If you've spent any time planning a trip through the South, your research may have already led you to the Southern Foodways Alliance's treasure trove of oral histories; if not, be prepared to start planning a fantasy trip right about now. The project is part of the organization's mission to celebrate and document Southern food culture, and while the entire collection is worth exploring, maybe start with the most recent interviews featured on the site: That would be terrific talks with Southern women about their work, which, given that “Women at Work” was the theme of its annual symposium this past weekend in Oxford, Mississippi, only seems appropriate.
What makes these profiles particularly great is how these interviews were conducted; between the snippets of audio and the full transcripts, you gain a full, three-dimensional picture of who these women are. This is no small feat, especially considering that too many of these sorts of gender-based projects are reductive and flat, or, to borrow some terminology from Manohla Dargis, can't seem to unlock women from their gender.
The interviews are organized by category: There are several in-depth profiles of women who farm in Georgia, for example, and there are profiles of various women working in Charleston. And one of our favorites is Sara Wood's interview with sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Boyd Macon, champion oyster shuckers who have been competing in local and international competitions since 1985. You'll learn as much about these two as you will about oyster shucking, like their experience growing up in Middlesex County (“It was a little hard but we made it through”); different types of oysters shuckers (“A hinge shucker doesn't shuck a very beautiful oyster because it damage it up so bad, but a person that's shucking from the lip of the oyster has a beautiful clean-cut oyster”); and why shucking is a very viable career option (“If you learn how to shuck oysters, [you] can make more than a secretary making in one day sitting down on their rump”).
Or consider this series dedicated to Arkansas “pie ladies,” including a fun one with Mary Thomas, who counts former president and “home boy” Bill Clinton as a regular customer, as well as Governor Mike Huckabee: “We have a lot of fun. And believe it or not, now he's a Republican and I'm a Democrat but we're still friends.”
If these stories lead you down a rabbit hole that is the SFA's oral history archive, you'll find other interviews of interest: Chinese grocers in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, say, or an interview with Sue Nguyen in which she discusses the fantastic banh mi and turnovers she makes at her Le Bakery cafe in Biloxi. These oral histories are also conveniently packaged to go as an iPhone app, should you one day find yourself on the road in the South. Imaginary or not.
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