Is the SFA’s Secret Weapon
Words by Chuck Reece Header photo by Hollis Bennett
Friendships like the one we described in our story, between Rodney Scott and Sam Jones, would never have the chance to bloom were it not for the work of a man named Joe York.
York splits his time between the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Documentary Project, both of which are affiliates of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss.
Joe started making films for the SFA in 2002 when he was a grad student at the center.
“I’ve been at it for over 10 years now,” he says.
This is a remarkable achievement. Think about it: How many filmmakers spend more than a decade making film after film about the same subject matter?
“The reason we make so many films is that the South is this incredibly interesting place, full of interesting stories to be told,” he says. “I never dreamed I’d spend 10 years making films about food. But that’s part of the beauty and charm of the SFA’s approach. You really begin to realize how much a conversation about food can open up conversations about all these other subjects — race and class and culture. It’s disarming to talk about food. It works. It opens up other conversations.”
He’s never grown tired of his subject matter. Over the years, Joe has completed more than 40 short films and a couple of feature-length pieces. The most recent of those was “Pride & Joy,” which Joe says is “kind of a conglomeration of all the other films we’ve made.” “Pride & Joy” is still making the rounds of public television stations around the nation. The earlier feature film was “Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House,” an enthralling and surprising piece about an 89-year-old cook from New Orleans named Willie Mae Seaton, whose restaurant in the Treme neighborhood had dished up remarkable fried chicken for a half-century until Hurricane Katrina filled it with floodwaters.
That film — and the rebuilding of Willie Mae’s Scotch House — happened because a bunch of SFA members wanted to find a way to help the guardians of Crescent City foodways in the wake of the storm. They found their purpose in helping Miss Willie Mae rebuild her restaurant and home in Treme.
Lolis Eric Elie, one of the group who came together to found the SFA back in 1999, played a pivotal role in what began as a five-week volunteer project but ended as a year-long odyssey that left everyone wondering whether the aging Willie Mae would even be able to return to the helm of her half-century-restaurant. After a stint as a story editor and a writer on HBO’s “Treme” series, Elie, a New Orleans native, now lives in Los Angeles, but at the time, he was was a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“A few of us — John T, Mary Beth Lasseter (the SFA’s associate director) and John Egerton, I think — we had a conference call that I will never forget,” Elie says. “We were having trouble raising money for the Scotch House, in part because it was becoming clear that the task was bigger than expected. We asked a very serious question. What if this 90-plus-year-old woman doesn't survive long enough to reopen the restaurant? But Mary Beth Lasseter said, ‘You don't do something for someone expecting something in return.’ So we moved ahead.”
Oxford chef John Currence, a New Orleans boy by birth, wound up spearheading the project, traveling the 350 miles between New Orleans and Oxford every week and sometimes more often.
“For the New Orleans community, there were so many people doing so many generous things that I'm not sure the broader community knew of SFA's role,” Elie says. “But for those New Orleanians who are SFA members, it solidified our love for and faith in the organization. We knew the heart of the Southern Foodways Alliance, but that heart had never been challenged in this way. Never before in SFA's history had so large a community with so many SFA members and so much importance in the food world been so devastated. We weren't surprised that SFA pulled through. But we couldn't have predicted the depth and abiding nature of that support.”
As for Currence, Elie says, “I wonder what more he could have done if he was working on his own mother's place.”
This entire story — from Willie Mae’s return to New Orleans from her exile in Houston to the re-opening of her restaurant almost two years later — is documented in York’s “Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House.”
That film is just one of an incredible trove of works that York has created over his decade with the SFA. York didn’t know it when he started doing these films, but he and the SFA were ahead of a technological curve that would soon bend in the SFA’s favor.
“Early on, John T. and the SFA made a commitment to making films and doing oral histories and really being involved in the kind of media we kind of take for granted now. When we started making films, YouTube didn’t exist. Vimeo didn’t exist,” York says. “I remember the day we found Vimeo. We were like, ‘Holy shit! It doesn’t have file-size limitations.’
“We grew up making films and telling stories as the technology was being created and becoming accessible,” he says. “We were really very fortunate. We were just slightly ahead of the game. As soon as there was the ability to share content, we already had a ton of content to start sharing.”
The emerging ethos of the early 21st century web directly reflected what York and the SFA had already built.
“We were sharing them in a lower-case-d democratic way, meaning that we were giving DVDs away and we were showing them at events. It was kind of like open-source storytelling,” York says. “We were just saying, ‘If you want it, you can have it.’ We aren’t trying to make money. We’re trying to tell stories, trying to raise awareness of what this region is, what it means, the diversity that’s inherent in it, and trying to blow up those stereotypes about the South that have reigned for entirely too long.”
Joe's Fab Five Videos
The Bitter Southerner asked filmmaker Joe York to give us a list of his five favorite films from the SFA catalog — and to tell us a little bit about why he loves these particular films. Joe was incredibly gracious to give us this list, particularly because we asked him for it while he was traveling back to Mississippi from Pasadena, where he suffered through his alma mater Auburn Tigers’ devastating BCS Championship Game loss to Florida State.
Joe did caution us that these were his favorite five films “as of this minute.” That condition suits us fine. It’s easy to like someone who believes his best work is ahead of him.
One of my favorite aspects of making films for the SFA is the opportunity to celebrate hard-working people like Helen Turner of Brownsville, Tenn. More often than not, people like Helen can't imagine why someone would want to make a film about them. When you see the passion she brings to her work, the care she brings to her barbecue, and hear her infectious laughter, you'll wonder why no one made a film about her sooner.
To Live And Die In Avoyelles Parish
I had more fun making this film than the law allows. Over a few weeks in Avoyelles Parish I met some of the nicest people on the face of the earth, and they taught me as much about life and living as anyone ever has. Give these guys a pig, a stack of wood and a match, and they'll show you a time you'll never forget, or, possibly, never remember. I'm glad I had a camera handy.
To my mind, there's no better living embodiment of what the SFA stands for than Will Harris. His family has raised cattle on the same land where Will raises his herd since the 1860s, and while he remains true to that heritage, he's transformed his operation into one of the leading lights of sustainable and conscientious food production. It's that combination of allegiance to tradition and his own brand of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is activism that makes him such a great example of what the SFA aims to do.
Hot Chicken is delicious, dangerous and hilarious. What else could you possibly need to know?
To truly understand the South is not only to embrace the absurd, but to invite all of absurd's friends to an enormous beer-soaked beach party and then make them all compete to see who can throw a dead fish the farthest.