College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Food Crush: Artist and Southern Food Historian Amy Evans Streeter

We get food crushes sometimes. It might be a chef whose stracciatella makes our hearts sing (that’d be you, Missy Robbins), a winemaker with a barrel-sized brain and wit to match (cheers, Randall Graham), or a writer out of whom we’d just like to hug the stuffing (we’re coming for you, Francis Lam).

This time it’s Amy Evans Streeter, who we’d always known as the oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance. In this capacity, she oversees the organization’s efforts to record and archive interviews with Southerners who grow, create, serve, and consume food and drink, so their words and wisdom are preserved for future generations.

That would be reason enough to adore her, but as it happens, she’s also an exceptionally gifted painter who, naturally, uses food as the nexus of many of her visual narratives. Her work documents small, intimate histories of characters who we’ll never actually meet, but we certainly know the likes of.

The paintings are warm, witty, delicious stories told in objects, occasional fabric patterns, punctuation and evocative titles like “Camille’s Grandmother Loved Duke’s Mayonnaise and Costume Jewelry” and “Ruby Read the Note Again While Her Country Ham Was In the Skillet.” – as well as the idiosyncratic foods of the South, where Streeter makes her home. Hubig’s Pies, Sunshine Pimentos and Luzianne Coffee & Chicory are rendered reverentially, like modern-day icons possessed of peculiar charm.

As Streeter knows all too well from her day job – the present is the only thing we have and it’s awfully fleeting. The best any of us can do is record the very best parts of it.

 

Streeter grew up in Houston and received a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art before moving to Oxford, Missisippi, where she earned an MA in Southern Studies in 2003 at the University of Mississippi.

In the artist’s own words:

I can’t remember when I started painting food. I do know that I have a sketchbook from way back that contains a drawing of a ham in a suitcase. It was inspired by a story my mom told me about one Christmas when her Alabama-born mother came to visit us in Houston, Texas, when I was a kid. My grandmother packed a ham in her suitcase and brought it with her on the plane over.

My mom was horribly offended, thinking that her own mother didn’t think she could feed her family. I’ve always loved that image, and the story sums up so much about my grandmother. Strangely, though, I’ve never made a painting of it.

That ham in a suitcase speaks to why I like painting food, though: Food tells a story. It’s of a a particular place, time, and moment. It’s familiar. It’s comforting. It’s part of us. We love it. It nurtures us. And we fight about it.

But it’s also damn fun to paint. I’ve always shied away from painting people, but, to me, painting a picture of a mullet is a portrait. Or a chocolate bunny. Or a pod of okra. And I love rounding out those portraits by creating a little visual narratives to help set the scene. And I love – LOVE – vintage advertising, so old cans and labels and boxes crop up in my work pretty regularly.

Also, my professional life revolves around food, so my fieldwork constantly inspires my artwork. It never occurred to me to paint an oyster shell until I spent three weeks in Apalachicola, Florida, gathering oral histories from oystermen. Since that experience, I’ve done three paintings that include oyster shells.

But now I’m on to pickle rounds. Oh, to paint a pickle!

See more of Amy’s work at amyevansstreeter.com

Editor’s note: Amy and I were undergraduates a year apart at MICA and somehow never met. It took Southern food and Facebook to bring us together.

From: CNN’s eatocracy.com