Sam Burnham, Curator
A trusted Carolinian put me on film. I had never heard on the film or the filmmaker before. My friend spoke with ease and familiarity about both which left me thinking I had missed something major. So I searched it down and had a late night screening of the 2003 Ross McElwee film Bright Leaves.
In the opening scene McElwee tells of a dream of leaves. These aren’t your typical leaves that you rake from your lawn. His description is of some monstrous plants from the age of dinosaurs or something. He and his wife come to an agreement that is his Southern homeland calling for him. She tells him the South is in his blood and that he has been looking a bit anemic lately. McElwee is a Southern expat in New England and Carolina requested his presence. The South does that to her wayward children.
The film put me in a similar mindset as the Errol Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. McElwee went out and found ordinary North Carolinians to create the documentary. The cast of characters is not nearly as quirky or odd as the residents of Vernon but it still makes for an authentic homegrown experience. It tells a story or people progressing though history. There are villains and victims, traditions, memories, legends - dubious and factual.
At the center of it all is the old rivalry between the McElwee family and the Duke family - North Carolina's tobacco barons. The Dukes are well known for their tobacco empire, Duke University, Duke Health, Duke Energy, you know, Duke. The McElwees are known very little these days. Through this film we see evidence that John Harvey McElwee, Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, developed the Durham Bull brand of smoking tobacco and that his foreman stole and then sold the formula to the Dukes. The Dukes then allegedly released the product reflagged as the Bull Durham brand which made them wildly successful. The Duke family remains wealthy in treasure and legacy. McElwee died bankrupt and obscure.
What impacted me most about the film is the contrast, the contradictions, that Southern duality that runs throughout the film. It is best represented in Ross McElwee's explanation that he has all the guilt of the effects tobacco has had on the lives of people while enjoying none of the financial benefits of being an heir to the inventor of one of the most successful brands. He sees himself as both a perpetrator and a victim. You just don't get any more Southern than that.
Going through Southern History is noticing centuries of this duality. Southerners committed the crime of slavery and were the victims of the crime of Sherman's March. They committed the Indian Removal and then suffered the invasion of the Carpetbaggers. They have grown tobacco and distilled whiskey and suffered the side effects.
Now faced with the choice of halting tobacco production or preserving a way of life, people are indecisive. Tobacco isn’t just economics to them. It’s history, it’s aesthetics, it’s their identity. How do you just eliminate such a part of your very self?
That duality is a part of our existence. Slavery and Jim Crow will never be not wrong. Sherman's March will never be justified. The evils of our past, both given and received, are magnified by a culture that so reveres and bathes in the past. Everything we see today came through all those evils and we know it. It is personified in both this film and the filmmaker.
But the film goes further, just as our culture has. McElwee questions his subjects about their tobacco habits. He highlights smokers and his inquiries on their intentions to quit or continue. He highlights the efforts of the Duke empire to ameliorate the illnesses attributed to tobacco use. He covers the 50th Annual Tobacco Festival of Clarkton. It was the last year of it by that name. The "Farmer's Day" moniker was to be adopted the next year. That blatant attempt to cleanse and add something more "acceptable" to the culture has become an everyday occurrence. The South finds itself in a struggle between those who would remove "problematic" elements of our culture and those who would preserve the culture. This struggle is based in that victim/perpetrator duality that no amount of scrubbing will ever eliminate. Regardless of the efforts, The South endures.
And so I can confidently finish with recommendation for this gritty and wonderful film. It highlights this corner of The South with stark reality delivered with McElwee's soft-spoken narration. Let it take you for a ride. Let it make you think. Go where it leads you and find yourself in a familiar place.
Sam Burnham, Curator
A few years ago I stumbled across a shuttered old roadhouse on the shores of Lake Allatoona in Cherokee County. As I looked at the old building and admired the signage, I wondered what all might have gone on at the Blue Cat Lodge.
I posted a picture of the place on the ABG Instagram page to document such a place existed. One of our followers there commented that the site was a filming location for the Netflix original series “Ozark.” Since that moment I’ve learned that the signage is the impressive work of a set design team who made use of the old roadhouse. I published my thoughts on this incredible show here.
While the Blue Cat Lodge, that happening spot where Marty Byrde laundered drug cartel money to keep his family alive, is a work of fiction, you can visit the location today. The roadside sign with its majestic blue catfish are gone. In its place you’ll find a sign for JD’s on the Lake, the current restaurant and bar that occupies the building.
The business is working off a limited menu during all of this *:gestures into the void:*. The good news is you can still get fried catfish and fries with hush puppies and slaw. Honestly I was expecting something colossally mediocre making a living off the building’s fame and notoriety. I was pleasantly surprised that the food was quite good.
The service is excellent and you can dine or drink inside or out. There is an inside dining room, screened in decks, and open air tables. Out back is a great location to sit on a comfortable evening to watch the sun set behind the Allatoona Mountains.
Remember that this location is reality. The dining room and bar are not decorated the same as the Blue Cat in the show. Most of the props are gone and the real place remains. The old sign that hung above the front porch now hangs over the bar but you won’t hear Bob Segar’s “Still the Same” on repeat. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter Marty or Wendy but Ruth gets some love in the form of a cocktail on the menu. And no, middle aged gentlemen, Rachel Garrison is not working the bar.
While a lot is different, there’s plenty around that you’ll recognize. The floating fuel pumps where Marty stood, cooking the books, are updated, in use, and quite busy on the holiday weekend. If you’re a fan of the show, it feels like Ozark.
There’s a nice balance here. JD’s is it’s own place and it’s enjoyable on its own. It isn’t some campy place where the waitresses ask you Ozark trivia questions or dress in costume. They give some hat tips to Ozark and the Blue Cat while maintaining their own identity.
To see this for yourself, take Bells Ferry Rd south from GA 20 near Canton. Stay on Bells Ferry until the Blue Cat is dead ahead in the curve. If you cross the Ronnie Clay Chastain Memorial Bridge, you went too far. If you’re headed north from Woodstock, look on the left past the bridge.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The Netflix original series Chef’s Table has been around since 2015. The 2020 incarnation centers on that grandest of cuisines. BBQ isn’t just food, It’s a way of life. And nowhere will you find that statement more true than with South Carolina’s Rodney Scott.
This episode highlights his cooking style: whole hog cooked over smoldering coals. Scott burns wood in metal barrels and transfers the coals to the pits with a shovel. It’s slow and deliberate. It requires patience. All good things in time.
That style isn’t just food for Rodney Scott. Chef’s Table shows how that patience, that deliberate effort took him from a young boy with hopes but no real plans to the James Beard Award stage.
Scott’s story is inspiring. The soundtrack and cinematography are beautifully done. This is the quality we’re coming to expect from Netflix’s original programming. They bring a sense of real filmmaking to what we consider a television program. It’s setting a standard for entertainment.
Meanwhile, Rodney Scott is taking the art he learned working for his parents and is passing it on to his son. A classically trained chef spends years in culinary school and climbing the ladder of a kitchen. Scott's experience was different. Instead of classes, he was immersed in the craft. A good BBQ cook is an artist, a skilled craftsman. He isn't merely trained in the science of it all. He feels it. It is a part of him. Seeing the younger Scott walking among the pits or caring for hogs with his father is more than a good family story. It's hope for the future. It is a promise that this art will be available for my grandchildren to enjoy. Those lessons that were learned in Hemingway, South Carolina are being passed along. Those skills are a generational wealth the same as land or a trust fund. They may not seem as lucrative by our modern standards but by the right standards, they are priceless.
At roughly 45 minutes, the show is slightly longer than the actual content of a traditional one hour television show. I could have watched another 45 minutes of it. I found myself wanting to get better at my own craft. I felt encouraged to be more introspective of my own life. More than anything, I found myself wanting to eat some BBQ...I mean, more than usual. It is with good reason that this show is sitting at #6 in Netflix's US ratings right now. If you haven't seen it yet, it is well worth your time.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire