Following is an excerpt from the recent free public talk, “Southern Food as Cultural Fount: A Conversation,” with national food writer , winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, with award-winning North Carolina Public Radio Reporter Leoneda Inge, WUNC’s first-ever race and southern culture reporter, and Andrea Reusing, the James Beard award-winning chef of the Durham Hotel and also Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. For these expert enthusiasts, food is a gateway to such southern topics as history, race, migration, economics and more.
Leoneda Inge: You say New York is this great melting pot but no, the South is this great gumbo. People from all different cultures have moved here and all the food is all mixed up now in a way that is quite delicious, actually.
John T. Edge: I think about this and I think that you [Andrea Ruesing] were early to that argument with your restaurant. You were this Jersey girl cooking food rooted in Asia with southern ingredients and that defined a new kind of southern restaurant and I think that was important.
Andrea Reusing: That’s a kind thing to say. I think that really, for me, restaurants in the South and we all experience this and I think y’all experience this. I can barely say that. Sometimes I say “you all.” Like, I say it now and you won’t notice it but if I email you and I write “you all” because I don’t feel truly authentic if I say ya’ll in writing. But I can say it so I’m going to say it, ya’ll. When ya’ll visit New York City and you see all the biscuits in Brooklyn or all the fried chicken in Miami Beach. It’s hot as hell there; it’s not the right food to eat on the beach, fried chicken. Our largest export is fried chicken and can we cook fried chicken in the South anymore in a normal way? That’s a question I have for you.
JTE: What is your question?
AR: Can we continue to cook fried chicken in the South when you can get really good fried chicken in Portland, Oregon? I mean the chicken…
John T. Edge: The chicken is better in Portland, Oregon? Wow, these people are going to come after you. Fried chicken is an American dish. Fried chicken is a rural dish.
LI: Didn’t you write a book about fried chicken?
JTE: Uh-huh, and I tried to make that argument. I really believe that, that fried chicken is an American dish, it is a dish of immigrants. When I wrote this book on fried chicken, I met Korean fried chicken cooks in Seattle; I met Indian ancestry fried chicken cooks in Chicago. Many of them were inspired by Colonel Sanders, a good Southern boy, from Indiana. He made his fortune in Portland, Kentucky. But I really think of it as an American food that a number of Southerners, many of them African-American women, have perfected. And that narrative of African-American excellence comes through in fried chicken. But if you look at who cooks it, who eats it, it’s an American dish. And it makes sense that it is being sold and consumed and is now beloved in New York.
LI: Well, my cousins in New Orleans say that they don’t eat the Colonel, first of all. They get Popeyes, they don’t eat any KFC. But I have been put in a situation several times to fry chicken. And one of the first times when I was a young, sweet, new journalist. I was a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan and I was with this special group of people, about a dozen of us. And I was the only African American in the group. And a part of the fellowship was everyone was assigned a night to cook a meal for all the fellows and their spouses, and different professors and the like. So when it was my turn to cook. And you know, I was born in Mobile, Alabama, used to live in Mississippi, grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. You know those buttholes expected me to fry chicken. They just assumed I could fry chicken.
AR: That was maybe the best use of butthole in 20 years.
JTE: It was so soft, it wasn’t even offensive.
LI: You should have seen me calling my mother, looking up Martha Stewart’s recipe for fried chicken; I was looking up everybody’s recipes for fried to chicken to make sure. Even I think Sarah Foster’s. Do I dunk it in buttermilk? Do I put two shakes of flour?
AR: Some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had was in New York City, like at Princess Pamela’s. I went to that restaurant when in college when it was cool just going there. There was this place on 1st Avenue called The Roost that had lard in the fryer and my Dad and I used to go there and just sit there and that was a huge night out, just sitting there eating the fried chicken. It’s a little bit like special Cajun food, fried chicken. And the fact that it’s ubiquitous is probably part of our huge problem and so jumping from that into something could be interesting in terms of stuff. I don’t know, how depressing do you want to get, how fast? The other side of the coin of fried chicken—my dad lives in lower, slower Delaware, the Delmarva Peninsula, where there are lots of factory chicken farms. And eastern North Carolina is looking more and more like that today and so for all of our celebration of fried chicken, fried chicken has a different side and the labor side of fried chicken is not just the person frying it but the person working in the slaughterhouse.
LI: And I know. I made a serious mistake by making my oldest son read Eating Animals that was the freshman book at I can’t remember if it was UNC or Duke. And I always much prided myself, even when my kids were like 13, I was like, they can read whatever the freshmen at Duke are reading. I’m sure they can. So then when I had him reading Eating Animals, he just stopped eating meat. He just refused, he was like a vegetarian.
LI: No, about a month later I fixed him up dinner. He is a pork chop eating vegetarian.
JTE: That’s the best kind.