Sidewalk Film Festival 2012: Eating Alabama
Fittingly, they were all hungry – hungry for a taste of one of the most talked about documentary films of the 2012 Sidewalk Film Festival – Eating Alabama, a project directed by filmmaker and University of Alabama Documentary film professor Andrew Beck Grace, about ten minutes away from making its statewide premiere.
According to their event pamphlet, the Sidewalk Film Festival “is an annual production of the Alabama Moving Image Association, a federally recognized non-profit organization, with a mission to encourage, inspire and support filmmaking and the appreciation of independent cinema in Alabama.” Eight other venues throughout the theatre district were premiering independent films between August 24-26 that weekend, and eager viewers bounced from one theater to the next, but none with as much excitement and impatience as the crowd that gathered for the Eating Alabama debut an hour or more before the doors opened.
Eating Alabama is about director Grace’s quest to eat only locally and seasonally grown foods for one full year. He is joined in his quest with wife Rashmi and friends Joe and Sara, who are also seen throughout the film, as they search for local farms and farmers willing to share farming techniques and, sometimes, their bounty. Initially, Grace began the project in 2008 with a goal in mind, to answer the question: How can we eat locally? However, the journey quickly became about much more than just finding fresh fruits and vegetables; it evolved into something far more personal, about heritage, community and a way of life that Grace discovered is quickly becoming extinct. It became about why food really matters.
It’s not hard to understand why so many people lined the 3rd Avenue sidewalk that night – take a drive down the street, out to rural areas, to deep South Alabama or the higher climes of North Alabama and you’ll see the fields of carefully lined stalks of corn or golden rows of wheat, a livelihood waving in the humid breeze. You’ll see acres of ardent soybean crop, livestock grazing lazily on green pastures and every other home might have evidence of a garden. Farming and growing our own food is as much a way of life to most Alabamians as is breathing, and deeply entwined in our southern heritage.
The crowd swarmed into the Alabama Theater, filling both the ground floor and the balcony, a place where, surprisingly, Grace’s own father had once worked as an usher when he was growing up. Eating Alabama opened with Grace in the woods wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle, hunting for his dinner – an idea completely foreign to him, and for good reason, as I had previously discovered.
I had the fortunate opportunity to interview Andrew Grace two weeks before the film’s debut in Alabama. He and his wife Rashmi had recently welcomed a healthy baby boy to the world, and he was on his way to the store to purchase diapers as we talked. Andrew and Rashmi both grew up in Huntsville, Ala. and lived the typical suburban lifestyle, their families buying the food they ate from local supermarkets.
“I grew up in this suburban environment and I often felt distanced from stories that the media told about Alabama,” Grace said. “I felt embarrassed about where I was from mostly. It took leaving and coming back to do this project; it showed me that people aren’t that different. We all want the same things: happiness, health, prosperity. I learned to understand my state better.”
While attending graduate school in Wyoming, Grace and his wife became interested in eating healthy. When they moved back to Alabama they wished to continue this trend, so as members of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) they set out to find participating farms in the area. According to the website localharvest.org, as a member of CSA, a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the shares would consist of a box of vegetables. Interested consumers purchase a share and in return receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. On the site, there were 200 listings of participating farms in the state of Alabama alone, and more than 4,000 in the U.S.
So began the Graces’ yearlong experiment learning how to eat locally. They planted a garden at home in both their front and backyards, Andrew tilling the ground himself with a high powered tiller, bumping along and humorously describing it as feeling rather “punk rock.” They once traveled to four farms and three different farmers markets for a total of 760 miles in one day, just to find local food. Their house “became a laboratory for cooking new things.” They learned how to make flour and, from flour, bread. One of the more memorable scenes in the film took place when the Graces traveled to a farm that slaughters their own chickens. There, they learned how to kill and clean chickens, but also had to challenge their own ethical beliefs about taking an animal’s life. “Guess this is what it means to know where your food comes from, taking pictures of your dinner while it’s still alive,” Andrew remarked.
As comical as their learning experiences were documented on film, there was still an underlying theme of something much more serious about this new world they had stepped into, something far more personal and close to heart.
Andrew Grace’s grandfather grew up on a farm in Kentucky in the early 1900s and often talked about farming when he was a kid. He left his family farm in the 1940s to begin another way of life in the suburbs. He still grew a garden every year, however. Some of Andrew’s earliest memories as a kid are of the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes that his granddad left on his parents’ back porch. “A big part of this project was discovering what my granddaddy left behind,” Andrew said. “In the early 1900’s, one fourth of the country lived on farms.” By the end of the project, however, the Graces had discovered there are not enough farmers left in Alabama to feed all the people now.
Andrew described himself as an archeologist on his journey to find farms in Alabama – photographing highways and neighborhoods now built where farm and pastureland used to be; shells of former farms, abandoned and in disrepair. “We thought we would find farmers, that it was just this connection that we had lost to our heritage,” Andrew said. “But, we discovered we’ve actually lost the farmers themselves.”
Nathan Thomas, a poultry farmer in Cullman County interviewed for the film, said he remembers when people were happy and there was a better way of life back when he was a kid. “If you could put food on your table, you were satisfied,” Thomas said. “The people don’t love [the lifestyle] anymore.”
There was a sadness, a hopelessness in many of the farmers interviewed, an understanding of a way of life lost to history already but an unwillingness to accept it. The film credits large-scale chemical agriculture that began in the 1950’s and larger, more efficient machinery that called for less labor as the beginning of the exodus – when the people left the land, turning from what they had known for decades for a more lucrative way of life, as Andrew’s grandfather once did.
During our interview, Andrew told me he did discover why food matters. “There are great benefits to eating locally on a personal level – you’re healthier, you learn to engage with the place where you live and to understand it. It’s a beautiful thing for modern people to realize there is this connection through food to the seasons where you live. And then there are also political, economic reasons. So much divides us right now; discourse is toxic and sad among Americans. Food brings people together to find a common ground.”
The film closes with a large gathering of family and friends, sitting around a picnic table outdoors, laughing, chatting over a meal created with items fresh from the garden. And Andrew poses a valid question to his viewers: This journey wasn’t meant to be about going back to the way things were, but is finding a simpler way of life no longer so easy?
Eating Alabama was 62 of the most poignant, heartfelt, well-researched and informative minutes I’ve ever been happy to lose to the big screen. I laughed, I learned, and at many points I was almost moved to tears for a similar way of life I could myself recall: Walking barefoot at 13 through my maternal grandfather’s annual garden, the feel of the cool, freshly tilled earth between my toes, picking up potatoes and grabbing green beans; helping my maternal grandmother can beans and package the corn for winter storage. Accompanying my paternal grandmother on her route to gather fresh eggs from the hen houses in her backyard. Watching my own father planting the plot of land in front of my family home, a practice handed down to him by his own father, and strolling satisfied among the young stalks of corn months later. The scent of the rain on newly bailed hay that is meant to feed the livestock during winter. A gathering of family near the creek on our land, wooden tables laden with homemade meals, stories about the past, and chasing lightning bugs in the darkened field nearby with cousins.
The garden is now overgrown; the hen houses sit empty. My paternal grandparents passed away long ago -- their children’s children pursuing careers that have nothing to do with the land -- and gone with them a way of life that I will never fully understand because I chose to leave it, too. What has become of The South that we have moved so far away from ourselves – all that made us who we were and who we were meant to be?
Therein I came to realize the underlying message of Eating Alabama, what the Graces discovered on their quest to learn how to eat as their grandparents did. I knew what Andrew Grace meant near the end of his film when he said “We’re not nearly as happy as we once were when we did things with our hands.” Would it really be so hard to find our way back to a time when food meant more to us than just eating it?
“Good food goes a long way towards a good life…” - Andrew Beck Grace
*Author's notes: Eating Alabama will air on Alabama Public Television on September 23, 2012, and nationally on TBS in July 2013. To learn more about Eating Alabama the film and accompanying blog, visit www.eatingalabama.com.
To give readers a good idea about one of the Graces’ local meals, check out two of Andrew’s favorite recipes for this time of year: Garlic-Basil Shrimp with Goat Cheese and Coleslaw and Fried Green Tomatoes. You can see more on the Eating Alabama blog.