SFA Longterm Servers Project: Everything you wanted to know and more.

This summer I will be working on an oral history collection for the Southern Foodways Alliance that documents the lives and work of longtime restaurant servers. Although I have recorded many interviews, this is the first time that I’ve been able to contribute to SFA’s growing library of oral histories, collections that stretch back more than a decade and are made available to the public on SFA’s easy-to-navigate website. I’m thrilled to be teaming up with the accomplished photographer L. Kasmiu Harris, who will make his own visual representations of our interview subjects. The project will unfold in three southern cities, and I will be covering the project for New Orleans.

Who is a Longterm Server? 

I’m looking to interview at least ten people who fit the project’s profile of “longterm server.” These are not hosts or maître’d, nor are they people who are primarily bartenders (SFA has an oral history looking at bartenders in New Orleans). Instead, who we want to find are those service industry personnel who have worked waiting traditional dining tables for at least fifteen years. In New Orleans, this means bridging the important historical divide of the Katrina experience. I am not particular about the type of restaurant, in fact I am hoping to include wait staff who work at a variety of styles of cuisine, parts of the metro area (Chalmette and the Westbank, I’m looking at you) and especially a broad range of the people who work in this critical field.

It seems like I fall into this category, how does this work?

If you are reading this and I have not already been in contact with you, shoot me an email at @ jnystrom@loyno.edu and we’ll set up a time where we can chat briefly on the phone. At that time, if you are interested in an interview, we’ll set up a time and a place to make an audio recorded interview. Ideally, we’ll go someplace without lots of background noise, but I’m also pretty good at mic’ing you up and adjusting my recording settings so we get a clean recording almost anywhere except maybe a leafblower enthusiast’s convention.  The interview will take about an hour to an hour and a half, perhaps longer, depending on how the conversation flows. I tend to let interviews go as long as there is a flow and direction to it. Unless the interview takes place at your work (and it can) you will also schedule with L. Kasimu Harris at a separate time to have “your picture made.” Since Kas is pretty good at his art, he’ll make you look good!

What will we discuss?

Since I like to know about you as a person as part of my method, I’ll start out with some questions about you as a person, growing up, and some of your experiences before coming to work as a server. But since this interview is about your work and the way it intersects with your life, we’ll spend the majority of our time on this. The amount you share that is personal to you is, of course, entirely up to you. But since this is about the triumphs and challenges of this work, and covers such a span of time, be ready to engage a broad spectrum of memories.

What happens afterward?

SFA contracts with a professional transcription service who will transcribe your interview into text – this makes it much more useful for the scholars and food writers who will be most interested in what you have to say. This transcript will be proofread by by me (and again by SFA) and eventually, along with Kas’s great photography, put up on the SFA website. You, along with the web’s global audience, will be able to see it, and you can easily share it with friends and family if you wish.

What’s in it for me?

This is a fair question, and one as an interviewer I think about a lot. Interviewees aren’t paid for their time, but you are making a very important contribution to our understanding of foodways and work in New Orleans during a time of great change. I teach oral history and I stress to students that they and their interviewee are creating something enduring, not unlike when you publish a book. These interviews are entering an archive and will be around long after all of us are gone. I’ve had the opportunity to interview the grandchildren of people, now deceased, who were interviewed in the 1970s. The timelessness of it all is powerful all the way around. After all, how often do you have the opportunity to do something that really lasts? Plus you’ll have these amazing photographs of yourself… that’s the near-immediate gratification part!


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