Against shots of pastures and wheat fields, Andrew Beck Grace narrates a story that intertwines history, culture, politics and a bit of self-exploration. “Eating Alabama” documents Grace and his wife Rashmi as they embark on a seemingly simple mission: for one year, they will only eat food from Alabama farms. But to those viewers who hear this premise and expect this documentary to be a self-righteous filmmaker’s homage to “simpler times,” a surprise is in store.
From the opening scene of Grace, a hunting novice, trying to take down a deer, “Eating Alabama” delivers humor. As they try to find and cook locally sourced meals, Grace and his wife, both from the suburbs, encounter a variety of pratfalls ranging from chaotic road trips scouring the state for farmer’s markets to a bleakly comical look at a chicken slaughter. Rather than over-romanticizing their goal, Grace and his wife, with their droll humor, honestly portray the difficulty of living and eating the way their grandparents did in the past.
This idea of returning to the past points to the larger goal of Grace and Rashmi — to explore a simpler lifestyle, to close the distance between the meal and the people involved in its origins. If this sounds like idealism with a dash of naiveté, there is a reason. We follow Grace as he discovers that perhaps he was not asking the right questions. A more complex look at the culture of food in the South emerges as he discovers the flaws of his goal in relation to the changed times. Grace interviews people from all levels of food production and gives the viewer an up-close look at the changing landscape: farmers from his grandfather’s ilk are few and far between.
Between clips of Grace and his wife on their mission, Grace also uses old film clips and photographs collected from his ancestors, a long line of Alabama farmers. In this way, the story of Grace is interwoven with the history of farming culture in the South. Taken alone, these vintage stills are beautiful: viewers will discover that “Eating Alabama” is a delight for the eye as well as the appetite. Grace can expertly set a mood and the clips of friends gathered at dusk on a patio amidst food, wine and lanterns capture an ideal: the ideal of eating close to one’s origins, of food as a way of bringing people together.
For such a short documentary, “Eating Alabama” delivers many ideas. Though the film unfolds to discuss politics, economics and our changing public opinion, it is too honest and unflowery to feel like a piece of propaganda. Rather, the film is a very real look at the way the culture surrounding food has changed, and a couple’s firsthand realization that the lifestyle of their grandparents, their closeness to the land, may never be recaptured.