clearly do not know the man or his work.

“Mr. Edge, they say, is a statue
that needs to come down.”
New York Times writer Kim Severson

Recently, the New York Times decided to throw Mr. Edge out with the proverbial bath water after an awkward webinar panel with John T. Edge and chef /writer Tunde Wey turned confrontational. When I tuned in to the webinar, I thought I would be watching a discussion on Southern food and how it can mend fences and help our nation come together. What I saw was a provocateur taking a turn to bemean a white man for fun in the midst of racial and civil unrest in our country.

The topic posed by the James Beard Foundation, was “What role can food writing play in our divided nation?” Naturally, I assumed I would be watching two food writers discuss ways to influence change and reparations for the greater good, not how to discredit people in an attempt to destroy their careers solely based on their skin color. For some reason, I thought, I hoped, we were learning to not judge people based on their melanin. 

But that isn’t what Mr. Wey wanted, and apparently not what the New York Times wants, and not what Kim Severson wants, either. They seem to be calling for a massive culling of all things representative of whiteness, especially of the male variety, and they are helping to perpetuate an onslaught of defamation creeping across America in recent months. 

I’m all for removing a misogynist, racist pig who tries to prevent women and BIPOC from progressing in our country, but where is evidence for the accusations against Mr. Edge? Is the calling for his resignation warranted? I’m willing to listen, but someone needs to spill the actual tea, because so far the only crime I can find is his race. Demanding his resignation is uncalled-for, and further, a detriment to progression in the state of Mississippi, the South, and the literary and culinary worlds.

If Mr. Edge were to suddenly resign, it would leave a massive gap in the Southern culinary scene, and lose the traction gained in contextualizing, restoring, and preserving Southern foodways and their origins through literature, symposia, oral histories, documentaries, and other platforms. 

I understand the anger and vitriol at supremely white institutions that make no way for people of color to have careers in a field they are only filling with white males. I understand wanting to topple every monument and semblance of white supremacy that has suppressed voices, art, food, careers, wealth, prosperity, and the “American dream.” I understand wanting reparations, wanting restoration, wanting instant equity. I understand concerns on “who” is curating the history of Southern food and who is calling the shots on what gets published, which chefs get a seat at the table, which voices get a panel.

However, removing the protectors of justice, the instigators of equity and equality, the leaders of broadening the table isn’t the answer. In fact, it’s like taking ten steps back. If you shame, scold, and remove white allies, how is that a positive move towards equality and equity?

John T. Edge is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the American South. The SFA has completed more than 900 oral histories and 100 films, focusing on people like fried chicken cooks, row crop farmers, oystermen, and bartenders.

We are all aware that there remains a systemic and resounding whitewashing of American Southern culture that has stifled Mississippi since slavery, Jim Crow, and desegregation. The recent removal of the Mississippi flag is, I hope, a symbol of change within the hearts and minds of its citizens, and evidence of an education of a past that has been smothered with “Lost Cause” rhetoric longer than anyone I know has been alive.

But for 21 years, one organization has not been a proponent of white preferential narratives, and that organization, the Southern Foodways Alliance, has been helmed by a man now being pressured to resign. Let me repeat, John T. Edge and the SFA have not been propagators of Lost Cause rhetoric, but instigators for restoration, and reinstators of Black voices to reclaim their food heritage in the South.

As Jenna Mason shared, “I have witnessed John T. reach out to BIPOC in earnest and listen to their critiques and advice. I’ve also seen, behind closed doors, how deeply it troubles him that SFA is not as diverse as it should be.” 

Contrary to the article published by the New York Times on June 29, 2020, I feel that John T. has done great work as director of the SFA. And he doesn’t just do this work solo, as Severson tried to claim. 

“All decisions are made by the whole SFA team and are thoroughly deliberated over a series of staff meetings,” said Mason.

Edge works tirelessly to bring Black, Brown, Indian, Native American, indigenous, Latino/Latinx voices to the culinary scene that might otherwise be overlooked, and voices that were already of note in their own right. One and the same he has shared the stage with newcomers and old souls, seasoned vets and fresh faces. Those who had already made it big, and those who were hoping to. I’ve been fortunate to have firsthand experience with the SFA fall symposium, but I know many readers have not. 

My first SFA experience was as a student at The University of Mississippi. I attended at the behest of my poetry teacher, John T.’s wife, Blair Hobbs. A friend of hers, Natasha Tretheway, was giving an invocation-style poetry reading and homage to the late Jake Adam York at the opening of the second day of the 2013 SFA. She read from York’s poem, “Abide.”

Natasha was the appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2013, and the Mississippi-born child of an illegal marriage of a black woman and a white man. Natasha, reading her friend Jake’s poetry, and then poetry from her own Native Guard, brought tears to the room and introduced me to the people John T. surrounds himself with—one of the most diverse groups I had ever experienced in Mississippi.

From a non-Southern perspective, I could see questions of diversity about the SFA, but from a Mississippi perspective, it was the most diverse, open, and academic approach to Southern food I had ever witnessed. It forever shaped my view of Southern food’s roots and the necessity of knowing its past. I have participated in six SFA symposiums, variously as a student, volunteer, and paid employee of City Grocery Restaurant Group. In my years involved with the SFA and the food service scene, I have gotten to know several folks whose voices I thought were important here, but they were all unable, or unwilling, to comment.

Joe Stinchcomb. Photo via The Southern Foodways Alliance

Joe Stinchcomb was the 2018 SFA Symposium’s bartender in residence and the 2019 Smith Fellow, involvements that led to him being selected as the 2020 Sam Beall Fellow with Blackberry Farms. Joe rose to prominence when he published a menu of African American– and slave-inspired cocktails for Black History Month in 2018, using his position as the bar program manager at Saint Leo as a platform. Unfortunately, he felt unable to comment on the issues surrounding Mr. Edge.

Afton Thomas became an associate director in the Center for Study of Southern Culture. I first met Afton when she served as a program coordinator for the Southern Foodways Alliance; in fact, her first year with the SFA was my first year working alongside the SFA. I felt her voice would be vital in this piece after her husband, UM sociology professor JT Thomas, took to Twitter asking why Afton was not included in Severson’s article. Unfortunately, she also declined to comment.

I reached out to other people of color close to the SFA and culinary scenes I knew would have feelings on the matter, but none were able to comment. My own frustrations aside, it is their opinions that would shed light on a possible secret deep darkness that needs to be rooted out, or shower praise for a job being well executed, or offer a measured perspective on areas for improvement.

Calling for someone’s resignation is not a small thing, and driving that conversation with the assertion that he merely needs to do more, not that he has actually done anything wrong, is not fair. There is a legitimate need for more space for people of color, however, firing or encouraging Mr. Edge to resign is not only a slap in the face of an ally, but potentially harmful to perpetuating the creation of spaces for people of color and fostering historically accurate documentation of southern food. 

“One thing I would add: those calling for John T.’s immediate resignation should take a few hours (or days) to pore over the work SFA has produced (films, oral histories, Gravy stories and podcasts) under his leadership. Listen to the talks given at SFA events. Read the list of fellowships and awards, some with stipends, that SFA has bestowed. I defy anyone to find a more diverse archive of voices from the South. The work speaks for itself,” said Mason.

Will John T. Edge retire some day? Absolutely. Should it happen because he’s taking up “too much” real estate with his writing? No, I think not. Should it be because he has a massive blindspot? I see no evidence of that, only evidence for the contrary. I am grateful he arrived on the scene when he did in 1999, that he hasn’t shut up about BIPOC needing to be seen, that he creates spaces for underrepresented voices to be heard, that he fights for women and minorities to get pay raises, and I pray that someday he won’t have to fight for their space at the table because he has been integral to creating a more open, more welcoming America. 

I’ll leave you with John T. Edge’s statement on Twitter after the New York Times article was released: “This week I learned, in conversation with members and collaborators, and through a New York Times article, that the people of SFA demand more of me still. I welcome and accept that challenge. I promise to listen, absorb, reflect, and act.”

To read statements from the SFA, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and the the SFA Board, view HERE

Southern Foodways Alliance mission and values, view HERE

John T. Edge’s website, view HERE

Based in Oxford, Elizabeth McDaniel Tettleton is a freelance writer and the leader and co-founder of The Oxford Comma creative writing workshop group. She is an event assistant for the Ole Miss Alumni Association and MBA student at the University of Mississippi.

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