Food is very important in Appalachia. Not that food isn’t important everywhere. But Appalachians are distinctly connected to their food as a cultural definition of who they are as a people – whether they themselves would say it in those words or not.
The fact is that one of the very few places in which things like soup beans and cornbread are considered comfort food and lifted up as a delicacy is in the hills and hollers of Central Appalachia. We enhance our soup beans with everything from chopped onions to chow-chow relish to hot sauce, making as many variations with our garnishes as there are funnel cake booths at the local fall festival.
And they are always served alongside cornbread – alongside, because the cornbread is a dish unto itself, not just an accessory. It’s always cooked crispy on the outside in a cast-iron skillet reserved specifically and exclusively for the baking of the most gaurded of family secret recipes: white, non-sweet cornbread. The non-sweet part is key. Sugar is for pound cake and homemade jam – not cornbread.
Appalachian Food. It’s distinctly its own variety of regional fare – Southern, but different. American, but different. Its staples are the most humble, yet noble, of ingredients: corn meal, beans, fried dough, lard or bacon grease, small-garden grown cucumbers and tomatoes, chicken, wild plants and mushrooms foraged from local woods (ramps, dry-land fish – morels to the outsiders – sassafras).
It’s food that comes from a past of subsistence and community – of growing your own food and working with all the neighbors to put it up for winter; of raising your own animals, and all the men killing and butchering a hog at the end of fall, then later frying up the pork loin as a reward for the hard work. It’s food that brings families and friends together around tables in homes and church fellowship halls to visit and reminisce and story-tell while they fill their bellies with warm Appalachian delicacies cooked and served as a tangible representation of love.
Our Appalachian food ways are about more than chicken and dumplins in winter and plates of sliced, salted tomatoes in summer. Every time we pull out that smooth iron skillet our granny used to make her cornbread; every time we reference our aunt’s fried apple pie recipe that’s written on the back of an old-school credit card receipt from the service station where she used to work, we connect to our heritage – our collective past as mountain people, hewn from hard-scrabble times when all we could afford to feed our six, seven – maybe even eleven kids – were pinto beans and onions grown in the family bottom land.
We preserve our ancestry every time we recall “the way granny used to make it,” or the way “Mama used lard instead of bacon grease,” and the way “Granddaddy would break the beans one bean at a time.” We all know that, deep down; and, what we recognize more acutely these days, is the slow drifting away of these food ways that have helped us persevere in these hills since the Irish and English and Italian, et al, first went so far as the Kanawha or Kentucky River, and decided they’d found home.
Our food ways are a piece of the cultural tapestry that defines who we are as mountain people. They are a cornerstone of what makes us Appalachian. To lose them would be to lose a piece of the fabric of who we are. It would work with other factors associated with progress to confuse our legacy as a distinct and important cultural region and people.
That’s why the Appalachian Food Summit is working hard against the growing tide of forgetting to restore an important sense of ourselves: our relationship to the food we grow, forage, cook and eat.
The Summit hosted it’s second annual gathering in September in Abingdon, Va. Local Appalachian growers, farmers, chefs and enthusiasts came together for two days of learning, sharing and storytelling about the food ways of southwestern Virginia – which, as Appalachians will know, are very distinct from other corners of the mountains.
And, of course, there was eating – so much eating of delicious preparations and incantations and elevations of traditional Appalachian food. The gathering was capped with a meal prepared by four of the region’s most talented and up-and-coming chefs. It was served cafeteria style, in homage to the South’s great love-affair with and appreciation of such eateries.
The entire event was a testimonial of gratitude filled with admiration and appreciation for one of our most loved, respected and honored traditions: food. It was an amazing display of fellowship and communion – a send up to all those who came before us who collected and ate ramps to survive, not to sell them to a New York restaurant so they could be served as the new food trend. But also, the gathering was a recognition of the changing times in which we live, and a loud declaration that our old ways – gussied up and revitalized – can help propel us forward into a whole new world of economic prosperity, success and sustainability.
With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the Appalachian Food Summit was awarded the 2015 John Egerton Prize by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) over the weekend. The prize is given “to artists, writers, scholars, and others, whose work addresses issues of race, class, gender, and social and environmental justice, through the lens of food.” Appalachian Food Summit co-founder Lora Smith was on hand to accept the award on behalf of the Summit – whose fiscal sponsor is Grow Appalachia at Berea College.
Our food and food ways have much to tell us, and discovering what those pearls of wisdom are, and how they can help us move forward in the region, is central to the Summit’s mission. AFS co-founder Ronni Lundy puts it this way in an appreciation of AFS for SFA:
The AFS facilitates conversations among contemporary Appalachian farmers, scholars, writers, chefs, producers and just plain interested parties to see how such traditions can become part of diversified local economies. Summit members are equally committed to revealing and telling the diverse histories of the people through the lens of food.
Facilitating conversations. That’s what good food served family style around a large table filled with good people is all about. In Appalachia, those conversations happen over plates filled with Mother’s chicken and dumplins and Great-Aunt’s fried corn, and Daddy’s peanut butter fudge, and Uncle’s fried chicken, cooked just like Mama taught him. The meal conjures our past, every time.
The meals are now foreseeing the future – not just the future when one cousin or another takes over making Aunt’s red velvet cake for family gatherings – but our collective future. The one in which we work to sustain our region with the food ways we cherish so much, and that have sustained us for so many years just by virtue of necessity.
Our food ways won’t be the sole economic savior of our region, to be sure; they will work in consort with many other things to fill us up and restore our souls. And regardless of where we are as a region 50 years from now, one thing is certain: the table will always be filled with Appalachian delicacies – elevated or not, cold and hot – served with stories and conversation, and there’ll always be a seat at the table.