As director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, a longtime columnist for the Oxford American, a contributing editor to Garden & Gun and author of books like "Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South," John T. Edge has long been considered the authority on Southern cuisine. But his interest and expertise on food and the cultural history surrounding it is hardly limited to the South. He writes a must-read monthly column in the New York Times, has authored books that survey quintessential American foods like fried chicken and apple pie, and next month, Workman Publishing will put out his latest, "The Truck Food Cookbook," which he described recently as "a cookbook tour of foods from around the world told from travels across the U.S."
Tell me about the Truck Food Cookbook.
It's a cookbook tour of foods from around the world told from travels across the U.S. There's everything from fried chicken cooked in the Taiwanese style that I had in New York City to the honest fusion food that helped popularize modern American street food — like the short-rib tacos with Kimchi salsa from Los Angeles. The food ranges from those kinds of new-guard standards to old-guard stuff that tells the story of immigration and effects on the country as a whole. Taco trucks have been feeding recently arrived Mexican immigrants and Americans generally for a couple of generations, and I don't think we paid close enough attention to it until all the hipsters started cooking this food and serving it from trucks. But this has been going on for a while, and the food's really great quality.
We're definitely amidst a food truck boom in Little Rock, with a newly opened food truck court, a food truck festival and Food Truck Fridays downtown, but there has been some push back from brick and mortar businesses.
That happens everywhere. It's going on in Nashville. It's going on in Atlanta. It's going on in Chicago. Little Rock will work through it just like other cities have. Other cities that have done a good job that can serve as examples — like the curatorial model of Madison, Wis., which has a city employee who curates street food. The city and university have kind of shaped a United-Nations-of-food out on University Plaza.
One of the most convincing arguments is that a good number of those doing street food are young entrepreneurs who aspire to brick and mortar businesses. Just in the course of writing this book, about 20 percent of those who at the point I wrote about them were working in a cart or trailer had become mortar businesses by the time the book is set to come out.
You think of Craig's BBQ in Devalls Bluff. Lawrence Craig started out selling barbecue, which he cooked on bedsprings, by the side of the road. He was a street food vendor of two generations ago. Now his sandwich place is beloved for good reason. He got a chance to make it and he did.
You'll be here soon for the literary festival. Where are you going to eat?
I love the Lassis Inn for buffalo fish. I'm planning to try The Root. I'll go back to Ashley's. Lee Richardson, in terms of his vision in interpreting Arkansas, is one of the really smart chefs around the South.
I wanted to ask you about Richardson. He calls his food New Americana. I think of it as traditional food chef-ed up, which seems to fit into a broader trend that's happening throughout the South and beyond.
Chefs two or three generations ago took their inspirations from Italy or France; those were the mother countries and that's what a good chef interpreted. And that was a really insecure time in American food and culinary culture. I think we value our own regional foods more now. I think what you're describing as a trend is more of a permanent revolution. I think what Lee's doing is part of a progression on the part of American eaters to value what's in their backyard — in terms of farmers, artisans and traditional foodways. I think that's here to stay.
In the 2010 Oxford American food issue that you guest edited, Sam Eifling went in search of Arkansas's signature cuisine and didn't really turn up anything definitive. Anything you'd nominate?
It was interesting going back and forth with him on the edits of that. It's not my place — I'm not from Arkansas. But the chicken liver spaghetti from around Tontitown strikes me as distinctive Arkansas food. The rice grits that Lee serves at Ashley's strikes me as an Arkansan food. The fried buffalo at Lassis strikes me as an Arkansan food.
I know you've got advance people and tipsters pointing you toward places to eat, but I'm sure you still come across bad food in search of good. What's the breakdown like?
I'd say about 35 to 40 percent good and about 60 to 65 percent bad. But the good is really really good, and you don't eat much of the bad.
What's your latest food obsession?
The mortadella and anchovy pizza at Dominica in New Orleans. It's a housemade mortadella with anchovies and tomato sauce and it sounds all incongruous, but it tastes pretty damn gruous.