Monday, February 17, 2014

A Spoken Dish: Mini-documentaries capture evocative taste memories

Durham photojournalist and filmmaker Kate Medley will be the featured speaker of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

Kate Medley spends a lot of time in her car. As a photographer and filmmaker for Whole Foods, the Durham resident travels to visit stores between New Orleans and New York, pausing along the way to document farmers, cooks and culinary landmarks.

To pass time, she was thinking one day about community cookbooks, those tried and true compendiums that celebrate the best of locally-grown foods and the home cooks who prepare and serve them with love. These cherished volumes were once the cornerstone of church fundraisers and a go-to source for potluck dinner recipes. But in the current context of global online food communities and apps that provide technique tutorials on your smart phone, they seem out of step.

“I was really intrigued by a vision of what a community cookbook could look like today,” recalls Medley, a trained photojournalist, during a drive from Mississippi to North Carolina. “How could I apply the tools of my craft to a tradition that is especially celebrated in the South?”

The outcome was A Spoken Dish, a collection of taste memories and family traditions from diverse voices in Southern food and culture. She stayed close to home to launch the project in June 2013, choosing Chapel Hill teacher and cookbook writer Sheri Castle and Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, as her first subjects. The short vignettes range from one to two minutes.

In an especially endearing clip, Castle shows her pickling rock, pulled from the ancient New River and used by three generations of family cooks. She knows there are “perhaps more sanitary and conventional ways” of submerging food in brine now, but the treasured stone serves as her “good luck talisman.”

“I believe in my rock. It has history and place,” Castle says, adding it has a natural minerality that may help with the fermentation process. “So many quarts and gallons and crocks of good food have been made with this rock. Who am I to stop it?”

Medley knows how lucky she was to start with Castle, a natural-born storyteller who has shared tales of her Appalachian youth and exhaustive culinary research with major publications and institutions, notable the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Wilson manages to draw a giggle from the otherwise silent presence of the filmmaker with a claim that he keeps a potato ricer in his back pocket. Through years of trial and error, he’s found it to be the best tool to extract fruit from paw paws and persimmons used to infuse his craft beers.

“Sheri and Sean both were gung-ho to be my guinea pigs,” Medley says. “They really brought it to the table. They helped me see what this project could become.”

Castle, who calls Medley an “observer of the first order,” says the documentarian was “wisely vague” when she pitched the concept. “With the camera rolling, she offered a few prompts and then turned me loose,” Castle says. ‘”We spent a juicy hour together and she whittled it down to five short cogent pieces, each a sufficient documentary.”

Sponsored by Whole Foods, SFA and Georgia Organics, the project has continued to grow. It features about 55 clips from men, women and even children from across the South. They describe with passion everything from how to make biscuits or cook a pig’s ear to post-Katrina life and horticultural literacy.

“It’s all about how we, by way of these Southern stories, celebrate the diversity of the South and the diversity of what lands on our plate,” says Medley, who films, interviews and lightly edits conversations for the website. “It’s really the same format as the community cookbook: someone’s favorite family recipe or memory with a few sentences about whatever puts it in a context that is meaningful.”

A new set of 35 segments will debut on March 6 with a reception at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; they will be added to the website a few days later.  The new clips will expand the project’s scope to represent speakers from six states in nearly 90 vignettes.

Among them are Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and author of the acclaimed Treme cookbook; Becky Currence, mother of Oxford, Miss., chef John Currence, on classic Louisiana gumbo; and Ray Robinson, owner of the iconic Cozy Corner Bar-B-Q in Memphis.

A Spoken Dish, which may next explore the Lowcountry of South Carolina, is just one way that Medley documents culinary culture. An exhibit of her photos, Southern Food from the Backroads & Byways, was shown in 2012 at the UNC Center for Southern Studies.

“Apart from the bread-and-butter of my job, I always try to have a few personal projects brewing that are exploring different factors of community storytelling,” she says. “There’s so much out there. I just need more time, right?”

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