Nashville Reads: When the Whole City Joins the Same Book Club

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See that guy at the bus stop? He’s in your book club. The front-desk lady at your salon? She’s in your book club. The fancy-looking couple at the restaurant table next to you? Them, too. People say the bachelorettes are streaming into Nashville for the honkytonks and tasty food, but we know why they’re coming to town: to join this book club. It’s called Nashville Reads, and it unites the city once a year in a synchronized reading experience. This year, we’re reading The Potlikker Papers by John T. Edge, and Nashville’s throwing a season-long series of events to celebrate it.

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Everyone at the donut shop’s reading The Potlikker Papers.

If you’re a transplant from up North, you might be saying, the what-papers? Potlikker is the delicious juicy stuff left in a pot after boiling greens. In the antebellum South, it’s what slave owners fed slaves, not realizing all the nutrients from the greens had leached out into the potlikker, making the leftover broth more nutritionally valuable than the greens they kept for themselves. But that’s just a jumping-off point for the book.

The Potlikker Papers is really about the changing identity of the South. Edge profiles many of the chefs who led the Southern food movement of the past few decades, including Nathalie Dupree and Sean Brock. Through the lens of evolving culinary traditions, he also traces the civil rights movement, immigration, gentrification, and how dishes once considered the food of the working class became popular on fashionable menus everywhere. (Ever ordered a $14 biscuit just to re-live the taste of breakfast at your grandmother’s table? You’ll love this book.)

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John T. Edge (photo: Jason Thrasher)

Edge knows what he’s talking about. The founding director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi as well as a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and a columnist for the Oxford American, he has won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation and been featured in 10 editions of the annual Best Food Writing anthology. At some point, you’ve probably heard him on the radio, seen him on TV, or read one of the dozen books he has written or edited.

Whether or not you consider yourself a foodie, if you live in the American South — or America, period — consider this book essential reading for what it illuminates about our nation and how we got where we are today. That’s why it’s the citywide read of 2018, in the 7th year of Nashville Reads — a partnership of the Office of Mayor Megan Barry, Nashville Public Library, Nashville Public Library Foundation, Humanities Tennessee, Parnassus Books, and BookPage.

So — here’s what you need to do: Check this book out from the Nashville Public Library or come buy a copy at Parnassus. (We’ve got hardcovers in stock, and it’s out in paperback next week.) Start reading now, so you’ll be ready for the events to come starting later this month. You can even read a free sample of the first chapter here.

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It all starts February 24, 2018, at 2 p.m. at the main Nashville Public Library downtown with the Nashville Reads Kickoff, featuring Randy Rayburn — veteran Nashville restaurateur — in conversation about the Nashville restaurant scene with top chefs Deb Paquette, Margot McCormack, David Swett, Jr., Tandy Wilson, Paul Brennen, and more.

There will be loads of fun interactive events for creative types, including the Food Writing Workshop with The Porch Writers’ Collective on March 3 at 12 noon in the Bellevue library. (See also: a no-waste cooking class and a workshop on how to sculpt clay food!)

We’ll discuss books that pair nicely with The Potlikker Papers, too, for example at a discussion of Historic African American Cookbooks with author Alice Randall. That one’s here at Parnassus on Saturday, April 7, at 2 p.m. (On-theme refreshments will be served!) There will be book-club meetups in locations around town (including Bolton’s Chicken, ML Rose, and Plaza Mariachi). And we’ll have an official meeting of the Parnassus Book Club to talk about The Potlikker Papers on Monday, April 16, at 6:30 p.m.

The celebration culminates with the Nashville Reads Finale with John T. Edge on Tuesday, May 1, at 6:15 p.m. at the main Nashville Public Library. Between now and then there are loads of events — far more than we can list here — so check out the full list on the Nashville Reads site.

And if you’re not in Nashville? Well, you could come visit. Or you could share The Potlikker Papers with your friends, wherever you live. Then we’ll all be in this bookclub together.