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."
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.
York says his feature, which he's calling Southern Food: The Movie, is a small way of giving these shrimpers and others outside the industrial food chain a voice. There's little doubt his film will be activist in spirit, but if his earlier work is any indication, it will be less strident than something like Super Size Me. York's movies are financed by the University of Mississippi's Media and Documentary Projects Center and the Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit that promotes Southern food and culture. The alliance's director is the author John T. Edge, and although Edge writes about similar topics as a columnist for the New York Times, he said York has his own voice and the potential to affect a broader audience interested in the intersection between food and culture. "Writing is a geek's pursuit," Edge says. "Film is a pop pursuit. And I don't mean to denigrate film: we can reach more people with film."
Like Edge, York is a democratic foodie, so you can afford to eat most of what he puts on the screen. You can also watch most of his films online, for free. His style is similarly democratic. 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. "Most of the time it's just kind of me with the camera talking to these guys," York says. And that intimacy seems to inspire an uninhibited honesty in his subjects. In his short, Smokes & Ears, about the Big Apple Inn sandwich shop in Jackson, Mississippi, patrons sing to York's camera about the joys of pig ear sandwiches.
York's big hope—aside from making this movie happen on a $50,000 budget—is to persuade multiple public television stations across the South to simultaneously premiere Southern Food: The Movie. York likes the public aspect of public television. And just as in Smoke & Ears, which uses pork sandwiches to talk about Jackson's segregated past, he'll be editing with the idea that we learn who we are by exploring what we eat.
How well that approach will work for a place as diverse as the South remains to be seen. Anyone who lives here knows that Mississippi hardly shares much with neighboring Arkansas, let alone Virginia or Florida. No matter how York defines the South, it's sure to invite some criticism. Already, he has drawn a hard line through Texas: only the east counts as the South. "What exactly is Southern?" York says. "We're trying to figure that out." His answer will be worth watching.
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