Q&A with oral historian Sara Wood

The stories and history surrounding Southern food are just as colorful and diverse as the food itself. The Southern Foodways Alliance collects stories from across the region and celebrates the contributions of countless classes, races and ethnicities on Southern cuisine.

Based in Wilmington, N.C., Sara Wood works as an oral historian with the SFA. The Daily Tar Heel sat down with Wood to find out more about her research and what she has learned from working in the South.

Daily Tar Heel: What does an oral historian do?

Sara Wood: I think an oral historian is somebody who collects history through the first person. You could do all the research and read all the textbooks, but oral history is somebody’s account of history. It’s basically collecting a person’s experience at this point in time and their stories and memories of how something went down, what they saw and how they felt about it. I think it’s a very complex piece of the puzzle of history.

Oral history is going out there and not necessarily reading a sign or an article, but asking somebody, ‘What did you see, what did you feel, how did that go down and why?’

I think it’s just so cool what oral historians do because you’re talking to one person at a time and I think that’s a really beautiful thing. You’re not collecting a collective experience, you’re collecting one person’s experience, and then you sit down with another person and get their experience. I like it because that makes it so multifaceted.

DTH: How do you draw out a great story from someone?

SW: You can have your list of questions of things you want to hit on in an interview, but you can’t stick to those too hard because things are going to shift as soon as you sit down.

When I did my internship (with the SFA) they had done a whole bunch of barbecue oral histories. Well, the SFA does a podcast, it’s called Okracast, and they take old audio and interviews from years past and sort of recreate the content so people can listen to these stories. One of my jobs, since we were getting ready to do “Women in Food,” was to pick out transcripts from all of these interviews with women from the barbecue places. I had to go back and look at some of the transcripts of people who collected these stories before and you see there are some people where you ask them a question and it’s a yes or no answer and that’s it. They weren’t even questions framed for a yes or no answer necessarily, it was a how question or why question, but they still got a yes or no answer.

So I think you’ve just got to sit it out…You try to trigger something in people to get them to tell a story. That’s how this particular interview picked up. The person who did the interviewing asked about a specific story, something like ‘tell me the story of this.’ It started slow but eventually the person who was being interviewed just took off and it became this beautiful vivid story.

So it’s all about finding something that people want to talk about and asking them to tell stories. And that’s the beautiful thing about the South too. I think (UNC history professor and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South) Bill Ferris totally nailed it on the head when he said that the story is the answer to your question.

DTH: What is it about food that gets people to share those stories?

SW: Well, I can think of an example from one of my previous oral histories. There was a project I did in Atlanta about women farming in and around Atlanta…There was a woman named Jenny Jackson and she grew up on this farm. Her parents moved to Pine Mountain, about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Atlanta…She decided she wanted to farm and had always wanted to do something with the land. So she went off and did her thing and she came back with her husband and started a small, very diverse farm.

I was asking her about growing up in this particular place because she’s one of the people I interviewed who had always had a connection to the land… I asked her about what her experience was growing up and we’re talking about farming, but she talks about inheriting her grandfather’s biscuit bowl, the bowl he always made the biscuits in. Then she went on to explain how his hands looked when they were making the biscuits and what he put in those biscuits and what those biscuits meant on Sunday morning when everybody sat down.

It’s so interesting because there’s a very intimate relationship we have with food. I mean, it sustains us. But especially when you’re talking about Southern food, there are all these influences and everyone has their own way of doing things.

It’s not exclusive to food, and I know this kind of sounds strange, but it’s like turning a light on with people. You remember those biscuits and you can see people light up because they remember their grandfather and what that kitchen smelled like the mornings he’d make biscuits and how everybody would come running… I think you can’t separate the connections between stories and food because they’re both so much a part of us and what sustains us. One memory of a biscuit can turn into this great story.

DTH: What are some upcoming projects you’re working on in North Carolina?

SW: There’s a program theme every year that the SFA has and a lot of the oral history work revolves around that and most all of the events focus on that specific theme. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and desegregating public spaces in the South, like restaurants and cafeterias. What the SFA is doing this year is taking a look at inclusion and exclusion in the South. There’s a historical component to that but it’s also stories about where we are now.

We’re going to work with some people at the Southern Oral History Program to document Lumbee (Indian) foodways. I’m really excited about this project because I think it’ll be one of my first times really getting into a community in North Carolina. Also, I think that the Lumbees have a really important story that not a lot of people outside North Carolina understand, and even people who live here too.

DTH: You’re from Michigan and have also spent time in Chicago and San Francisco. What has it been like to now work in the South?

SW: A lot of my experience comes from working with the SFA and doing these oral histories… I think it’s a very southern thing to sit down and talk and share.

I feel like there’s this really deep connection to place and tradition and sharing things with people in a way that I think really helps connect people with the history… I think there’s something that’s treasured here in terms of history and tradition and especially the storytelling aspect of it all. I mean, I could sit and listen to people talk for hours here.


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