Last week, I traveled to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to attend the Oral History Association’s Annual Meeting. Held in a different location each year, the gathering is designed to “offer opportunities to learn, discuss, and review almost every aspect of oral history practice.” This year’s theme was Hidden Stories, Contested Truths: The Craft of Oral History. I’ve been a member of the OHA for some time, but this was my first time to attend the annual meeting. I am so glad I did.
I had the opportunity to visit with leaders in the field, who generously shared their insights (and some of them, their bourbon). People like Valerie Yow, and independent scholar from Chapel Hill who wrote Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a book I reference each year in my oral history workshop. I had the pleasure of talking about Doe’s Eat Place with Don and Anne Ritchie, two revered practitioners with whom I connected at my very first mention of Mississippi. And Rob Perks of the British Library, whom I first met last year at a conference in Wilmington, Delaware, where I also met his wife Jane. They all welcomed me into the OHA fold as if I’d always been a part.
The weekend’s programming was overwhelming. Over the course of 5 days, there were workshops, special lectures, and more than 50 concurrent sessions, all speaking to the craft of oral history. There were panels on social change, building trust, and incorporating new media. I absorbed all I could. I took lots of notes. And I made all kinds of connections. I also presented the work of the SFA.
While the study of foodways is now a respected academic field, it’s not a fully explored theme in oral history. As I learned over the course of the weekend, food is, more often than not, tangential. It might be presented as an opportunity to connect with a narrator and build trust, but it’s never what brings an interviewer to the table. I did my best to prove otherwise in the plenary session I participated in that was moderated by Rebecca Sharpless, author of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens, and included Allison Varzally of California State University, Fullerton, who directs an oral history project Southern California’s food culture with a focus on fast-food entrepreneurs. I presented interviews from our archive that spoke to the ways in which restaurants supported the Civil Rights movement, how black landowners in the South are holding onto family land through small-scale farming, and the diversity of a place like Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the town’s incredible history of Syrian and Lebanese immigration can still be seen in its foodways. I also wowed the audience with multi-media experience that is our extensive online archive.
Since the formal inception of our Oral History Initiative in 2003, we’ve archived almost 800 interviews that document the foodways of the American South–and beyond. We’ve always been committed to sharing our work with the widest audience possible. We’ve always offered our content online. We’ve kept up with new media. We package our interviews for a popular audience. We promote our oral history projects as tools for culinary tourism. We’re conscious of giving back to the people and communities that have shared their stories with us.
Being part of the OHA meeting in Oklahoma City was enlightening, invigorating, and buoyed my confidence in what we do here at the SFA. It made me proud of the work we’ve done, the stories we’ve shared, and the ways in which we share them. We’re doing a damn good job.
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This was the first year that the OHA meeting had a presence on Twitter. Jaycie Vos of the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) curated a collection of the Tweets from the conference on Storify, which you can view here.
Go here to learn more about the Oral History Association.
A special thanks to Todd Moye, OHA program chair, for pursing foodways as a subject worth featuring at this year’s meeting, and to Elizabeth Engelhardt who, unfortunately, wasn’t able to make it to Oklahoma City, for being my co-conspirator.
As the SFA’s lead oral historian, Amy Evans gathers the stories of Southern food. Each week she takes us behind the scenes of her work.