When two writers are in charge of a television show, a good story takes precedence above all else.
TrueSouth, an SEC Network series exploring Southern food and culture, typically features two food stories rooted in one place and mines meaning from their intersection. The most recent episode featured chili dogs from Phenix City, Ala., and jerk chicken from Columbus, Ga., both cities adjacent to Fort Benning.
But host John T. Edge and executive producer Wright Thompson decided to ditch that structure to focus on a single South Carolina dish and Edge’s personal connection to it. The TrueSouth episode devoted to catfish stew will premiere on Feb. 22.
Initially, the South Carolina show was going to explore a pair of Orangeburg restaurants. Then the production team realized there was a “whole world of possibilities” in Bowman, the birth and burial place of Edge’s late mother, and the stew she made in memory of her father’s fish camp.
“The care and kindness our crew brought to this, in submitting themselves and our show to my own want to reconcile with my mother — it was the most humbling experience I’ve had as a working writer and thinker,” said Edge, the author of "The Potlikker Papers" and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Edge previously chronicled his mother’s catfish stew in a column for The Oxford American, which in 2020 yielded Edge’s fourth MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing from The James Beard Foundation. At the start of that essay, he noted that he had never visited his mother’s grave.
“Whether it was shooting scenes with a long, long lens to give me quiet and reflective time in Bowman or the kindness (Thompson) showed me as a friend, helping me find my way back to her and reconcile with her,” Edge said his colleagues’ attitude toward the project allowed him to engage in the necessary process of introspection.
“The great majority of my work has been telling other people’s stories,” Edge said of the choice to make his private struggles public. “My work is a reckoning with the South, and I’ve realized my work requires a reckoning with myself. I don’t flinch from that work.”
He described the upcoming episode as “an effort to be as honest with my audience and as honest with myself as I possibly can be.”
While this episode represents a departure from the standard format of the show, now in its third season, there are recognizable through lines.
Music has always featured prominently in TrueSouth, so director Tim Horgan recruited Ranky Tanky to supply the soundtrack for the South Carolina episode. It also maintains the central premise that recipes can reveal stories otherwise concealed.
In this case, the recipe is one which has hung over Edge’s stove for more than a decade.
“It’s in her hand,” Edge said, speaking by phone from his home kitchen. “Up top, it says Edisto River Original, and it’s full 1970s; kind-of-groovy-wannabe,” meaning the reader is instructed to cut up onions in “whatever shape turns you on.”
When Edge’s son was growing up, Edge’s wife, artist Blair Hobbs, prepared the stew every few weeks, each time resurrecting tastes that date back almost a century. Although Jess Edge never knew his grandmother, who died 11 days before he was born, Edge said he wanted to forge a connection across generations and state lines by making the stew familiar.
“This is a homecoming by way of a recipe,” Edge said, referencing his many close relatives in South Carolina. “It opened a doorway for me, and in this episode, I step through that doorway and don’t look back — and get stronger and better for my family today because of it.”
Last summer, Edge was briefly in the public eye following calls for his resignation from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Cultural commentator and chef Tunde Wey urged Edge to cede his position to a Black woman; the appeal to “step aside” was echoed in an open letter written by cookbook author Ronni Lundy and signed by two dozen past contributors to the University of Mississippi organization.
Asked about platforming his own story in the wake of those exhortations, Edge said, “This is the right thing to do at the right time.”
Or, as he wrote in his Oxford American column, “the want to step out of the grandstand and into the spotlight,” was a link with his mother that survived their separation.
TrueSouth airs at 7 p.m.