Image: John T Edge

Image: John T Edge

by Sophie McNeil Wolf

Once, upon meeting a famous regional chef at a book signing, my mother blurted out, “We like to eat.” If anyone understands that sentiment, it’s John T. Edge. He heads the Southern Foodways Alliance, a member-supported non-profit based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which tells and celebrates the stories of cuisine in the American South. Where did the custom of boiling chitlins come from? How did Southern traditions of curing meat take shape? What are the different Southern barbecue traditions and how do they vary across the region? If SFA doesn’t know, they’re going to find out.

It’s that curiosity and sense of culinary history that caused their summer symposium to be held in Jackson this past June — bringing folks from all over to downtown to contemplate Jackson’s food history, including Fondren’s Brent’s Drugs and Campbell’s Bakery.

As someone who doesn’t live here, when it comes to food, why is Fondren a place people shouldn’t miss?

There’s a great density that’s appealing for culinary tourists. You park your car and you walk. From Brent’s Drugs and The Apothecary to Walker’s Drive-In and Campbell’s Bakery — there are restaurant establishments that have a long tenure in Jackson that makes it important for a neighborhood to establish itself as a dining destination.

I really think that the distinct restaurant neighborhoods of Jackson are a real economic and cultural crown jewel of the city. Sometimes it’s hard for you to see when you live there. Every community wishes it had a walking neighborhood like Fondren.

Speaking of dining destinations, for a smaller metropolitan area like Jackson, having a stable and growing location for great restaurants seems like a big deal, right?

People who know Decataur, Georgia outside Atlanta or Avondale in Birmingham understand how neighborhoods sort of function as an incubator for the culinary community. The same can be said for Fondren.

One of the exciting things for me to see is the mix of old and new. So there is Campbell’s Bakery that’s been there for eons, and then there is Fondren Public, which is new and very much tapped into current trends in food and beverage. It’s that mix of old and new. For the food scene to be really resident in Fondren, old and new really need to co-exist. That’s really important.

The best food towns take advantage of that mix. That’s what draws in a culinary tourist is the sense of purpose about a neighborhood and a sense of dynamism about a neighborhood in complement, one with the other.

What are you and SFA working on and looking forward to right now?

We’ll stage our fall symposium this October in Oxford and it’s specifically geared to be a follow up from the conversation we started in Jackson. It’s taking the historical look at the welcome table in Jackson — we’re going to bring that conversation up to the present in Oxford. That’s what I’m most excited about right now.

John T. Edge is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American.