Selling encyclopedias

I was already hungry when I took my seat on the seventh pew on the right of the Decatur Presbyterian Church.

John T. Edge and Charles Reagan Wilson
John T. Edge, left, and Charles Reagan Wilson discuss “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” Sept. 1 at Decatur Presbyterian Church.

After a long day fighting the crowds at Dragon*Con with the boys, Carla and I were enjoying a night out, so naturally I dragged her to the Decatur Book Festival and the panel discussion of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” Hosted by the 24-volume epic’s editor, Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and co-editor of the original “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” the five presenters were luminaries in the field of Southern scholarship:

  • John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of several books, including “Fried Chicken: An American Story.” In addition to serving as editor of the encyclopedia volume on “Foodways,” he also serves as general editor of the book series “Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing” (volumes 1, 2, and 3 of which are available from the University of North Carolina Press.)
  • Ted Ownby, professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of “Subduing Satan: Recreation, Religion, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920” (UNC Press).
  • James G. “Jimmy” Thomas, associate director of publications at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and managing editor of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” series.
  • Larry J. Griffin, is the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences research professor at Georgia Southern University. He holds appointments in the sociology and history departments and directs the university’s American studies program. He edited the volume on social class.

After a brief introduction of the New Encyclopedia by Wilson, who said a new encyclopedia was needed to update the existing “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” because “It’s a new south,” Edge led all of the panelists in making a brief introduction of the “Foodways” volume.

I snapped a few photos and scribbled some notes, all the while my stomach reminding me that all I had consumed during the day was a solitary doughnut, a banana and a chicken sandwich.

Foodways cover
The “Foodways” volume by John T. Edge will evoke plenty of memories as well as provoke your appetite.

Edge talked of yams, lunch counters, ways to cook an opossum and the subject of his volume’s cover photo, okra. Okra is, perhaps, the most Southern of all vegetables, at its best when fried. My mind quickly set on the most recent batch of fried okra I’d had, a different take on the traditional dish served up at Miller Union near the Georgia Tech campus in downtown Atlanta. Miller Union sliced its okra longways and cooked it in a batter that was light on grease allowing the okra to crunch a little on its own. It had good flavor and was satisfying even as one of four options on my vegetable plate.

In fact, it was the second fulfilling helping I’d had of fried okra this summer. The first was a wonderful side dish accompanying the family dinner of ribs we ordered from Lilburn’s Spiced Right Barbecue. It was sliced the more typical way into little nuggets, but the flavor of the batter and consistency of the okra was wonderful.

As each of the panelists took their turn, my note taking dropped off as I fiddled with my new iPhone. There were powerful and humorous anecdotes shared by each of the other panelists, but I stared into space, contemplating the humble okra plant.

fried okra
No. 246’s fried okra satisfied my lecture-induced craving for this Southern delicacy. I normally don’t find photos online of people’s meals very appetizing, but take my word for it, this fried okra was amazing.

The reward for Carla’s patience at the panel discussion was dinner at No. 246 in downtown Decatur. Although it’s not intelligible from the name, the restaurant is actually Italian. So naturally I was shocked to see fried okra listed as an appetizer.

“I don’t care what else we get, but I’ve got to have some okra.”

It did not disappoint.

If I save my pennies, I might be able to someday acquire the entire 24-volume set of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” and I will continue to follow Edge on Twitter, lapsing into drool at his posts on dining and cooking experiences across the South.

But most importantly, I think I experienced what is meant to be the point of his volume on Southern foodways: Southerners have unique cuisine that connects them and evokes strong memories of shared experience.

So as the season for fresh okra winds down, you better not waste any time in getting you a heapin’ plate of it.  You’ll be glad you did.

Do  you like okra? How do you prefer it, in gumbo, fried or prepared some other newfangled way? Share your love/hate relationship with okra by leaving a comment below.

An Afternoon with Clyde

You’re dressed up,” Carla said from her chair in the playroom.

She’s mocking me, but I don’t care.

“If I get to meet the man, I don’t want to look like a hobo.”

Clyde Edgerton
Clyde Edgerton

At a time when good, churchgoing people are sleeping off Sunday lunch, I head to the Decatur Book Festival to hear and hopefully meet my favorite writer, Clyde Edgerton.

Heavy clouds finally threaten rain after a two-week absence. The traffic is light, but Jim and Don tell me the Braves are losing to the Dodgers 3-0. I look up at Stone Mountain on my left as I accelerate onto Highway 78. I’m always amazed by that piece of granite.

“Why am I nervous?” I think as I find a seat on the fourth row of the right center section in the First Baptist Church of Decatur sanctuary. It’s half an hour before it’s supposed to start, but there are already a good number of folks finding their seats.

I decide I’m more excited than nervous. I wish I had brought something to read. It would have been nice if I had brought a copy of the book for Clyde to sign, but, alas, in this digital age I have it downloaded on my Kindle. Don’t want him autographing that.

I pull out my Moleskine and start jotting notes, impressions really, of the scene. Old journalist’s habits die hard.

I wonder if I might see my buddy, Keith, a North Carolinian book editor who let me borrow Edgerton’s books on tape when I was commuting from Macon to Atlanta. I developed an appreciation for Edgerton’s humor and ability to create three-dimensional characters back in 1994 when I read “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller.” My fondness grew into adoration when I got to hear Edgerton performing more than reading “Raney” and “Where Trouble Sleeps” on the cassettes Keith loaned me. His dialogue was so authentic and the dialect so real.

The auditorium is a little more than half full when in walks Edgerton, wiry and energetic, a backpack slung over one shoulder like the students he teaches at UNC Wilmington. Round gold wire-rim glasses, a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki dress pants and some type of hiking sandal make up his wardrobe. He’s taller than I thought he’d be, but he carries himself with a hint of mischief, just like I had imagined.

He talks graciously with a few of the event organizers before setting his notes on the podium. He goes to the piano and picks out a tune, gaging the sound. He confers with the sound guy.

Who I later learn are long-lost former neighbors and an Air Force buddy find him in a flurry of hugs and laughter. I’m secretly jealous.

The church’s lower level is full, and four women fill in the rest of my pew, trapping me in the middle. The view is great, but I begin to doubt I’ll have a chance to meet him.

Then, a guy in cargo shorts in front of me gets up and walks over to him. I can’t believe it. He just got up and walked right over there and talked to Clyde Edgerton. And he was wearing shorts!

A woman from the Decatur Book Festival takes the microphone and encourages us to Tweet and tells us there will be time for questions before Edgerton will go to a tent
outside to meet people and sign copies of books. Dang Kindle.

Atlanta author Charles McNair provides a magnificent introduction, retelling how he suggested to Edgerton in an e-mail that his remarks might go something like this: “Someday  William Shakespeare will be called the ‘Clyde Edgerton’ of his day.” McNair tells us Edgerton responded “Sounds about right.”

Full of nervous energy and overly conscious of his 45-minute time limit, Edgerton dives in with two relatively recent stories, one on his 29-year-old daughter in a hardware store and the other about taking his three younger kids to the open casket funeral of his aunt who “got kicked out of hospice because she wouldn’t die.”

The Night TrainHe gets to the main event in short order telling us his new novel “The Night Train” is about “music and friendship.” Edgerton, who himself played in a rock-and-roll band in the early 1960s, translates his experience into the story of a white kid trying to recreate James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” album note-for-note. The boy forms a forbidden friendship with an African American teen named Larry Lime looking to escape the South by becoming the next Thelonious Monk.

Edgerton reads the opening pages of the story, and although the words were familiar, Edgerton brings them to life, infused with his energy, passion and perfect pitch dialects.

The 45 minutes fly by. He plays and sings a tune he calls “Fat from Shame” and shares samples of “The Jam Part 1” and “I Need Your Lovin’ Every Day” by holding his Apple laptop next to the podium microphone.

“If I had an hour I’d play all of these,” he says with a grin.

Too soon we’re into the question and answer session, and like a rookie just called up to the majors, I am frozen. My mind is blank. I have so many questions. People are firing off their questions left and right, almost as if they had rehearsed them. Why didn’t I rehearse?

He tells them he’s listening to Randy Newman and a jazz pianist named Monty Alexander on his iPod these days and that his next book is going to be about fatherhood. He even gives us a sneak peak at the first two sentences: “Before the baby comes, install the car
seat and put together the crib. It will take four to seven days.”

He whets our appetite for his next novel, a book about a rag-tag group of guys who are paid to perform 21-gun salutes at military funerals.

“There’s going to be lots of tension and suspense in this book. You’ve got to have tension and suspense in a novel.”

Clyde Edgerton
Edgerton plays his favorite tunes from the early '60s on his laptop.

He closes with another tune from his laptop. He says he wanted this musical concoction to be the real title of “The Night Train,” but his editors would have nothing to do with it.

He smiles broadly as the song integrates Stravinsky with James Brown.

The room swells with applause, and before I can escape my pew, Edgerton is escorted to the book-signing tent on the lawn. When I do make it out of the church, the line is already a hundred deep and a sprinkle is picking up steam.

I decide I’ll meet one of my heroes another day. Instead, I revel in the enjoyment of the written and spoken word, so ably crafted by one of the South’s most gifted storytellers.

I get in my car to hear Prado single to left, driving home Constanza. Braves win in the bottom of the ninth.

It was an afternoon well-spent.