Culture, Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?

Written by Grubbs

Nov 9, 2017

I love the sound of an unhurried “y’all,” a surprisingly versatile greeting that often reclines well past the slam of a screen door.

I love that porches are so important to social gatherings that they’ve been assigned a verb form.

And I love that meat comes with not one, not two, but three sides.

I love the American South so much so that since I first arrived in the Lowcountry of South Carolina six years ago to attend Music to Your Mouth, the annual blowout of bourbon and barbecue (and so much more) at Palmetto Bluff, I have waged a quiet but earnest bid for membership.

A native and current resident of Missouri, I’ve tried all different angles. “Southern Living includes Missouri as a part of the South,” I point out, convinced I could close my case quickly with that. You could almost hear people patting me on the head.

Apparently, Delaware is included in the magazine too.

I cited history: Before the Civil War, Missouri was… (but so was Delaware).

I appealed to the eaters: Do you know of a non-Southern state with a barbecue tradition? No, they reply. Aha, I exclaim, only to be disappointed when the mention of burnt ends—the scraps of brisket bark made famous by the legendary Arthur Bryant’s in my hometown, the well-established capital of American barbecue—produced blank stares. Sharon Benton, wife of the celebrated Tennessee ham curer Allan Benton, denied having ever heard of Kansas City barbecue at all. Where’s Calvin Trillin when you need him?

Strangely, I got the most traction with college football. The fact that this seemed strange to me is probably further evidence that I am not, and could never be, a Southerner. Grasping at straws one year, I proudly announced that the University of Missouri had joined the Southeastern Conference (which Wikipedia tells me is a college athletic association, also known as the SEC, that is composed of schools in Southern states— if you count Florida and Texas as Southern). This, at least, made people pause before laughing. Loudly.

But these are cultural superficialities at best, stereotypes at worst. I know this, and for the sake of humor, I hope you know it too. What I truly love about the South, as with most places I visit, are the people I’ve met there.

When I’m not campaigning for adoption at Music to Your Mouth, I’m the supernumerary lingering just offstage with an oversized camera. I fool myself into thinking that I blend in because I'm wearing gingham like everyone else. The fact that I’m also taking pictures of everything is, I believe, normal—almost expected—because I’m Asian. (I’m not immune to stereotypes either.)

Nothing to see here, right?

Nope. People notice. And they ask.

I'm glad they ask. Because over the past six years of photographing the event, I’ve met a lot of great people this way.

More importantly, it means that they don’t see me as “just the event photographer”—not that there’s anything wrong with being an event photographer. I photograph lots of events—this one included. But no one ever talks to the event photographer, unless they want their photo taken.

I’m able to give quick sketches about who I am and what I’m doing at Music to Your Mouth. But because I am working, and because they are either with friends, family, or also working at the event, I keep our conversations short.

So, when Courtney Hampson—the amazing woman who produces the event—told me about The Bluff last year, I asked for some airtime to tell the story of Music to Your Mouth through the lens of someone who sees more than most.

Courtney doesn’t tell me what to shoot. We have an annual pre-event phone call, which is really just our yearly excuse to catch up. She emails me the schedule and usually ends the phone call with, “You know the drill.”

It’s not because I’ve photographed the event before. It’s not because the event hasn’t changed over the years. Courtney and I have never been the handholding type.

And it’s not because she’s not detail oriented either. If you’ve ever attended the event, you know that her eagle eyes see all and know all.

It’s because she’s interested in more than just press photos or throwing a great party. “Anyone can do that,” she once said to me. “The challenge is making it stick. What have we accomplished when it’s all over?”

Courtney is interested in the story. And she knows the only way I can capture that story is if I get to experience it. So every year she gives me an all-access pass and sets me loose. And I embark on one of the greatest educational experiences I have all year.

The story at Music to Your Mouth isn’t just about deliciousness or having a good time or raising money for good causes, although you’ll find all of the above. It’s not just about the midnight s’mores by the campfire or the sunset bike rides or the terrific music, even though all of these things certainly make capturing the magic of Palmetto Bluff a joy.

The real story at Music to Your Mouth is about the South—its people, its regions, its byways, and its foodways. It’s a story steeped in history, tradition, necessity, chance, pride, and preservation.

Teaming up with the Southern Foodways Alliance and its director John T. Edge, Courtney has brought to this party an incomparable cast of storytellers, whose encyclopedic knowledge of subjects ranges from rare apple varieties to sheep husbandry, barrel aging, ham curing, and, of course, cooking.

On the property, too, look beyond the manicured villages of Palmetto Bluff to the thousands of acres of wild protected land that surrounds them. Take an afternoon with Jay Walea, the director of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, who has worked on the property for 27 years as his father did before him. It’s an invaluable glimpse into the flora and fauna of the Lowcountry and the tremendous work it takes to ensure their survival.

After attending six Music to Your Mouth events, these vivid and rich stories, brimming with context and connection, are what stick. The event is not only a playground for the eaters and drinkers, it’s also a playground for information geeks like me. Luckily, I have the perfect job for it. As a photographer, I spend most of my time observing, listening, learning. And at Music to Your Mouth, I have a front-row seat in the classroom.

I’m not here to sell Music to Your Mouth. In its 11th year, the event, which has grown steadily, sells itself. Those who have attended, return. I see them every November—at dinner or at the 5K run or in line for biscuits under the swaying Spanish moss. I ply them perennially with my plight to become a Southerner.

Rather, what I hope to do is remind others to appreciate the richness and diversity at their fingertips when they enter that long, snaking drive toward the May River. If it is a daily, weekly, or monthly scene for you, stop and reimagine it through the lens of a foreigner who is lucky to have landed there. That’s me, and that’s what I’m doing there.

By: Bonjwing Lee

Photos by: Bonjwing Lee