I had the occasion a few months ago, when doing some research into “the ham of my people” (country ham with redeye gravy), to stumble onto the work of Amy C. Evans, the award-winning, Mississippi-based oral historian of the Southern Foodways Alliance. On a whim, I sent her a random collection of questions, and, as luck would have it, she wrote back today with the answers. Here they are…
MARK: Perhaps, before we get started talking specifically about your work, you could share a little background about the Southern Foodways Alliance, how it got started, its mission, etc.
AMY: The Southern Foodways Alliance was founded in 1999. A member-supported non-profit, based at the University of Mississippi, we stage symposia on food culture, produce documentary films, collect oral histories, and publish compendiums of great writing.
Our mission is to document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor—all who gather—may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.
MARK: When I first became acquainted with your work, I have to tell you that I was more than just a little bit jealous. As someone with an appreciation for the South, having grown up moving between Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina, and degree in American Studies, who attempted to make a go of it at an historic archeologist, before giving it all up for the security of an office job, your career, at least as I understand it, is the stuff that dreams are made of. Please tell me one really bad thing about your job before we get into the good stuff… I think that might make this interview easier for me.
AMY: You know, I didn’t even know a job like this existed before I found myself in it. It is a really wonderful gig, I have to say, but there is one giant albatross around my oral historian neck: processing. For every week spent in the field collecting interviews, four more are spent in front of a computer screen. We’re now able to have multiple people collecting fieldwork for us, so I manage that, too. It’s all worth it, though, of course. So is the uptick in my waistline.
MARK: OK, now the good stuff. Tell us what it is that you do for the Southern Foodways Alliance?
AMY: I am the SFA’s lead oral historian. I travel the region collecting stories from people who make, grow, serve, and consume Southern food and drink. Until just a few years ago, I was the only oral historian but, as the organization has grown, we’ve been able to bring more people into the fold and invite colleagues to collaborate with us on projects throughout the region. Here lately, I’ve been attending more conferences to spread the good word about our documentary archive. I also conduct a week-long oral history workshop every May at our headquarters at the University of Mississippi.
MARK: In the time that you’ve been collecting oral histories have you noticed any larger trends? Are you, for instance, seeing any evidence of the old ways dying off? Or, are people, perhaps, coming to appreciate regional food traditions more, with the advent of “food tv” and the constant advance of corporate chains across the American landscape? In your opinion, is there a concerted effort to keep these things alive? And, if not, how do we get there?
AMY: After a decade doing this work, the only things I see dying are people. Southern food is on the upswing. It’s more popular that ever, it seems. It’s the generation of people who are connected to almost a century of the South’s culinary history that we’re losing. People like Alisa Lay of Greenwood, MS; Bill Tinker of Louisville, KY; Edna Stewart of Chicago, IL; and Joe Pope of Rosedale, MS, to whom we dedicated our Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. They are precisely why we are committed to oral history.
MARK: The work you’re doing is incredibly important. It’s vital that we capture the history of regular Americans, of all walks of life, and food, perhaps more than anything else, really gets to the heart of who we are. It’s our history, our heart, our culture, all rolled up into one. I’m curious if you have any sense just how much of this history was lost before your group, and others, began documenting it. It’s easy to see on a satellite image, for instance, just how much of the Amazon rainforest disappears each year, but how do we measure the loss in this area which you study?
AMY: In my oral history workshop I always share the African proverb, when an old [person] dies, a library burns to the ground. There’s no way to measure what’s been lost, only document what remains. Again, this is precisely why we’re doing this work.
That said, there are plenty of young people doing new and exciting things, and we’re committed to documenting them, too. Take, for example, Hieu Pham in Atlanta, GA. Pham is a born-and-raised Atlantan, but his parents bring a mix of Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese heritage to the table. In 2008 at the age of 25, Pham opened Crawfish Shack Seafood on Atlanta’s Buford Highway, where he serves fresh po-boys with a Vietnamese-influenced remoulade, spring rolls made with Louisiana shrimp, and a traditional Vietnamese drink of pressed sugarcane spiked with sweet Louisiana satsumas in lieu of sweet tea.
Hieu Pham, Crawfish Shack Seafood, Atlanta, GA:
MARK: I’m curious to know if there’s a great white whale in your field of study. Is there some culinary myth that you’ve heard about for years, but haven’t been able to find real evidence of?
AMY: No great white whale, only a driving urge to document and share. That, and culinary myths aren’t really our bag. We’re more interested in celebrating the uncelebrated, exploring culture through food, and building an archive that documents the changing foodways of our region. The latter is only just now beginning to show its value. Take, for example, our Southern Boudin Trail, where we feature more than 40 oral histories about boudin (pork liver, rice, onions and various other herbs and spices squeezed into a sausage casing and served hot). They are all interesting stand-alone interviews. Collectively, though, they tell a bigger, broader, deeper story about the evolution of a particular food in the context of a certain place and time. Which is to say, the boudin that old-timer John Saucier of Saucier’s Sausage Kitchen makes (using not just the liver but all of the organ meats form a hog) speaks to boudin’s origins and the fading boucherie tradition of South Central Louisiana. It’s is a far cry from the alligator and chicken boudin being served in some establishments today, which are perfectly acceptable and actually quite popular versions of boudin, but they have very little to do with what John Saucier makes.
John Saucier, Saucier’s Sausage Kitchen, Mamou, LA:
MARK: I’m not sure to what extent, if at all, you’ve researched New Orleans, but I’m curious what the post-Katrina diaspera meant for the food culture that was there.
AMY: We’ve conducted quite a lot of fieldwork in and around New Orleans. In fact, our Southern Boudin and Southern Gumbo Trails were specifically created to spur culinary tourism in the state after Hurricane Katrina.
Just last year we produced the Down the Bayou oral history project, and many of the subjects who shared their stories mention of Katrina. Nick Collins of Collins Oyster Company in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, is a good example. Katrina remains a part of the cultural fabric of southern Louisiana — and southern Mississippi, I might add.
Visit our Oral History Project index and scroll down to the Louisiana heading to see all the work we’ve collected in the sate.
MARK: How is your work funded?
AMY: Our documentary work is funded in large part by private and corporate donations.
MARK: Can you tell us about one of your favorite interviews?
AMY: Too many to count! But my interview with John Saucier of Saucier’s Sausage Kitchen, an interview from the Southern Boudin Trail that I mentioned earlier, is definitely a favorite. I happened upon one of his handmade signs while in the field in Cajun Country, found my way to his front door, and talked him into visiting with me. He was a lovely interview, and, as I mentioned above, his boudin story ended up being very important to the project. I often know who I will be interviewing before I head into the field, but it’s interviews like this ones—the surprises—that are especially memorable. What’s more is that after the interview, Mr. Saucier and his wife invited me to join them for a lunch of venison stew, homemade bread, and peppers from their garden.
Another memorable interview was with Leann Hines, a chicken farmer in Greenwood, Mississippi. She is an inspiration. And, in fact, I just had an email exchange with her the other day. In a postscript she added, “I love all my new friends that I never would have known if not for the chickens and one little mosquito.” Listen to her audio slideshow online, and you’ll understand just what she means. She is AMAZING.
Leann Hines, Levee Run Farm, Greenwood, MS:
MARK: How did you come to this career?
AMY: I fell into it really. I have a fine arts background (BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art) but in 2001, at the age of 30, I decided I wanted to go back to school. Not for art but for a cultural studies degree. More than that, though, I wanted to get out and explore. Long story short, I found the Southern Studies program that’s part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and knew immediately that it would be a good fit. It was the documentary studies part of the program that hooked me. I had a graduate assistantship with the SFA, which, at that time, was only three years old. They were just turning their attention to oral history, so my classmate Joe York (who now makes all of our documentary films) and I collaborated on the SFA’s very first oral history project, documenting barbecue joints in Memphis, TN. I continued to do projects for the SFA after graduating in 2003 and was hired as the SFA’s full-time oral historian in 2005. I still make paintings and have an annual show at Koelsch Gallery in Houston, Texas.
MARK: What was your favorite meal?
AMY: Milkshakes with A. L. and Gloria Quick at the Burger King in Apalachicola, Florida. I made three fieldwork-gathering trips to Franklin County, Florida, for our Florida’s Forgotten Coast project, and I made this date with the Quicks each time.
Second favorite meal might have to be the one with John Saucier mentioned above.
MARK: If there was one food you’d like for people everywhere experience, what would it be?
AMY: Anything shared by the person who grew/harvested/cooked/served it. Food is always better when there’s a story to go with it.
MARK: If I were to be looking for the best fried chicken in the world, where would I be most likely to find it?
AMY: I hope to never find the best. I’d rather keep tasting, comparing, craving. Greatness should be a never-ending quest. That said, I have to confess that I’ve eaten at Gus’s in Memphis twice in the past ten days.
MARK: Is there anything that you’ve seen prepared that you’ve refused to eat?
AMY: Nope. I’ll eat whatever doesn’t eat me first. This, of course, is not a job requirement, but it does come in handy. For me, it’s never usually about the kind of food but the quantity of a certain thing being consumed over a short period of time that can be hard. Spending a week in the field to document barbecue, for example, has its hazards.
MARK: If things aren’t going well, and you’re just not connecting with your interview subject, what do you do? Do you have a foolproof question that you break out in case of emergency?
AMY: In the decade I’ve been doing this work, there have really only been a few people who have not being giving interview subject. Generally, people like being paid attention to, celebrated for what their doing, and sharing their story. If the interview happens to not be going well, you just have to gauge your subject and try to find a way around the problem. Every situation will have different solutions because people are different. There is no foolproof question, although asking someone what they had for breakfast — and the beginning of an interview or when the need for a change of tone shows itself — is a great was to get people out of their own head and think about something specific instead of how nervous or uncomfortable they are. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
MARK: Do oral historians hang out together somewhere? If so, what do they talk about?
AMY: They do, actually. The Oral History Association has an annual meeting, and there are other groups and events that bring people together to talk about the field of oral history. And when they get together, they talk shop. I’ve also found that oral historians are quite chatty, which likely has something to do that we’re always the ones listening.
[note: The painting above, of the man in the overalls, is a portrait of Robert Earl "Doc" Mathis, done by Amy, who, as she mentioned above, can be found painting, when she's not traveling through the South, eating, and collecting oral histories.]
[note: The videos above only contain small snippets of the interviews which Amy has collected. If you follow the associated links, you will find her transcribed interviews in their entirety.]
And, if all that talk of boudin and fried chicken got your mouth watering, you’ll be happy to know that The Southern Foodways Alliance has produced an awesome cookbook.
Oh, and this is the short documentary film on country ham that first brought the Southern Foodways Alliance to my attention. It was produced by Amy’s associate, Joe York, and features Madisonville, Tennessee’s world-renowned bacon and country ham producer Allan Benton. And it totally brings back delightful childhood memories of eating ham and biscuits at my grandmother’s table in Liberty, Kentucky.