'Southern Belly' Offers Prose That's Mouth-watering

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

If, when you get done reading John T. Edge's new book, you're not hungry, there's something wrong with you.

The book, "Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South," is a loving treatise on all that it means to be from that large and ill-defined areas known as "the South." If you prefer cane syrup to maple and can tell a cat-head biscuit from a regular drop biscuit, this book is for you.

It's a roadmap of sorts across the breadth of Dixie, mapping not gas stations and Stuckey's, but eateries where biscuits are big as cat's heads and the gravy is as rich as a mother's love. But it's more than that because mixed in with all the delicious food descriptions are some tantalizing tidbits of history that helped shape the region into what it is. That's not by accident.

"I think of this book as an edible social history of the South, something that will compel you to gas up the car and drive to see what's out there," Edge said in a telephone interview last week.

He ought to know what he's talking about. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss., a nonprofit group that documents food in our part of the world.

The book is presented with the enthusiasm and precision that is afforded to somebody who has spent their adult life writing and researching the broad topic of Southern cooking.

Edge also takes time to offer a paean to one of Mobile's best known imps and food authorities, the late Eugene Walter. "If the term 'patron saint of Mobile' does not exist, then I would make a strong argument that one be established and posthumously bestowed upon Eugene Walter," Edge writes.

He further compares Walter's work as an author with that of the legendary M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote more than 20 books on food and dining in her lifetime.

"I am an unbashful fan and acolyte of Eugene's," Edge said in a telephone interview last week. "He is one of the grandest, grandiloquent, gaudiest and smartest of Southern advocates who ever tread on the Earth," he said.

Edge's culinary road trip through Alabama includes visits to such landmark eateries as Chuck's Bar-B-Que in Opelika, Chris' Hot Dogs in Montgomery, Bright Star in Birmingham and Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Que in Decatur.

The southern leg of his Alabama food quest offers glowing reviews on a few of our favorite joints.

Oliver Wintzell, founder of namesake Wintzell's Oyster House, is lionized for his irascible spirit and fine, fat oysters. He also praises Wintzell's gumbo and West Indies Salad.

Similarly, Edge offers a brief but flattering history of Morrison's Cafeteria, which started in Mobile in the 1920s. He credits it with being among the first cafeteria-style eateries in the South and traces the growth to more than 150 outlets and then to it's demise when it was sold to Piccadilly in 1998.

But he saves his most effusive praise for another old Mobile standby, Bayley's Restaurant and it's founder, Bill Bayley Sr. "Bayley was Falstaffian, a cigar-chomping man of great appetites," Edge wrote, who was as much a showman as he was a restaurateur. "At his core, however, he was a cook, expert at frying chicken and all manner of fish," Edge said.

Bayley's signature creation -- the West Indies Salad -- comes in for extra scrutiny. He even includes Bayley's original recipe to close out the chapter on Alabama eateries.

The difficulty in writing a book that tries to examine the food of an entire area of the South, a part of the country known for good eating, is deciding what not to include. "There's a bunch of stuff that I've got on my list that I really want to bring to folks the next time," Edge said.

In choosing restaurants, he selected those unique individuals and eateries that are part of a bigger story about the South. "I was looking for places and people that are part of some universal truth about the South," he said.

Like the attention he pays to former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who chose to shut down his Atlanta restaurant in the 1960s rather than serve black clientele.

Or the not-so-familiar tale of Deacon Lyndell Burton, also of Atlanta, who dedicated his life to the art of perfectly fried chicken. His cooking technique was described as "minimalist" but "the chicken that emerged from the Deacon's iron skillets was perfect; tender legs coated in a thin, brittle blanket of crust, snow white breasts, juicy beneath a peppery mantle of brown." OK, now I'm hungry. It is 300 some-odd pages of such mouth-watering prose.

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Wintzell's Oyster House
605 Dauphin Street
Mobile, AL

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