Not too many years back, we went on a barbecue trek, driving some 400 miles across South Carolina over the course of a week looking for the best smoked pork in the land.
As the grateful eater of all that 'cue, and the sufferer of all that heartburn, I gained a real appreciation for the variations of foodways, the different ways we grow, cook, eat, and otherwise engage with all aspects of culinary practice, and also for the people and the places that produce it.
In the end, we realized that there is no "best" barbecue. There are only masters of the art, people that you must find if you seek an authenticity that reflects the culture from which it springs.
Of all those barbecue stops, Rodney Scott's place outside of Hemingway stuck out. His family's tree removal service fueled the towering fires that cooked the pork. Grizzled old men sorted through piles of hot fried skins. Dust and heat swirled, and the hot, spiced, PeeDee barbecue was as real as it gets.
Not too many weeks after our experience was turned into a City Paper cover story, the phone rang. On the other end was my friend John T. Edge from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in Mississippi. Scott's was no secret. Edge had heard of it years ago through a mutual friend, but he was now on the trail like a bloodhound; he wanted to visit this shrine he kept hearing about.
Later that year during the annual wine and food festival, I saw Rodney Scott pulled up in the middle of King Street across from Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, stoking a fire barrel under the concerned eye of a Charleston City Police officer. I'd bet that he's the first guy in quite some time to concoct a burn barrel smack dab in the middle of our gentrified shopping district, but such is the power of barbecue — and the mission of the SFA, which Edge heads out of the University of Mississippi.
"We believe that the food requires context, specifically cultural context," he says.
And context is what the SFA is all about. Several notable local authors, led by Nathalie Dupree, helped found the organization, but perhaps the primary inspiration for the SFA came from Nashville-based writer and grandfather of Southern food writing John Egerton, an early mentor to Edge and author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, which, even though first published 20 years ago, still stands as one of the most venerable examinations of the South's food, asking what are Southern foodways.
"Egerton asked the question back in '86, and we're all still answering it," says Edge.
Early on, the SFA tended to gather cultural chronicles from locales close to home. They spent much time in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Like Mark Twain before them, they covered initially what they knew best — the culture of the Mississippi and the formation of America from that vantage point.
There were studies of early bar culture in New Orleans, and hot tamales along delta towns, the rib joints of Memphis and St. Louis, and even pan-South investigations of deviled eggs and more esoteric subjects like smoked mullet in the Florida panhandle.
But more recently, the SFA, alongside much of the rest of the country, has taken a new look at Charleston and the Lowcountry. Chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Frank Lee, and Robert Stehling along with the crew at the Glass Onion (New Orleans transplants) have garnered notice for the depth and breadth of our local foodways. Like the good stewards they are, John T. and his merry band of chroniclers are more intent than ever on documenting the culture of food within the Lowcountry.
The latest culmination of these efforts will be showcased on the eve of the Wine + Food Festival, where local poets, musicians, authors, and chefs will convene at McCrady's for the Potlikker Film Festival and pay homage to the foodways of the region. Brock, Stehling, and Sarah O'Kelley of the Glass Onion will serve up local flavor (squirrel gravy anyone?), and oyster-flavored beer from COAST Brewing Co. will make a debut.
In the same spirit, the gathering will feature poetry by CofC professor John Simpkins and music by blues artist Mr. Jenkins. The crowd will also celebrate Charleston native Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, whose classic examination of African-American foodways Vibration Cooking: Or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl will be reissued by the University of Georgia.
"We see the world of food as interconnected with other forms of culture, with music, literature, and the arts," says Edge
But the main attraction at the Potlikker Film Festival will be Joe York's short films — co-produced with the SFA and perhaps the most exciting cultural documentary to feature Charleston in many years.
York, who also works with the University of Mississippi, has compiled about 25 films for the SFA so far, from an early look at heirloom bean seed-saving in Kentucky to a popular short examining the heirloom pork production and tango dancing of Caw Caw Creek's Emile DeFelice.
"The first one turned out pretty good, so we made another, and it was a little better, so we just kept doing them," says York, who points out that none of the films end up being about food, really. "By the time it's over, they end up being about the place, or the people of a place, the culture."
York will also show his films about Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills (see story by Sarah O'Kelley below) along with pieces on Bowen's Island Restaurant and Bertha's Kitchen, which anchors the African-American cooking of the Charleston Neck area.
Folks like Edge and York see a loss of culture in the apparent homogenization of the landscape — in the endless expanse of "interstate monoculture," as York puts it, where local and regional food traditions fall by the wayside in favor of large-scale corporate projections of "Southern" cliché. Think Cracker Barrel Country Store.
In Charleston, this Disneyfication is not as bad as other places. "People already recognize certain dishes as important," says York. "It doesn't seem as if Charlestonians take their food for granted ...They exhibit a respect and admiration for the cuisine."
Maybe that's because chronicles of our authentic regional fare reach back years. Our own Hoppin' John Martin Taylor wrote several books on local foodways and anchored the local food scene for years with his cookbook store on Pinckney Street.
But few have ventured into the guts of our sociocultural foodways. There are natives like Grosvenor and Sally Anne Robinson who tell their own tales, but York's films cross the boundaries of race and material means. They get at the core essence of what it means to live and, therefore, breathe and eat in the South.
"What we want to do is remind [people] where they come from and what that place is all about," says York. "It's that coming together, that understanding and sharing. That is what the Potlikker Film Festival is all about."
In the end, all of these short films will add up to a feature-length documentary, tentatively titled Southern Food: The Movie. Slated for release in 2012, Edge and York hope to run it on public television stations simultaneously across the region. In that sense, it will hopefully awaken people to the importance of sustaining the cultural identity of the region.
Despite the expansive title, this movie certainly won't be the last look at the food culture of South Carolina, but it strikes at the true history of our place — not the one of immaculate mansions and expensive banquets, but the plight of common people, those that pass down seeds and recipes from hand to mouth because it's all they've ever known. And it's about the people who seek those stories out, who trudge across corn fields to find out just what variety they're looking at, only because it might make better grits. In a way, Edge and York are those kinds of people too. In a few years, someone may have to make a movie about them.
The Potlikker Film Festival takes place on Wed. March 2, 5:30-8:30 p.m. at McCrady's, 2 Unity Alley. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased through southernfoodways.com