For more than a decade, the Southern Foodways Alliance has shared transcripts and audio clips from its interviews with restaurateurs, farmers, fishermen and other food producers across the region. Recently, though, the University of Mississippi-affiliated non-profit added video to its oral history mix; a Charleston project is one of the first beneficiaries.
The Southern Foodways Alliance this month released video footage from oral histories it conducted during the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Interviewees include oysterman Frank Roberts; chefs Mike Lata and Michelle Weaver; architect Reggie Gibson and Vereen Cohen, whose mother helped edit Charleston Receipts.
“For the past several years I’ve been terrified to attempt to film oral histories,” Southern Foodways Alliance oral historian Sara Wood says. “I’ve been afraid if I start messing around with a video camera it would make narrators much more uncomfortable than simply using my audio equipment. But I was proven wrong in the best way: The video camera seemed to make people more comfortable than the audio equipment.”
Wood’s initial ambivalence about videotaping her subjects surfaces in the Charleston transcripts: “The camera is new to me, BJ,” she told interviewee BJ Dennis. “So this is all…”
“Fancy now?,” he asked.
Filmmaker Kate Medley and musician Jeff Mosier helped facilitate video production, and at least a few of the subjects were asked to operate the clapboard. “Can I say action?,” Roberts asked.
According to Wood, the interviewees’ familiarity with cameras contributed to their comfort. “Not once did I have to explain the equipment the same way I do when I pull my digital audio recorder and microphone out,” she says. “While I understand there’s a great faction of the universe who will always be camera shy, I think for the most part, we’re living in a time where we naturally assume we’re being recorded.”
Still, the online snippets represent a small sliver of the interviews. People will have to read the complete transcripts to learn that Ari Kolender has never visited Bowen’s Island; how Charlotte Jenkins mastered pancit; why 98 percent of Angie Bellinger’s clientele at Workmen’s Café is white and which vegetables Martha Lou Gadsden considers highfalutin. (OK, it’s asparagus and cauliflower.)
But Wood believes the rhythm of the participants’ storytelling is captured by the video clips.
“There’s a timelessness to these recorded clips; there’s no urgency,” she says. “I hear a narrative ease in these stories, and that’s what I believe to be so important. I think viewers who already know these narrators or are familiar with their work get to watch these stories in a much more open landscape.”