Published: November 8, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, while Sandy was heading towards the East Coast, I thought to myself why not do something fun and try to get my mind off of the hurricane. I had a chance to watch a documentary about Barbecue titled: “Helen’s Bar-Be-Que; I Am the Pitmaster” by Joe York.
The best part of the documentary was the actual subject: Helen. You can really see her passion for not only her restaurant but most importantly her passion about cooking great barbecue. No matter what challenges seemed to happen to her (the only challenge that I saw was the growing demand of her food) she was just happy “beating to her own drum,” and that is what inspired me the most about Helen. She didn’t need the fancy up-scale chain restaurant with her name on everything (including sharing her secret recipe of her BBQ sauce,) she did it for the pure passion of the food. I think that sometimes we forget about what the actual food means to us, and we ALL get caught up into the industry. Maybe Helen has found her “X Factor of Barbecue” and I wonder if I can ever find it myself. Joe really picked a great subject for the film, and did even a better job of conveying her passion of barbecue through the film. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t get more time to see more of Helen’s passion of her barbecue abilities.
Another reason why I enjoyed this documentary was because it was made by a person who also has a very strong passion for barbecue and that is: Joe York. With more than two dozen film credits and who is the author of With Signs Following: Photographs from the Southern Religious Roadside. In 2008, Joe won the Hoka Award for the best Mississippi film titled: “ Sorry, We’re Open.” Joe’s latest feature length documentary, Mississippi Innocence won the audience choice award at the Oxford Film Festival and the Transformative Film award at the Crossroads Film Festival. Joe holds an MA degree in Southern Studies from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, but his true love is Aubie. With Joe behind the camera, I think that the film really got two individuals passion for barbecue. While interviewing Joe, I asked him about his passion for barbecue and I think that his answer about why was it important to make a barbecue documentary really makes you shiver in a good way of course. He stated that “[Barbecue is exactly the kind of tradition that needs to be documented and given some serious attention. Too often we document the BIG moments in life, the graduations and marriages, the births and baptisms, those moments when everyone makes sure to have a camera handy. What goes by the wayside are the mundane aspects of our daily lives and of our shared culture….” Joe’s passion for barbecue and all things barbecue really makes this barbecue documentary special and a must watch even though it is really short.
Here is my interview with Joe:
Grilling with Rich: What was your goal in making the documentary about Helen?
Joe York: Every year the Southern Foodways Alliance presents someone like Helen, who works to keep a southern food tradition alive, with the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, and for the last ten years we’ve made a short film about the recipient of that award as a way of honoring them and sharing their story with others. Helen recently received that award at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, MS, and we debuted the film at the awards ceremony. The crowd of 300 or so fell in love with her and gave her a standing ovation when the film ended and she came to the stage to receive her award. Moments like that are the epitome of what the Southern Foodways Alliance is all about, honoring the unsung heroes of our everyday culture and giving them the recognition they deserve but rarely get.
Grilling with Rich: What in your mind inspired you about Helen that made her a great subject?
Joe York: Helen’s laugh alone makes her impossible not to like. It’s infectious and her passion for what she does is infectious, too. I’ve always made films about folks who are passionate about what they do and I can honestly say that I’ve never come across anyone more passionate about their work and their life than Helen Turner. Passionate folks make the best subjects because they want you to be as passionate about what they love as they are, and that zeal and verve really translate to the kind of short films I make. Also, she makes one hell of a good barbecue sandwich, which doesn’t hurt either.
Grilling with Rich: What part of Helen’s story moved you and why?
Joe York: I think the thing that really drew me into Helen’s story was that she’s a woman working in what is largely and wrongly perceived as a man’s world. There exists this absurd notion that barbecue pitmasters are supposed to be grizzled old cats, who drink moonshine from a 55 gallon drum that they lift with one hand while using the other to effortlessly flip a whole hog all the while smoking an entire pack of filter less Pall Malls as they sit round the pit with their big blue ox who accompanies them to the woods where they fell stands of hickory with a single swing of an ax. That’s just not the case. There are tons of amazing women working the pits all over the South and we had never shined a light on that fact through our films. In my personal experience, I find that women are better than men at pretty much everything and barbecue is no exception. Helen’s story gave a chance to open a window into that world and hopefully folks will take note and give these hard working women their due.
Grilling with Rich” Do you like BBQ? and why was it important to you to make a documentary about BBQ?
Joe York: Asking me if I like barbecue is like asking me if I like to drink beer in the bathtub. Of course I do. While I wouldn’t recommend a documentary on the latter, the former is exactly the kind of tradition that needs to be documented and given some serious attention. Too often we document the BIG moments in life, the graduations and marriages, the births and baptisms, those moments when everyone makes sure to have a camera handy. What goes by the wayside are the mundane aspects of our daily lives and of our shared culture. Barbecue is a great example of that. Everyone worth liking likes barbecue and it’s so common and such a part of folks’ lives in this part of the country that we often take it for granted and don’t recognize what an important part it plays in shaping who we are, what we love, and how we live. It’s those aspects of our lives and culture that I find the most interesting and most worthy of documenting.
Grilling with Rich: Why do you think that American’s are “coming home” to like BBQ joints like Helen’s opposed to chain BBQ joints and also “fancy dinning”
Joe York: Well, it’s sounds hackneyed but I think people are just looking for good food at a good price made by good folks who aren’t full of shit. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of great chefs out there and they are doing amazing things which I love and have a great amount of respect and admiration for, and there are even a few barbecue chains out there that are doing things by the book, but as the celebrity chef phenomenon and the barbecue craze has exploded the side effect has been the creation of a lot of half-assed copy cat cuisine that just isn’t original, good, or worth dropping half your paycheck on. So we find ourselves looking for something that’s real and true and something that’s an honest reflection of one man or woman’s passion for what they do. We find that in places like Helen’s and also places like the Highlands in Birmingham, places like Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway, South Carolina, and the City Grocery in Oxford, MS. The list goes on and on, but the criteria remain the same.
Grilling with Rich: What in your mind makes BBQ a uniquely american food?
Joe York: To be honest, I’m not sure barbecue is an american food. There are lots of examples of folks from all over the world cooking in the same way that folks cook when they say they’re cooking barbecue. What I think is uniquely American ABOUT barbecue is how Americans, and especially Southerners, have taken this method of cooking and molded to be a reflection of who they are and where they’re from. A South Carolina pig and a Louisiana pig both cooked over hickory for twenty fours hours may seem alike to the untrained eye, but to those of us who know and care and can see into the greasy mirror that barbecue holds up to the world, they couldn’t be more different. That is what is amazing and American about barbecue, that we each take the form and bend it to articulate who we are, how we live, and what we love. If that sounds over the top then you don’t know much about barbecue.