Posted on Wed, August 08, 2012 by Slow Food USA
0 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Cooking, Farms and Farming, Slow Food Chapters in Action,
Written By Deirdra Stockmann, Slow Food USA volunteer and former leader with Slow Food Huron Valley
The hills of Southern Appalachia and the people who live there have long been shaped by their foodways – the cultural, economic and geographic paths that weave people and land together. And those green hills have listened silently as generations have passed down recipes, farming techniques and stories about growing and eating together. People, of course, have listened to these stories as well, but most of them have never been recorded, some have been lost, and countless tales and tricks of the trade reside only in the minds and memories of the region’s elders.
In 2011, Slow Food Asheville created the Appalachian Food Storybank as a way to “acknowledge, honor, and archive Appalachian heritage foods and foodways in order to promote the preservation of diverse local knowledges, natural resources, and food biodiversity.” In less than two years, the program has established a committed group of volunteers, built partnerships with other organizations, and created an enthusiastic buzz among local media and area residents eager to help preserve their own local history.
Inspiration and urgency
One of the Storybank’s founders, Susannah Gebhart, recalled what inspired her interest in creating an oral history repository: “I knew a couple of older folks that passed away and I had always wanted to record their stories, specifically about their food, and I never did. So I felt this kind of urgency.” Gebhart was not yet sure how to act on that sense of urgency when she moved to Asheville and started working at the West End Bakery.
The West End Bakery is a hub for connecting people passionate about growing, preparing and enjoying local food and has come to serve as an informal gateway for Slow Food Asheville leaders. There, Gebhart met Ashley Gillett Epling, who worked on farms in the southern part of the state and had heard stories passed among farmer stalls at the markets of Polk County. The desire to capture and save those narratives and local knowledge resonated deeply with her. Gebhart shared her interest in regional food traditions with bakery owner and former Slow Food Asheville president Cathy Cleary. Cleary encouraged the pair to take the idea to the local chapter’s Heritage Foods Committee.
Slow Food Asheville’s Heritage Foods Committee was established several years ago, primarily to shepherd the chapter’s successful campaign to board the Nancy Hall Sweet Potato onto the Ark of Taste. The committee was revived when Gebhart and Epling proposed the idea that has become the Storybank. The group came together around a shared passion for collecting, sharing and saving stories about the region’s food and farming traditions.
Building the archive
Through an iterative process, the committee worked to turn the Storybank idea into a reality. They took several months to develop an intentional and transparent process for nominating storytellers, recording interviews, and making the recordings available according to the wishes of the participants. They drew in part on Gebhart’s experience as a student of anthropology; before moving to western North Carolina, she studied food culture in small towns in Cameroon, Paris, France, and Burlington, Vermont.
Here’s how it works: A simple nomination form is available as a link on the Storybank and Slow Food Asheville websites. A friend or family member completes the form indicating their nominated interviewee’s name, some of the stories they have to share and where they live. The criteria for participation are broad, but keep the Storybank focused on food traditions of the Western North Carolina-Southern Appalachia region. Stories must feature local wild or cultivated plants, food preparations or life in the woods, garden, or on the farm. Many interviews touch on all of these topics and more. The Storybank team reviews applications and schedules interviews, which are conducted by one or two volunteers who have been trained in oral history interview methods. The program provides the recording equipment and Storybank volunteers process the interview recordings for the archive and choose selections to post on the website. A copy of all the material, recordings, photographs and video, if taken, is provided to the interviewee.
“The Appalachian region is replete with different varieties of foods and has a really rich cultural history. There are a lot of foods in this foodshed, cultivated plants and wild plants and different breeds of animals that have been passed down through generations,” Gebhart said. As a result, the potential for the archive is great. So far, the Storybank team has conducted and recorded about 12 interviews, each an hour to an hour and a half long. Since most of the interviews are conducted at interviewee’s homes, photographs complement the audio selections on the Storybank website. Epling said they have about 30 nominations in the queue.
Interviews collected so far paint a picture of a very different food system a generation ago. There was a rich trade and barter system in the area, where nearly everyone kept a garden and a hog. Neighbors exchanged surplus produce and there was little difference between the diets of rich and poor: “people just ate plain food,” interviewee Jean Benfield said. Another interviewee described how the shape of the land shaped the way food is grown there. Working with the terrain, farmers often cultivate many smaller fields and grow a diversity of crops. (Explore the website for many more stories from the (agri)culturally-rich region!)
It takes a region
The region’s farmers, foragers, gardeners and cooks have far more stories than the cohort of Storybank volunteers can collect alone. One of the goals of the program is to build capacity among the community to collect and record its own history. “One thing that I want to see as we grow and as we get more established is that this truly becomes a grassroots community-based documentary project.” In the summer of 2011, the Storybank leaders facilitated two oral history workshops for volunteer interviewers and other interested community members. This first public event of the Storybank project also served as a modest fundraiser; participants were asked to make a $10-$20 donation. In Slow Food fashion, the event included a potluck, giving workshop participants an opportunity to share some of their own stories over a meal. The Storybank plans to host more of these events in the future.
To help sustain the project and expand its reach, the Storybank team is building partnerships with other organizations. The University of North Carolina-Asheville will host the audio archive. A local heirloom seed company, Sow True, is interested in linking with the Storybank project to connect stories with seeds and seeds with growers. Slow Food Asheville regularly collaborates with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). In 2011, the two groups shared a stall at the Mountain State Fair where the Storybank debuted their “storybooth” to record shorter stories or memories of fairgoers. The portable booth is made of old wooden doors hinged together draped with curtains. A small upholstered chair, a little side table and warm lighting makes an inviting mini sound recording studio. The program hopes to use this booth at upcoming agricultural fairs and farmers markets throughout western North Carolina.
Perhaps most exciting and inspiring about the Appalachian Food Storybank is that it is a model that other Slow Food chapters around the country can replicate. “We’re focused on the area that we’re in, but this project is perfect for anywhere… it is amazing to start uncovering the history and remember how people lived before,” Epling said. It requires only modest funds, but a wealth of volunteer time, energy and creativity. “It is important to have a committed group of people who enjoy working together, because it can be time-consuming and the more folks you can get involved the better!” Cathy Cleary noted.
The Appalachian Food Storybank team plans to develop a resource guide for community-based documentary work, aimed in part at other Slow Food USA chapters. In the meantime, chapters interested in collecting and archiving their regional food history and traditions can start building the foundation necessary for almost every successful chapter effort: grow a strong, committed volunteer cohort and establish a network of local partnerships that provide expertise, access to resources and a shared sense of mission for the exciting and important work.