5 Questions AboutHouston’s Underbelly

We ask authors of projects reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their projects. In our latest installment of the series, Amy C. Evans discusses her project Houston’s Underbelly.

Lauren Jacobsen-Bridges’ review of Houston’s Underbelly is available online and in OHR issue 48.2.

What’s it about and why does it matter?

The Houston’s Underbelly oral history project—fieldwork I conducted for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) in 2014—highlights Asian businesses whose specific culinary traditions and expertise not only influence contemporary Texas foodways, but offer inspiration in their adopted city of Houston, as well. Each location is connected to the story of local chef and restaurateur Chris Shepherd’s first restaurant, Underbelly (2012-2018). As part of the restaurant’s original mission, Shepherd looked to each of these cooks and restaurateurs as a culinary resource and not only celebrated their ingredients and expertise in his kitchen, but highlighted their businesses by encouraging his guests to patronize their establishments, as well. But Houston’s Underbelly is not an investigation or critique of Shepherd’s inspiration or appropriation. Rather, it is an effort to amplify marginalized voices, while also offering insight into the immigrant experience, the path to entrepreneurship, and the distinct yet varied food culture each narrator represents. (For more on the relationship between Chris Shepherd and two of the narrators, read the piece I wrote for The Local Palate in 2015, “The Interpreter and the Source.”)

How does oral history contribute to your project?

Oral history does not simply contribute to Houston’s Underbelly, it is the entire focus of the project. Conversations with seven Asian entrepreneurs are featured online and include full transcripts, short biographical sketches, and audio slideshows, which offer a view into the physical space connected to each narrator, as well as the narrator’s voice. Since its inception, the SFA’s documentary program has upheld a commitment to sharing its oral history archive with a popular audience, hence the multimedia packages featured on the SFA website. Complete audio files, as well as other ancillary materials, are accessible through the Department of Archives & Special Collections at the University of Mississippi, where the SFA is based.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology? 

Oral history is the most direct way for people to share their stories and experiences in their own words, thereby contributing to the historical record. Oral history offers the opportunity for human connection and collaboration, bringing people together through the simple act of conversation and allowing for a deeper understanding of what connects us all.

“Oral history offers the opportunity for human connection and collaboration, bringing people together through the simple act of conversation and allowing for a deeper understanding of what connects us all.”

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your project? 

Fellow oral historians will be interested in Houston’s Underbelly because it amplifies immigrant voices, offers insight into a diverse culinary culture, and explores history through the lens of food, which, at the most basic level, connects us all. The project is also a wonderful portrait of Houston’s culinary scene, where South Asian ex-pats from London can open an Indian restaurant, featuring family recipes that are prepared by a Guatemalan chef.

What is the one thing that you most want the audience to remember about the project?

I hope the audience sees the diversity of Houston, generally, and its Asian communities, specifically, in these interviews, as well as the unique relevance of foodways as an entry point to exploring countless other subjects. What’s more, oral history is not just about documenting the past; it can be an important tool to document current events and explore specific themes in real-time.

Amy C. Evans built the documentary program at the Southern Foodways Alliance and served as their lead historian for twelve years. Her latest independent, multimedia documentary project is Houston in 2020: Self-Employed Black Artists