Southern Foodways Alliance/flickr
This April, in a river swamp near Wewahitchka, Florida, Joe York filmed a beekeeper named Ben Lanier as he stood under a towering white Tupelo gum tree. Surrounded by the fierce greenery of a Southern spring, Lanier explained that the tree's blossoms last for just two weeks, and they are the only source of a prized, light-colored honey his family has harvested since 1898. "I grew up in a beehive," Lanier says.
For seven years, York has made short films on a shoestring about people like Lanier—farmers, barbecue pitmasters, pie bakers, cheesemakers, and fry cooks—who live and work in the South. He also shot and edited Saving Willie Mae's Scotch House, a feature about rebuilding a New Orleans restaurant after Hurricane Katrina. His food films focus on an American culinary landscape rarely seen: a rural place populated by working-class people who, as York shows, are just as reverent about ingredients and cooking as any urbanite with a CSA subscription and a five-dollar cup of shade-grown coffee.
The footage of Lanier, which York showed me on a laptop in his office at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, is part of York's newest and loftiest project. Over the next year, the self-taught filmmaker plans to document the ways life and food intersect in every state in the South. He's aiming for a cinematic summation of today's Southern foods, from a seed saver in Kentucky to such chefs as Hugh Acheson and Sean Brock, who are reinventing traditions through high-end food. "It's hugely ambitious," York says. "It's way bigger than anything we've done."
He doesn't appear on camera or supply voice-overs; he'd rather offer lingering shots of golden fried chicken or images of grass-fed cattle in a Georgia field.
York's project has also become way more urgent as the BP oil spill spreads in the Gulf of Mexico. By chance, he was on the coast in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, when the spill began. The town's annual blessing of the fleet, a normally celebratory affair with mountains of boiled shrimp and fried fish, had turned anxious. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi, the man who during the blessing asks God for a safe and bountiful season, told York, "We don't know where it's going, how it will impact us—and the danger that poses not just to a livelihood but to an entire way of life." Across the state line in Biloxi, York found a similar scene: Vietnamese-American shrimpers unable to trawl in Mississippi waters because the season had yet to open, and unable to work off the coasts of Louisiana or Texas because of oil. York's footage captured men ill at ease with idleness; one passed the time fussing with his boat, painstakingly painting the image of a shrimp on the hull since he couldn't go to sea and catch the real thing.