I’ve been known to be aggressive about making friends. I don’t mean that I tackle people or “Frank Underwooded” them into being my pal, but I have invited people that I’ve met at the grocery store to meet me for lunch, shown up at old farmhouses for bluegrass pickin’ parties after meeting the host at a coffee shop once, told a pair of friends at a lecture that I thought they were cool and that I wanted to be a part of their circle, and gotten myself (and Brett) invited on a weekend camping trip with some folks I sort of knew from work because I thought they seemed like people I wanted to know better. You never know what will happen, right?
This has worked out well for me. I’ve met some of my favorite people this way. In fact, the camping trip scenario helped us befriend my then-Teach for America colleague, Boyce Upholt, who turned out to be an adventurer and aggressive seeker of people’s interesting stories, as well.
These days, Boyce is a writer who tells stories about how people shape place and how place shapes people. When you live in the Mississippi Delta, a lot of the time that means that you’re writing about culture and food, as those play a big role in conveying the spirit of southern culture and communities. Boyce does just that.
He’s written several pieces about the Mississippi River, from the invasive flying carp to a portrait of a Mississippi River Canoe Guide. Recently, he interviewed Morgan Freeman for a story in The ‘Sip, a Mississippi-based magazine, and co-created a bingo game exclusively featuring southern fast food restaurants like Bojangles, Backyard Burger, and Chik-fil-a, He’s taste-tested (and written about) tacos across the state of Mississippi and hot tamales in Issaquena County. He’s written a traveler’s food-guide for Highway 61, He’s spotlighted plantation biscuits and wondered on paper about the origins of oatmeal.
Boyce didn’t start out with food writing in mind. He’s not gone to culinary school or worked in a restaurant, but he is a voracious and inquisitive eater. Going out to eat with Boyce is almost an adventure unto itself. He’ll inevitably choose the menu item that sounds most novel, order a local brew or cocktail with roots in the neighborhood and almost never turns down dessert. He’s the kind of diner who hopes someone will go halveses with him so he can try out even more dishes… not so he can write about them, but because he’s curious about what it tastes like. Eating is exciting.
His curiosity and spirit of adventure landed him in rural South Dakota, teaching math on a Native American reservation. After teaching, he did a short stint of journalism in Washington, DC, but missed small-town, rural life. He ended up in Cleveland, Mississippi, working with Teach For America in a teacher-coaching role, and then shifted into media relations and grant writing. This gave him more free time to explore the place he called home and tell stories about it. Through a connection with Delta Magazine, a regional publication, Boyce started writing about the Delta and getting paid to do it. It just felt right.
And then he realized how it all fit. “Food is literally the way we are connected with the environment… we take the things we eat and process it and it actually becomes part of us. How we grow our food, how we prepare it, those are some of the fundamental ways that shape how we see the world and our environmental ethics, so it makes sense that as a writer about place that I would write about food.”
Living in rural Mississippi meant that he had even more opportunities to write for publications… as there are beaucoups of interesting stories to be told, but few writers to tell them. On top of that, people are closely connected down here, and one interview can lead to others…. even one article he publishes can get him three more in other regional magazines. If a large number of people in our generation are moving to cities and suburbs, in his field, there’s something to be said for living away from hubs of commerce and instead, in the center of agriculture. It’s also a little easier to forge close connections and networks that are only possible in an entire state with an entire population less than the Atlanta metro area.
Curiosity sometimes means that he wonders about southern identity… what IS it? How does the South interact with the rest of the world? How do southerners interact with one another? Why? To figure it out, it helps to explore it up close and live it a bit himself.
Boyce’ll be around to explore these questions and other ones, if his spirit of adventure doesn’t prick him too deeply to dig into a new part of the world. Boyce’s love of rural life; his sincere curiosity about people, culture, and place (and food), plus his ability to tell an engaging, nuanced story make him an incredible asset to the south. We need him telling our hidden stories, spotlighting our unsung heroes, and reminding us of food we ought to be making…
What stories from your community need to be told to the world? What ingredient do YOU wish more southerners were cooking with? Tell Boyce….maybe he’ll write about it. Or better yet, tell that story yourself and get others talking. You never know what might happen.
Also, if you want to hear more about what Boyce is writing (and you should, because his stories teach you things and make you think and inspire you all at once) and where he’s exploring, sign up for his newsletter!