CRESTVIEW — A retired chef is gathering Northwest Florida residents' verbal stories for a 10-year project on food. The stories will be archived at the Baker Block Museum.

For three years, James "Oso" Wallman has recorded people's stories about the food their families grow, eat and prepare. As a chef, he has traveled to seven countries, approximately 24 states and lived in about 50 homes during his career.

"This gave me keen insight into how people would eat; how they cooked their food at home," the Crestview resident said. "I would stay in people's homes for two to four months at a time as a guest, and document and study their cuisine and culture and how they lived.

"I collected a lot of stories along the way and I wanted to continue that here."


Wallman, his sister, and late brother, Joe, grew up on a farm on Airport Road in Crestview, where their mother still lives. His sister is Shirley Chestnut of Crestview.

"My mom is Mexican, and my dad (the late Don Wallman) was German-Hungarian, so we had different cuisines in the house," James Wallman said.

They raised animals, foraged in the woods, and gardened.

"We made everything from scratch. We had three big gardens, so you learned how to really prepare food from scratch, and canning it and preserving it. And from that, I just naturally went into becoming a cook locally," he said.

The family cooked a lot of food to raise money for their church as well, he said, "… so I learned from age 13 on how to prepare 5,000 burritos … 1,200 tacos for a weekend at the Mullet Festival. And from that I was able to go and travel around the world, and because everybody has to eat, I can get a job anywhere."


Wallman has already recorded some stories from Okaloosa residents, and will interview people of all ages 11 a.m. to closing each Friday in January at the Baker Block Museum. The talks will be saved to archives at the Baker Block Museum, and senior citizens will get a free copy of the stories they share.

What kinds of stories are wanted?

One story Wallman mentioned is the 2004 visit he had with a then-112-year-old woman, Jimby Fall, in Senegal, West Africa. She told him how the French-style breakfast she eats every day — bread with a chocolate peanut spread and hot tea — harkens back to when France colonized the region. He said fish and rice dishes are a major part of the family's every day diet as well.

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While in Senegal, he learned an interesting cooking method he hadn't seen before.

"I enjoyed roasted peanuts a lot and I saw a lady using a wok-type cooker over charcoal, filled with sand, and she was roasting the peanuts in the sand — like beach sand — as a temperature medium that would provide even heat. When the skins popped, the peanuts were done and (the skins could be used to) keep the sand off. I thought that was genius," he said.

That kind of ingenuity; the foods people eat; forgotten food words and techniques that may not be well known in other parts of the world; and who does the cooking at home — these are some of the things Wallman and the Baker Block Museum hope to preserve.

He wants to know about people's food sources, travels, visitors, holidays, potlucks, special dishes and family gatherings with loved ones.

"If you have a really unusual kitchen tool, please bring it with you. I can photograph those to go with stories," he said.

Wallman is hearing about other things as well.

As an icebreaker, he asked a 94-year-old about the first memory he recalls having. The man said he remembered his father holding up a newspaper with a huge headline — "Aviator Charles Lindbergh Crosses The Atlantic" — about Lindbergh completing the first solo airplane flight from the United States to Paris in the 1920s.

Call the Baker Block Museum, 537-5714, to schedule a Friday appointment. Other arrangements are available for senior citizens or residents who may be unable to travel.

NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated James Wallman's first name and the length of time he's be recording stories. He will record stories from 11 a.m. until closing Fridays in January at the Baker Block museum. The News Bulletin staff apologizes for these errors.