INTERVIEW WITH: Joe York
Interview by: Stewart Voegtlin
Joe York is a filmmaker at the University of Mississippi. He works frequently with Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), a member-supported, nonprofit organization that produces several regional food-related works, including collected oral histories, writing, and documentary films. York has made over thirty short films about Southern food and people (including the feature length Saving Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and the forthcoming Pride & Joy), all of which are characterized by York’s conspicuous absence.
York’s films don’t so much show as they tell. His subjects speak generously, as if to relatives. They’re candid, cordial, humorous, all while doing what they do: preparing hot dogs and barbecue, slaughtering pigs, and saving heirloom seeds. They are irrepressibly passionate about their work, why they do it, and York’s camera captures their enthusiasm in seemingly effortless, unobtrusive fashion.
I talked to York recently about his interview skills, “ready-made” Southernism, and—of course—food.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: A friend thankfully introduced me to your work. He said you made short films about Southern food. But, in my opinion, you’re really making short films about Southern people, and you're accessing them through the food they hold dear. In your film Whole Hog, we learn about whole hog barbecue in Lexington, but what sticks with you is the story Ricky Parker tells about Early Scott taking him in as a young boy. It’s powerful, and it makes his work at Scott’s Bar-B-Que restaurant mean so much more than just a paycheck.
How do you get the folks you put on camera to open up? Are you ever surprised at what folks tell you on camera?
Joe York: I am always amazed that folks agree to let some guy from Mississippi come over and stick a camera in their face for a day or two, or more. I mean, what would you think if I called you and basically said “Hey, you don’t know me from anybody, but I work for a nonprofit that documents Southern food traditions and I want to come make a film about you, and you’ll have no way of knowing what it will look like or how it will represent you, and then I want to show that film to a bunch a people you don’t know, and I’m not paying you anything to do this”?
On the flip side, though, through the SFA, I’ve made films exclusively of people who are passionate beyond measure about whatever it is that they do, and the great thing about passionate people is that they want you to be passionate about what they’re passionate about. And they want to talk about it, and they get you excited about it, and then when you get excited about it they get even more excited about it, and then you talk and talk and talk. Before you know it, you’ve been with them for days and you’re like old friends and you’re drinking beers together and wine out of the bottle and pork straight from the hog and oysters on the boat and tomatoes off the vine, and the whole time you’ve been recording and somewhere in that fifteen hours of footage is fifteen minutes of the best stuff you’ve ever heard in your life. And you’re not the least bit surprised by that.
The OA: Why are you making short films?
JY: It’s like when I asked Geno Lee at the Big Apple Inn why he cooked pig ears, and he answered, “Why not?”
I started making shorts because that’s what the folks at the SFA asked me to make and it kind of stuck. Shorts are a weird animal and they’re a hell of a lot of fun. You have to try to tell a complete story—something with a beginning, middle, and end—in ten to fifteen minutes. To accomplish that you have to make lots of leaps of faith throughout the piece and hope the folks who watch it will jump with you.
But what I love most about making shorts is that the constraints in terms of time are actually an amazingly good way to fuel creativity. Also, the kinds of settings where we share these films (at events, dinners, on the web) are a perfect way for folks to learn about the SFA and what we care about in a way that hopefully draws them in and leaves them wanting more.
The OA: Do you go on shoots alone or do you have a crew?
JY: Yep, it’s just me, a camera, and a wireless mic, and I wouldn’t dream of doing it any other way. I like working alone and I think that over the years that dynamic has really helped me make some honest and real portraits of the folks we’ve documented. I’ve been on larger crews and there’s something about having a bunch of people staring at someone with a camera, and a boom mic, and a clipboard, and someone walking around in the background on a cellphone setting up the next stop on the shoot, that for whatever reason just isn’t that conducive to getting folks to open up.
The OA: Southern author Barry Hannah often said in interviews that “being Southern will just kill you sometimes...you know, it means: porch, banjo, blacks—ready-made Southernism.” Does this idea ever figure into your filmmaking? Are you ever wary of how you present your subjects? And are you ever worried about how that’s going to translate to folks on the other side of the Mason-Dixon?
JY: Sure. I hope that the stories I choose to document and share help to complicate the image of the South rather than enforce the notions people from other places have that are too often cheap and wrong. But it’s easy to get way too damn serious if all you’re trying to do is explode those stereotypes, and any film or story about the South that is way too serious is not an accurate portrayal of the South.
For all of its warts, and there are plenty, the South is a hilarious place and the beauty is that all of us are in on the joke, which makes it even more hilarious. If you miss that because you’re afraid a few folks from Vermont might get the wrong idea, then you’ve missed it all.
The OA: Squirrel, pig ears, blood sausage...chicken livers and gizzards; pig feet, tails, and chitlins. What is it about these foods that bind folks to them?
JY: Food historian Jessica Harris calls these kinds of foods “atavisms for your mouth,” which just means that certain tastes have an almost supernatural ability to tie us to our past, to our people, to our history, and to our own sense of who we are. I didn’t grow up eating squirrel, or pig ears, or boudin noir, but I did grow up eating my grandmother’s corn bread, and for me it is the greasy tabernacle of what’s good in this world. I’d say every Southerner, and really every human everywhere, has some taste, some food, which they hold in the same regard, and it’s that moment when food ceases to be just nourishment and becomes a symbol for who you are and what and whom you love—that’s what I’m always looking for in the short films I make.
The OA: Do you come from a “food” family? While growing up, what sorts of things did you enjoy eating?
JY: In short, yes. I just got back from a family reunion in Glencoe, Alabama, where we cooked a hundred pounds of pork, a small community of chickens, and chased them down with a dozen cakes and pies. And what’s incredibly cool about our little patch of earth in North Alabama is that my mom’s family has been gathering on the same hill for years and years. One of my prized possessions is an 8mm home movie of them eating homemade ice cream on that same spot from the early 1950s. My mom was a little girl then, and I can’t wait for our little girl (due in December) to get her turn eating homemade ice cream in the same place.
The OA: Gerald Wayne Lemoine in your film To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish hits the nail on the head:
If you get up tomorrow morning and you don’t have cellphones, you don’t have landlines, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have water, you don’t have gas, you don’t have gas for your vehicle to go anywheres: It’s the end of the world as you know it. ’Cause if you don’t have no conveniences, you don’t have nowhere to turn. Here, you got a little more option.
When he says “here,” he’s talking about a place bolstered by tradition, and people empowered by tradition—knowledge handed down by their bloodline. These folks can live easily without “convenience.” They can raise their own food, process it, cook it. They can feed their families. Do you see a time where people “living off the grid” eventually break with tradition? If so, what does this mean for all of us?
JY: To be honest, I have no idea. I doubt we’ll see too many folks leave the grid and I for one really enjoy the grid. What I don’t enjoy is how hard it is to buy a pig, for example. Try it sometime. Call around and see if you can get a 180 pound hog dressed and scraped. It takes a while.
With the grid, and all the conveniences we enjoy, it’s harder and harder to find those things that are the basis for so many of our traditions. What’s heartening is that more and more people are starting to give a damn about where their food comes from. They are relearning the old traditions, and celebrating and seeking out the people who have never let go of them.
The OA: What do you consider your most successful film?
JY: Any film that folks don’t walk out of is a success. But if I had to name one, I’d say Smokes & Ears, because the folks at the Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, liked it enough that they set up a TV and DVD player on the counter of the restaurant where they play it on a loop. That’s just cool, and that’s what our films, at their best, should do: They should help folks share their story with others, they should tell the story of the food in a way that helps the folks who like the food appreciate it on another level, and they should be a source of pride for all of us who love this region, its food, and its story.
The OA: What’s your favorite state to shoot in?
JY: I really do love shooting all over the South, and there’s no one place that I like better than another, but if you want to have yourself some fun, just go to Louisiana and turn on a camera. Or, you could leave the camera at home and go to Louisiana anyway. I mean, where else would someone tell you that “if the United States was a person and had bowels, we would be the rear end,” and have it be the most amazing and believable compliment you’ve ever heard?
The OA: What’s the best thing you’ve eaten on the road?
JY: Oh, man. You accidentally pushed my button with this one. I hate the word “best” when it comes to food. These days there’s an endless stream of chefs duking it out on TV, dozens of magazines hell bent on making lists of best this and best that, and scores of food competitions waiting to crown the king of this or the queen of that. They all miss the point.
What we do at the SFA and through the films that I make is to say that food should taste like some place, not some thing, not some mythical ideal version of whatever dish you happen to be eating at that moment. That doesn’t exist. What does exist is an amazing region with an endless variety of unbelievably good food that you should go and eat the hell out of.