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Columnist: A journey in Southern food

John T. Edge, a son of Jones County, Ga., with three-fourths of a degree from the University of Georgia, is a man in his heyday (his salad days are here and now) when it comes to the kitchen and knowledge of food — from barbecue and pickled pigs feet to big, bad breakfasts to classic restaurant fare across the country.

Proprietors of fine dining establishments would be delighted to comp his dinner if they knew he was “acomin’ ” to write a review for Garden and Gun with which he is attached as a contributing editor.

His story has something to do with rebounding after falling into an abyss of intellectual inaction, understanding that in finding his direction in life, his unsettled days exposed nothing miscreant or dysfunctional. He just didn’t know what he wanted to do. He was hiding his light under a bushel, however.

At Georgia, he and his friends joyfully trekked to Sanford Stadium to see Herschel run. He can close his eyes, allow his mind’s eye to reflect: “Omigod, Herschel is running over people.” He can see the play that matches up with that Larry Munson call. He can see No. 34 cavorting in Sanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a “man among boys.” John T. was emotionally stimulated in those scenes between the hedges and thought life was grand. Just never thought about a career.

John T. was not an exemplary student, but he wasn’t a lost ball in high weeds either. He overtly enjoyed his time in Athens. He ate at the Mayflower, Strickland’s and the Varsity. “With a snootful, I often went to Blanche’s” where he learned to appreciate goat meat omelets. He is indebted to Herschel and Vince Dooley for creating the opportunity for him to follow the ‘Dawgs to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl in the early 1980’s. There he indulged himself with abandon at Felix’s where he lost count of how many oysters he had consumed when the check came.

Perfunctory strolls through the French Quarter, this low budget college kid couldn’t afford Gallitore’s, Antoine’s, Brennan’s and the multiplicity of other fashionable dining emporiums back then. Today his is a household name among the great chefs who are staples of those kind of places.

But, let him say this about that. He reserves high praise for the high end restaurants of America. However, he probably knows more about the foods from whence it all came. For example, the history of how shrimp and grits came about. The poor and enslaved on our coasts had to make do to survive. Shrimp from the sea were plentiful — hard work with a net brought this food staple to the kitchen. Grits made from corn, about the cheapest food there is, was married up with the shrimp and before you knew it, big city chefs had confiscated the recipes from the common folk on the coasts along the Atlantic seaboard and made big money out of what was once a means of survival for the working class.

In the by and by, John T. dropped out of UGA and “wandered in the wilderness” for a decade before settling down in the charming town that is home to Ole Miss. He tacked on the hours needed for a degree he “almost” got at Georgia. Then, he added a Masters.

Then he organized the “Southern Foodways Alliance” at Ole Miss and throughout the year you can join him and other foodies and culinary experts to get brought up to date on what the latest is in “cooking.” It was an idea of a symposium on Southern food, which has become the rage of chefs across the country.

His next book (he has written seven) will be the “Potlikker Papers.” There will be history, fun facts and lore. Scheduled to come out in May, his publisher won’t let him talk too much in advance, since they haven’t even written the seduction verbiage for the jacket cover.

Georgia remains indelibly on his mind. He is proud of his heritage, hailing from Middle Georgia. (He and singer Otis Redding are Jones County’s two most famous natives whose work has connected with national audiences.)

In a long conversation with him in Oxford recently, he revealed he still has affection for his roots. He returns to Athens a couple times a year to teach at the Henry Grady College of Journalism. He speaks up for those who sometimes resort to junk food, offering this disclaimer. Not all fast food is junk food. Varsity food is fast, but it is not junk food, he says.

If you are like me, you can’t wait to read John T.’s next illuminating piece in Garden and Gun and his forthcoming book. Unfortunately, I know more about the latter than I can let on. Out of respect to the publisher, we all have to wait, but next spring, we surely will conclude that “the wait was worth it.”

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Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.