A White Gatekeeper of Southern Food Faces Calls to Resign
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For years, people have been calling for John T. Edge to step down as head of the influential Southern Foodways Alliance.
They say he is a kingmaker. They say he is a white man — however charming — who has too much power over who tells the story of food in a region where so much of the cuisine was created by enslaved people.
For years, Mr. Edge has been listening, and remained in his position at the top.
“I will listen hard and with as much intensity as I can,” he said recently. “Out of a moment of stern and righteous critique comes a better organization. The work we’ve done over the last 20 years is work that is true to our mission, work that despite flaws that I may see and others may see is intended to make progress and make positive change in a region I have always loved and sometimes hate.”
But listening might not be enough anymore.
Before there were biscuits all over Brooklyn and barbecue pit masters made the list of best American chefs, 50 cooks and writers shared a meal in Birmingham, Ala., in 1999 and created the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The idea was subversive. With food as a lens, the organization aimed to preserve the intricacies of the Southern table in a way that would both erase the nation’s cornpone concepts about the region’s food and help heal a tortured racist history.
In a struggle that is a microcosm of the national reckoning over systemic racism, a group of current and past staff members are renewing calls for Mr. Edge to step aside as director.
No racist images of the sort that led to the recent and speedy exit of Adam Rapoport as the editor in chief of Bon Appétit have surfaced. There are no homophobic texts or reports of sexual harassment. By many accounts, the work around the intersection of race and food that Mr. Edge, 57, has spent 20 years attending to has been crucial.
A chorus of voices is rising, though. Mr. Edge, they say, is a statue that needs to come down.
“I view him as a dear friend and a close ally, but principles don’t mean anything until they cost you something,” said the author Lolis Eric Elie, 57, a founder of the organization who has also written for The New York Times. “And John T. is a man of great principle who may end up paying a great price in this context.”
The ground under cultural institutions like the Southern Foodways Alliance has shifted fast. The battle is on over how to push for change — especially in progressive Southern academic circles — and whether the framework of reconciliation remains relevant.
“What we have is a middle-aged man who like so many progressive Southerners has wrestled with the demons of his white Southern past and used that to help build a better South,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, 63, a former board president and a professor emeritus of American studies at the University of North Carolina. “The reconciliation stance is no longer going to work in this nation. It’s about economics and justice. This is it. This is the moment.”
She is not calling for Mr. Edge’s dismissal, but she does support a thorough restructuring and the hiring of people of color for well-paid jobs at the top.
Over two decades, the Southern Foodways Alliance has become a unique and powerful stage for cooks, writers and academics who gathered each fall for its sold-out symposium in Oxford, Miss., where 350 people examined foodways and social issues over fried catfish and tumblers of bourbon.
It became a media organization, too, publishing scholarly food stories from the South and developing a respected collection of more than 1,000 oral histories and documentaries housed under the umbrella of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Mr. Edge became a media star and prolific author in his own right, dedicating much of his work to changing a historical narrative about African-American, immigrant and Indigenous cooks who created Southern food — while many people from those communities struggled to get their own work published.
To many, the organization seems like a family, with Mr. Edge positioned as its beloved patriarch. He opened doors for countless writers, and became a regular commentator and writer on Southern food and culture, including in the pages of The Times and his ESPN show, “True South.” He led a charge to help rebuild a black-owned New Orleans restaurant after Hurricane Katrina, and has honored important cooks who might otherwise have missed wide recognition.
Internally, he created a hybrid organization that exists under the umbrella of the University of Mississippi but also operates independently and relies on separate fund-raising, a task for which he developed a special talent.
During his tenure, Mr. Edge has raised more than $13 million, including money for salaries, fellowships and an endowment aimed at paying the salary of the director who would succeed him, according to Melany Robinson, the organization’s publicist.
But a strategic audit in 2017 warned that his persona’s becoming synonymous with the organization could be a serious issue. That concern is suddenly very real.
The match that ignited the current debate over Mr. Edge’s leadership was struck in a James Beard Foundation webinar on June 17, when the chef Tunde Wey asked him to step down.
The conversation was fed by the webinar, hosted by Jamila Robinson, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food editor, in which Mr. Edge faced off against Mr. Wey for a reprise of a 2016 column they co-wrote in the Oxford American, titled “Who Owns Southern Food?” It was Mr. Edge’s column, and he shared it with Mr. Wey, who is black, as a device to explore white privilege and its impact on Southern food culture.
In the column and more bluntly in the webinar, Mr. Wey asked Mr. Edge to step aside and give the power of his position to an African-American woman.
“I’ve been in the position 20 years,” Mr. Edge said in the webinar. “It’s time for me to get out of the way. I recognize and embrace that.” He then explained that he was raising money to fund his replacement, but that the process would take more time than Mr. Wey might like.
Days later, Ronni Lundy, 70, a founder of the organization and an authority on Appalachian food who has said she views Mr. Edge as a younger brother, wrote a pointed Facebook post and then delivered a letter calling for him to step aside.
Her litany of issues centered on sexism, echoing longstanding concerns about a “bro culture” in which Mr. Edge ignored women and their work. She pointed out that it took 15 symposiums — including two about barbecue — before women were selected as a focal point in 2013. And at that event, Dr. Ferris had to deliver her keynote speech behind a podium created to look like a stove.
“It was just time to quit complaining to each other and bring this out into the air,” she said. “I feel like I’m Brutus in ‘Julius Caesar.’”
The issues of race and gender around Mr. Edge came together, and laid bare long-simmering concerns from women, African-Americans and other people of color about the direction of the organization and, in some cases, the way they had been treated.
Osayi Endolyn, a food writer and media commentator who lives in New York, worked for the organization for about two years as the deputy editor of Gravy, the organization’s quarterly magazine. She was on contract, and left in what both she and Mr. Edge said was a professional but difficult parting, although their explanations of what caused her departure differ.
After Ms. Lundy’s call for his resignation, Ms. Endolyn, 37, sent a letter to both the advisory board and Kathryn McKee, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, urging Mr. Edge’s swift resignation.
“I have seen and commented directly to John T. and SFA staff about the absurdity of his long-term power,” Ms. Endolyn wrote. “They will tell you it’s all about The Work. It’s not. This is a narcissistic and ongoing power grab on the backs of black people’s stories and the cachet of SFA being able to say what our past affiliation with the org. means for them. It is transactional. It must end.”
Asha Gomez, 50, is an Atlanta chef and cookbook author whose work has explored the similarities between the cooking of food in the American South and the state of Kerala, India, where she was born. She was part of a group of chefs of Indian descent who participated in a 2019 dinner series called Brown in the South, which was a benefit for the alliance sponsored in part by the James Beard Foundation. It was awkward, she said Friday, in part because of the way Mr. Edge controlled the event.
“You are a prop in what felt like a dog-and-pony show,” she said. “Judge me for the excellence I bring to the table. I am not here because you decided I needed be here. We are made to feel beholden to somebody who decided to bring us to the table.”
As discussion about Mr. Edge began to circulate in the insular food media world late last week, Eliza Borné, the editor of the Oxford American, where Mr. Edge has had a column since 1998, told him Friday he would no longer be writing it because he “has received disproportionate space” in the magazine.
Other bricks began to fall. Mayukh Sen, a New York-based writer and adjunct professor at New York University, on Monday withdrew from the Margie Samuels Fellowship that the association awarded him last year. “I came to the conclusion that continuing to work with the SFA under its current leadership does not align with my values or goals,” he wrote in an email.
Stephen Satterfield, co-founder of the magazine Whetstone, published a statement on social media Monday calling for Mr. Edge to resign. “A platform of racial reconciliation, but how many Black staffers in 21 years? In Mississippi? Bad look.”
Nicole Taylor, 42, a Georgia-born New York food writer who has participated in several alliance events and produced media for the alliance (and whose work has appeared in The Times), admires the mission of the organization, but joined the growing call for his resignation.
“I can’t tell you how many times over the last 10-plus years I have been in the room with white women and men and there have been hourslong conversations about John T. needing to resign,” she said. “When you look at the history of the organization, it’s built on black stories, and there is not one black person in a position of power.”
In a state whose population is nearly 40 percent African-American, the S.F.A. staff of nine includes only one person of color, Cynthia Greenlee, an African-American writer and historian who has a doctorate in history from Duke University. She works 20 hours a week on contract as the deputy editor of Gravy. The latest issue is filled largely with work from writers of color she solicited, except for several pandemic-related stories by white authors that Mr. Edge added. She told Mr. Edge Monday night she was resigning.
In an interview last week, Mr. Edge pointed out that almost all of the alliance’s staff members were women, and that most decisions were made collaboratively. Plans to elevate the roles of two of its longstanding staff members, Melissa Booth Hall and Mary Beth Lasseter, to positions of co-director, on par with Mr. Edge, are in development.
The University of Mississippi handles personnel and approves pay changes for the organization. Mr. Edge requested pay increases for Ms. Hall and Ms. Lasseter. In addition, the alliance announced that it would require at least half the jury selecting its fellowships be people who are not white or heterosexual, and that other parts of alliance programming would have new, more rigorous diversity requirements, too.
Mr. Edge emphasized that a succession plan has been discussed for five years, and for the last two, he has been raising money to make sure the position and others in the organization can be sustained with an endowment. He said he had pledges of $2.1 million toward a goal of $3 million, which will fund the directorship at an annual salary of $90,000 once he steps down.
“I don’t want to hand over the S.F.A. as a busted wagon,” Mr. Edge said.
He and several others say the alliance could fall apart if the proper steps aren’t taken to make the change. The university, which is facing a hiring freeze and financial strain from the pandemic, would hire his replacement. The process is encumbered by laws and regulations that govern how a new director would be chosen, regardless of who it might be.
Dr. McKee, of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said she was listening to the concerns and cataloging them. She vowed to “cultivate a pool of applicants that could yield the sort of person many of the advocates for his removal would like to see.”
Mr. Edge said, “Does this moment propel me toward an earlier retirement or a moment in which I step away from the S.F.A. earlier than I had imagined? Does that turn my head? Yes. Yes, it does. But I don’t intend to make a rash decision that will impact my family and my colleagues.”
Mr. Edge has a large swath of supporters among the roughly 1,500 members of the organization, and over the weekend the board debated how much support to throw behind him. On Sunday, it issued a statement of support for the staff and the alliance. “We do not propose that he step down or end his tenure in any way that puts the organization into crisis,” the statement said. But the board proposed speeding up succession planning.
The deep examination of the issues raised by people calling for Mr. Edge’s resignation is exactly what the alliance was designed to do, and do in a way that includes all voices.
“The S.F.A. under John T.’s leadership has always worked to grapple with the issues, and have these tough conversations and have them in a way that can be as inclusive as possible to the marginalized and to also include people who have come from a more privileged class,” Jay Oglesby, the board president, a white business executive from Alabama, said in an interview. “The conversations were always held where someone like me could feel welcome and not feel accused.”
That was the strength of the alliance, he said. “I just always want to avoid attacking people, because people’s hearts and minds can change, but not if they are backed into a corner.”
The writer and professor W. Ralph Eubanks, who was born in Mississippi and is one of two African-Americans on the 16-member board, agreed.
“I wake up angry every day, but in the course of waking up with that anger I have to reckon with, what is it I really want to throw out with all of this?” he said.
“As we move forward, we can’t cast aside our allies. Is John T. a perfect ally? I would say no, but he is an ally nonetheless,” he said. “In this moment, we are all so angry or we have suddenly woken up. I don’t think we are in a moment of clarity about what that path is.”
The cookbook author and writer Toni Tipton-Martin was the first working president of the organization, establishing the early workings of the alliance with the Creole cooking authority Leah Chase, which built on earlier work organizing a Southern food association started by Edna Lewis and John Egerton, the Southern writer considered the founding father of the alliance.
By 2015, Ms. Tipton-Martin had pulled back from the alliance and started Soul Summit, a symposium focused on the culinary history of African Americans. Like others before her, she felt the alliance had lost its way.
“There were times when it felt like the black people were there as the accessories, and women were marginalized,” she said of the annual events. “The party with a purpose that we created left attendees with the idea that something powerful had happened, but it didn’t hurt. Over the years it morphed into the party appearing to be the most important thing. I understood the slope we were on.”
Still, she advised taking change more slowly. “What I’m concerned about is that systems in general that uphold white men in positions of power find themselves faced with a noisy group of young people that are calling for changes and the same kind of protesting we are seeing in the street,” she said. “They are willing to burn the institution down to start fresh. I just don’t happen to be of that generation. I want us to channel this into more opportunities to develop future leaders.”
But others feel that time has run out for Mr. Edge.
“I feel he is most interested more than anything in perpetuating and protecting his role as a kingmaker,” Ms. Endolyn said. “If you stop being the person who is the collector of the shiny brown things, who are you really?”
Mr. Edge said, once again, that he is listening.
“I want to embrace the critique,” he said. “I intend to listen and I don’t listen well enough, and I’m still at it and I appreciate it.”
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