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Living on the edge: Oxford's John T. Edge crosses the nation in pursuit of the unique stories of all-American foods.

If anyone can be said to have thought seriously about the relationship between our food, our culture, and the American way, it is John T. Edge, food writer extraordinaire, cultural philosopher, and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. You can go a long way before you find anyone who enjoys his work as much as Edge, whose specialty is writing about what the food we eat as Southerners and Americans says about us. "It's a lovely conceit I'm able to engage in--to use writing about food as a way to explore our culture," said Edge.

A longtime contributor to magazines such as Gourmet, Saveur, and the Oxford American, Edge began his book-publishing career in 1996 with an irreverent self-published guide to Atlanta, Georgia, titled The Belly of Atlanta and co-authored with friends Nelson Ross and Boyd Baker. A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South, written as a project for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture while Edge was working on his master's degree in Southern studies, was published to wide acclaim and nominated for a James Beard Foundation Americana award in 2000. Other Edge books include Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South and the first two in his newest series for G.P. Putnam's Sons, Fried Chicken: An American Story and Apple Pie: An American Story.

The latest two volumes were inspired by Edge's desire to chronicle the history, evolution, and high enthusiasm for four classic American foods: fried chicken, apple pie, hamburgers and fries, and donuts. Or as Edge puts it in his introduction to Fried Chicken, "I chose these foods because they transcend interregional variation and internecine debate over origin. Recognized from the Atlantic to the Pacific as uniquely American, they evoke the culinary and cultural fabric of our nation."

Edge wants readers to understand right off the bat that his is not a mission to find the perfect embodiment of any of these dishes. He didn't set out to find the original fried chicken or the quintessential apple pie recipe--his quest was to see what might be discovered about these classic American dishes as prepared by the hands of various cooks across the country. "There's this core knowledge about what apple pie is, and there's this core knowledge about what fried chicken is, but what makes it American are the variations," Edge said. "The shame would be if you didn't tinker with the apple pie--and I think that's a uniquely American impulse."

And tinker people do--Edge traveled from coast to coast to compile each book, sampling famous recipes from various regions of the county. The fried chicken book begins in New Jersey with a visit to the Chalfonte Hotel at Cape May and ends at the Inn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, where John Fleer marinates fried chicken in a sweet tea brine for 48 hours before double-battering and frying it every Saturday morning at 7 a.m. Halfway through the apple pie book, Edge encounters "Senor Pie" in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who adds a tablespoon of hot green chiles to his homemade apple pies (his store also features cherry pie with chipotles and peach pie with habaneros). Edge details the ensuing culinary experience thusly:

"True to Senor Pie's reputation for subtlety in baked goods, I don't feel the heat on my tongue. At least not at first. Instead, I intuit the grassy tang of the chiles, the way it brightens the apple flavor. And when the heat finally comes, it sneaks across my palate on tiptoe. I remain dubious about whether truckers will adopt the green-chile-apple-pie as their own, but Senor Pie knows by the smile that creases my face and the tiny pearls of sweat that bead my brow, I am an unqualified convert."

For the adventurous among us, Edge. includes the recipes for each culinary creation he profiles, from the Serbian-American Fried Chicken recipe from Barberton, Ohio, to the Apple Pie Shake recipe "a la mode de la Hamburg Inn" in Iowa City. Each book closes with a list of places Edge visited for his travels, just in case readers decide to take their own fried chicken or apple pie pilgrimage tour. "The mission is always to search for America's gastronomical grail," said Edge.

In July (just in time for the cookout season to jump into high gear), Edge will release the third volume in this series, dedicated to the classic American combination of hamburgers and French fries. In the upcoming book, Mississippi will get its due in chapters on the Slugburger Festival in Corinth and the dough burgers from Booneville. "There's a lot more Mississippi content in this one," said Edge. Not that Mississippi has been slighted up to this point--Julep restaurant in Jackson rates praise in the chicken book for its success with fried chicken variations.

While the fried chicken book emphasizes the evolution of fried chicken from a hearth-and-home ideal to a commercialized American path to success, and the apple pie book documents a frustrating search for an honest apple pie that's both nostalgic and thoroughly modern at the same time, the hamburger book will examine the wide variety of burger philosophy and preparation. "The burger book ends up being about the duality between frugality and excess," said Edge.

Any surprises in the upcoming work? "The surprise is the kind of baroque quality of the burgers in Los Angeles," said Edge. "You expect (to see) the 'x-ray models' and people eating the eggless frittatas. I found people eating chili-pastrami cheeseburgers. There are worse ways to spend a week in L.A. than eating hamburgers."

For a taste of Edge's discoveries, enjoy this sampling of recipes from his books:

1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into
 10 pieces and trimmed of extra tilt
Juice of 2 lemons
Peanut oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten lightly and seasoned
 with salt and pepper
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 cloves garlic
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Squeeze lemon juice over chicken, and rub it into flesh. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before cooking so that chicken reaches room temperature.

Pour oil into a large frying pan until it is 1/3 full. Heat oil to 350 degrees. It should not smoke. Mix flour with some salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken pieces in flour, then dip them into the beaten eggs. Add chicken to the pan. Do not overcrowd the pan; there should be plenty of room between pieces. Let the oil drop to a simmer of about 325 degrees. Cook for 15 minutes or until an internal thermometer registers 170 degrees for dark meat, 160 degrees for white meat. During the last 2 minutes before removing chicken from the pan, turn up the heat to 375 degrees to crisp. Then add herbs and garlic for about a minute. Remove chicken and herbs from oil, and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle more salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze fresh lemon, and serve on a platter topped with the herbs. Yield: 4 servings.

Cesare Casella, Beppe Restaurant New York, New York

Fried Chicken: An American Story

1 quart brewed tea, double strength
1 lemon, quartered
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 quart ice water
8 chicken leg quarters, cut into thighs
 and drumsticks
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 cups cornflour (or fish fry)
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
8 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
Peanut oil

Combine tea, lemon, sugar, and kosher salt, and simmer for 5 minutes or until salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Pour in ice water, and cool brine completely. Submerge thighs and drumsticks in brine for 48 hours.

Remove to a wire rack, and allow chicken to drain. Combine 2 cups of the flour and the cornflour, Old Bay, chili powder, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Place remaining 1 cup flour in a medium bowl, and in a third bowl, beat eggs with buttermilk. Line up bowls of flour, egg-buttermilk mixture, and flour-cornflour mixture, in that order. Coat the chicken in the flour, then the egg-buttermilk mixture, and then the flour-cornflour mixture, applying pressure to ensure even adherence. Let the chicken sit in the refrigerator for half an hour before frying.

Pour oil into a heavy pot at a depth of at least 3 inches. Heat oil to 300 degrees. Fry chicken, submerged in oil, for 15 minutes or until an internal thermometer registers 170 degrees for dark meat, 160 degrees for white meat. Drain on a rack. Cool to room temperature, then place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and no more than 24. Serve cool from a picnic basket or cold, straight from the fridge. Yield: 8 servings.

John Fleer, Inn at Blackberry Farm Walland, Tennessee

Fried Chicken: An American Story


1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into
 small pieces
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening,
 cut into pieces
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 or 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 1/3 cups shredded extra-sharp
 cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons ice water

Frigidity is all-important here. Place butter and shortening in the freezer for at least an hour before mixing. Pulse flour, salt, and cayenne pepper in a food processor. Remove the lid, and tuck butter and shortening into the mixture. Pulse 4 times to cut in the butter. Add 1 1/3 cups cheese, and pulse 4 more times. Sprinkle half of the water over the flour mixture, and pulse 5 or 6 times. Add the rest of the water, and pulse 5 or 6 more times until the pastry looks like very coarse crumbs.

Move mixture to a chilled bowl, and work until dough is formed. Round into 2 balls, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap each ball in 2 layers of plastic wrap, and press each ball into a disk. Chill for at least 3 hours.

5 large, tart apples
Juice of 1/2 large lemon
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, cut into 6 parts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and slice apples. In a bowl, mix apples, lemon juice, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, and nutmeg with your hands. Set aside, and retrieve pie crusts from the refrigerator.

Roll the dough into 2 circles that are 2-3 inches wider in diameter than your pie shell or plate. Press the bottom crust into the pie plate, and mound apples until they fill the crust and dome slightly. Scatter butter over the mound.

Cut a center vent the size of a dime into the top crust. Sprinkle the remaining cup of shredded cheese onto the crust. With a rolling pin, roll lightly to press the cheese into the dough. Roll the crust onto the rolling pin so that the rolling pin resembles the sausage in a pig-in-a-blanket. Unroll the crust, cheese-side down, on top of the apples. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and bake for 40-50 minutes longer. Crimp the edges of the crusts.

Blair Hobbs Oxford

Apple Pie: An American Story


(This is one of several crust recipe
options offered in the book.)

2/3 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
1/2 tablespoon salt
2 cups flour
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water

With a pastry cutter or fork, cut shortening and salt into flour until the mix is pebbly. Add water, and stir with a fork until the dough becomes somewhat sticky. Form dough into a ball, then cut the ball in half, handling the dough as little as possible. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate, preferably for at least an hour.

3/4 cup sugar, divided
2 tablespoons flour
Dash salt
5 tart apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
 (Lodis or Jonathans are ideal)
1/4 cup honey
2 dozen or so Red Hots, known
 generically as cinnamon imperials
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup sugar with the flour and salt. Set aside.

Roll the dough into two circles that are 2-3 inches wider in diameter than your pie shell or plate. Line the pie pan or plate with the bottom crust. Fill halfway with apples. Drizzle on half of the honey. Sprinkle on half of the sugar mixture. Mound remaining apples, then drizzle on the remainder of the honey and sprinkle on the remainder of the sugar mixture.

Space Red Hots evenly throughout the filling. Cut butter into bits, and dot the entire filling with them. Cut slits in the top crust, and place it over the filling, crimping the edges as you go. Paint egg on the crust, and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes or until brown.

Cindy Deal

Apple Pie: An American Story



By John T. Edge. Hardcover, each $18.95. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 800/788-6262,
COPYRIGHT 2005 Downhome Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Home Pages
Author:Whitehead, Julie
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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