A little over a decade ago, I hopped in a car with Joe York and April Grayson, and we headed north from Oxford, Mississippi, to collect stories about barbecue in rural western Tennessee. The year was 2002. Joe packed a notebook and a Bic pen. April lugged a mic and a tape recorder. I carried along the Pentax K1000 my dad gave me when I was in high school and some rolls of black-and-white film. We were young(er), the world was analog, and we were off to document barbecue.
During that trip we visited Helen Turner of Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee. We didn’t record an interview with Helen at the time, but I took plenty of photographs. This one of Helen remains one of my favorite images from our barbecue adventure. It’s a portrait of a working woman caught in a rare moment of rest. It’s gritty and feminine. It’s Helen. In 2004, it was featured as part of a photo essay published in Cornbread Nation 3: The United States of Barbecue. In 2008, Rien Fertel re-visited Helen for the SFA and collected a proper oral history interview, which is part of our Southern BBQ Trail. And just last year, we celebrated Helen and her story by honoring her with our Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award and a short documentary film by Joe. As we now know, Helen is The Pitmaster.
Since we visited Helen in 2002, we’ve collected 120 oral histories with barbecue pitmasters and restaurant owners from North Carolina to east Texas. We’re older, the world is digital, and we’re still documenting barbecue.
And we continue to share these stories as often as we can.
This Friday, August 16, Helen joins the SFA in San Francisco, California, at La Cocina’s annual Street Food Festival, where she’s cooking alongside other pitmasters who are part of our Southern BBQ Trail: Samuel Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, and Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina. On Sunday, Helen and I share a stage as part of a panel on Women, Work & Food at La Cocina’s Food & Entrepreneurship Conference.
In Cornbread Nation 3—the same volume that features this portrait of Helen—there’s a piece by edition editor Lolis Eric Elie entitled “When Pigs Fly East”, and it begins with this:
When I told friends that I was setting out in search of California barbecue, they reacted as if I had said I was starting a unicorn collection. “There’s no such thing as California barbecue,” they insisted.
Take note, California. This week, we’re bringing some of the South’s best barbecue to you.
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.