When he attended graduate school at the University of Mississippi, Joe York, 35, had no idea he was about to become a documentarian of living anthropology. He probably didn’t even know there was such a thing. Come to think of it, I don’t know if there is such a thing. I just like the term. It seems to capture the essence of what York does with his movie camera as he travels throughout the South.
The Alabama native had worked on digs as an archaeologist in the South. “I was always interested in understanding our past and our culture,” says York, who majored in anthropology and archaeology as an undergraduate at Auburn.
But while working on unearthing the past, he discovered he was more interested in the living than the dead. “We were trying to piece together these lives from people buried beneath the dirt,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could know these people?’”
“And on these digs, I started interviewing people — I have all these tapes,” he continues. “And I realized that’s what I like doing. I like taking these ephemeral stories and putting them in a place that they’re not ephemeral anymore.”
He enrolled in the master’s program at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, set down the shovel and picked up a camera. He then began filming ordinary people doing extraordinary things. His first movie, in 2002, was called “Saving Seeds,” about a Kentucky man, Bill Best, who preserves heirloom seeds. “The Johnny Appleseed of Appalachia,” York calls Best.
Since then, York estimates he has made some three dozen short movies about people who preserve and further the idea of Southern food, whether a catfish joint in Mississippi or a family of peanut farmers in Georgia. He recently completed a one-hour feature on Southern food, “Pride and Joy,” which is a tapestry of his previous work.
At the Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium last weekend in Oxford, Miss., York showed a barbecue short about an African-American pitmaster named Helen Turner, who works long days shoveling embers beneath meats at her barbecue joint in rural Tennessee. The film, along with its star, who attended the showing, received a standing ovation.
This year’s SFA conference was on barbecue. (I will write about it in my November column.) York has made several films about barbecue. They include examinations of sausage-making at a joint called Southside Market in Elgin, Texas, and whole hog cookery by tradition-bound pitmasters Rodney Scott in Hemingway, S.C., and Sam Jones in Ayden, N.C. Each film tells a larger story, whether about German immigration to Texas or cultural perseverance along the East Coast.
“It is the visual realization of the SFA to document and celebrate the culture of the South through the food,” York says. “Not the food itself. We’re talking about gender issues and race. Food just makes those issues easier to digest, to use a bad pun.”
York says that his barbecue travels have taught him that secrecy is suspect. “If you talk to the people who really cook barbecue and use wood and do it for 12, 18 hours, they tell you the secret is just work,” he says. “Anybody who tells you they have a secret, be suspicious of them. Because everyone who is really good at this has told me the same thing: ‘There is no secret to what I do, I just work my [rear] off.’”
“All the sauces and everything is about where you’re from, the region,” he continues. “But the thing that threads through all of it is honesty and hard work.”
York is still an anthropologist. These days, though, he searches among the daily lives of Southerners for clues about identity, heritage and, of course, the passion of food.
“How cool is it that I can study us,” he says.
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