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Cutting Edge 

Southern writer John T. Edge explores America's foods

"Fried chicken is best served without a side of provincial bluster," begins John T. Edge's just-published treatise-cum-travelogue, Fried Chicken: An American Story. Startling words, perhaps, from a food writer who has thus far made the South his primary subject of discourse. But Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, knew the time had come to broaden his musings beyond his beloved region.

Fried Chicken, and the simultaneously published Apple Pie: An American Story, are the first two in a series of four in which Edge explores the rich, quirky culture around our country's iconic foods (hamburgers and french fries -- a combined subject -- and doughnuts are next). Is your sense of American pride in need of bolstering these days? These books, with their succinct tales of culinary touchstones and the characters who cook them, provide welcome salve.

Edge spent a year on the road, seeking stories and recipes. At turns comic, giddy and philosophical, he introduces his readers to Leslie Austin and his Creole fried chicken; fried pies flavored with Coca-Cola; the odd marriage of chicken and waffles; and a New Mexican who adds green chili to the apple pies he sells.

Edge, a celebrated writer and scholar in Oxford, MS, will be at the Levine Museum of the New South on Thursday to talk about Fried Chicken -- and to eat some after his talk (attendees invited, of course)

During a recent conversation, Edge discussed his series' inception and his favorite discoveries on the road.

Creative Loafing: How did you come up with the idea for the series?

Edge: I had a meeting with my new agent, David Black, to discuss topics for a book. We connected, and I exploded in turretic bursts of excitement over different subjects -- "I want to write about hamburgers and fried chicken and doughnuts ... ." We crafted that excitement into a method of approach.

How did the research process of writing this book turn out differently than what you predicted?

I expected to have a harder time getting my head around the whole of the country, and to have a difficult time in narrowing things down, to honing a book out of all the flotsam. But it hasn't been difficult because somehow the stories self-select. When I come home from a trip and I feel myself telling a story from either the road or library research to my wife, Blaire, the story starts to assemble in my head.

As you traipsed around the country in search of fried chicken and apple pie, what were some of the discoveries that surprised you the most?

New England surprised me in terms of apple pie. If you're a good eater and a student of American food and curious about the subject, you have an inkling of what's out there.

You know, people ask me, "Where's the best pie in America?" That's not the point of the book. But I'm almost inclined to say, the most confounding and delightful is Marlborough pie [a single-crust variation filled with a lemon- and sherry-spiked custard of pureed apples and eggs]. Here's a pie originally made from wormed fruit; a pie that's earned its integrity and peculiar taste; a pie that is very much a regional dish of Massachusetts and New England; a pie that was once so popular that it was the Thanksgiving pie but that has fallen into ill favor. I had a book signing in Oxford recently and we served Marlborough pie. People went gaga for it.

Tickets for the Levine Museum of the New South event are $20 for members and $25 for the general public. Call 704-333-1887 (x224).

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