THE SFA DOCUMENTS SOUTHERN FOOD CULTURE
The look and taste of Southern food is evolving. Though the classics live on, the South is much more than fried chicken and barbeque, according to Amy Evans Streeter, oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Southern menus now boast ethnically infused tastes, brought to the table by a diverse population of immigrants, according to Streeter, and the SFA exists to study what’s on our plates. “Our mission is to document, study and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South,” Streeter says. “We view food as a lens through which all aspects of Southern culture can be viewed: race, gender, class.”
The SFA’s primary interest is collecting food histories through oral history interviews, using them to produce documentary films. In 2004, as a result of a suggestion from the founder of Birmingham’s Jim and Nick’s Barbeque, Streeter made the trip east to dig into the story of our Greek food community. The result was 11 engaging interviews with Greek restaurant owners. Each interview, including ones with George Sarris of The Fish Market, George Nasiakos of Gus’ Hot Dogs and Gus Koutroulakis of Pete’s Famous, was transcribed and recorded for permanent inclusion on the SFA website.
But the SFA doesn’t exist just to capture stories and shrink-wrap them. “We always try and go back to older projects to keep them alive,” Streeter says. “Early on, when we established the oral history initiative, we were really adamant that we didn’t want to relegate the stories that we collected to a file cabinet.”
When New York-native filmmaker Eric Feldman came through the University’s Southern Studies Program a couple of year’s ago, he helped bring new life to the SFA project. The result was a short documentary film entitled Hot Dog-opolis. The film takes a closer look at the interweaving of Greek families behind Birmingham’s most beloved hot dog businesses. “It was really wonderful to be able to have Eric and [his wife] Leyla revisit these subjects five years later, get an update and keep those stories alive,” Streeter says.
The SFA passes the plate even further by sharing audio files from interviews on their new “okracast”—a podcast version of their archives. “We’re able to feature entire interviews, so people can listen to an hour of audio with Gus of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs,” Streeter says. “It’s one thing to read a transcript, but to hear someone’s voice is an important part of this. To get someone’s accent and the noise of the place... someone chattering in the background, ordering a hotdog. We’re able to share a full portraits of what that interview was like.”
Birmingham has a rich history with tales behind every local counter. If you’ve a hankering to discover one of your own, the SFA may be able to help. The group’s Greenhouse Initiative underwrites some of the costs of documentary filmmakers who seek to create their own food culture projects. August 15 marks this year’s deadline for project proposals. “Anyone can submit a proposal,” says Streeter. “The idea is just kind of a way to get a finger on the pulse of what other people are doing, finding a way to collaborate and push their projects forward.”
As communicated by the SFA, food is a common denominator. It carries memories. It unifies. Streeter sees food as a means by which cultures can start to resolve differences. “Even if you don’t start out having those heavy conversations, the table is where they start,” she says. “Food is something that we all share. Food brings people to the table.”
To read Streeter’s interviews with Birmingham restaurateurs and to find more information about the Greenhouse Initiative, visit www.southernfoodways.com. To view Hot Dog-opolis, check out the Southern Foodways Alliance video channel at www.vimeo.com/3460153.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food and other topics for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.