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Culture

‘Philoxenia’ Documentary Features Birmingham’s Greek-Owned Restaurants

BIRMINGHAM, AL – The Southern Foodways Alliance hosts the virtual 2021 Spring Symposium, March 13-14, focused on environments and transformation through the medium of film. Traditionally hosted in Birmingham, this year’s Symposium will be delivered to smart TVs and laptops via the Eventive platform, with opportunities to connect with presenters in Live Q&A sessions.

Jon-Sesrie Goff is guest curator of the 2021 Symposium. He is a multidisciplinary artist and award-winning documentarian. Among the filmmakers featured in the symposium are: Bahamian native Tamika Galanis; New Orleans resident Paul "Paavo" Hanninen; Columbia, SC-based Roni Henderson-Day; New York City’s Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich; Devon “Vonnie” Smith of North Carolina; and Colleen Thurston of Tulsa, OK.

Also at this year’s Symposium, Jessica Chriesman, a Birmingham-based filmmaker is premiering Philoxenia, a short documentary highlighting the synergy between the Greek notion of philoxenia (“friend of the stranger”) and Southern hospitality, as expressed through Birmingham’s Greek-owned restaurants. The film features local favorites Ted’s Restaurant, Demetri’s BBQ, Johnny’s Restaurant, The Bright Star, The Fish Market, and Gus’s Hot Dogs.

Chriesman said, “I’m so excited to highlight Birmingham’s hidden history of Greek restaurateurs in this film. Birmingham’s Greek immigrants have shaped the hospitality industry in our city and I’m proud to share this legacy through the Southern Foodways Alliance’s platform.”

Chriesman is a Homewood native and graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2015. Her work has been screened in festivals across the country including the Green Mountain Film Festival (Montpelier, VT), ARTlightenment Art and Film Festival (Nashville, TN), Sidewalk Film Festival (Birmingham, AL), and George Lindsey UNA Film Festival (Florence, AL). In 2019, Chriesman was a finalist in Tribeca Film Institute's IF/Then Pitch Competition where she and a producing partner pitched a film about A.G. Gaston to an audience of hundreds. She is a member of the national Indie Media Arts collective and is Chair of the Alabama Humanities Alliance Young Professionals Board. Her work can be found at jessicachriesman.com and she is on Instagram and Twitter as @jctellsstories.

Chriesman spoke with The National Herald about the making of Philoxenia and the most surprising thing she learned about the Greek-owned restaurants of Birmingham in the process.

TNH: How long did the film take from idea to realization?

Jessica Chriesman: The Southern Foodways Alliance approached me around Thanksgiving with the opportunity to participate in the symposium. I had some knowledge of Birmingham's Greek-owned restaurant 'family tree' already but did some more research through December and interviewed the participants in January and February. 

TNH: What made you decide to focus on Greek-owned restaurants specifically? 

JC: I have been creating shorts that feature Birmingham, Alabama's dynamic restaurant scene for the past few years. When I learned the theme for this year's symposium was "Environments and Transformation" I immediately thought of Birmingham's Greek restaurateurs who have been feeding the city since its infancy. My guiding questions for the film were: What would lead someone to uproot their lives and leave their environment for an unknown country? Why did Greek immigrants flourish in Birmingham's hospitality industry? How have these decades-old restaurants shaped Birmingham's food culture? How do Greek culture and Southern culture parallel each other?

TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Birmingham's Greek-owned restaurants in the process of making the film? 

JC: The sheer variety of restaurants established by Birmingham's Greek immigrants is amazing. I was able to talk to six restaurant owners for this film ranging from Gus's Hot Dogs, an almost 75-year-old hot dog stand in the heart of downtown, to Johnny's Restaurant, a meat and three in the suburb of Homewood which is helmed by a James Beard Award-nominated chef, Tim Hontzas, to The Bright Star which has been family owned since 1907. Sam Nakos, second-generation owner of Demetri's BBQ shares that at one point nearly all barbecue restaurants in Birmingham were owned by Greeks. The reason most of these restaurants don't serve strictly Greek food is twofold. One was to protect themselves from discrimination from people who were not open to immigrants moving to the city and the second was to serve an audience who were not yet used to the flavors of Greece. Ted's Restaurant, which opened in 1973, is one that incorporated Greek seasoning and techniques to its menu early on. As these restaurants became more established they began to return to their roots and added dishes like pastitsio and souvlaki to their offerings alongside traditionally southern foods. As Chef George Sarris, owner of The Fish Market who immigrated to Birmingham from Tsitalia in 1969, says in the film, "I don't care how good or bad a chef you are, you're going to put your culture in your food. We take the Southern way of food and we Greek it."

The trailer for the film is available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/519135252.

More information on the Southern Foodways Alliance virtual 2021 Spring Symposium is available online: southernfoodways.org.

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