Eating Appalachia: All Dressed Up and Rarin’ To Go

Photo by Market Place restaurant

Respectfully preserving traditions without stultifying a culture is a classic academic conundrum. With that in mind, in this final installment of our series exploring Appalachian cuisine (check out parts one, two and three), Eat Me Daily’s Kathleen Willcox forecasts the future (sunny, with a chance of clouds) of old school Mountain Cookery.

Having spent the past three weeks exploring Appalachian cuisine in terms of its history and its present, well, it's time to look to the future. The key to reinvigorating Appalachian cuisine, and making it something that will sustain into the coming years rather than just dying out and moldering in history, is to make room in the kitchen for chow chow and soup beans, right alongside the Heinz Relish and the cans of Goya Red Kidney Beans. We can leave raising heritage-breed pigs and building a smokehouse in the backyard for authentically smoked pork to the die-hards and the experts.

But do the actual residents of Appalachia even care? Do they, to be blunt, give a shit? Because their participation is key: sentimental, well-meaning outsiders can whip up as much groundhog gravy as they’d like in their Brooklyn or L.A. apartments, blogging it all the while, but like reciting the Apache Wedding Prayer in the middle of a Fifth Avenue Presbytarian wedding ceremony, it's not doing much for the culture itself.

Photo by Southern Foodways Alliance

The unsinkable soup bean

"Tastes have changed," Mark Sohn told me. Sohn is an expert on Mountain food, the author of the soon-to-be released Bourbon: A Kentucky Tradition (American Foodways Press, March 2009). Of Appalachia's changing palates, he acknowledges that fast food and the easy availability of processed and imported ingredients has eroded many of the old traditions, but "believe me, there’s still a lot of soup beans being prepared. If you walk into a grocery store around here, you still see people picking up 25-pound bags of beans – some of the recipes are and will remain staples, despite the fact that people are eating other, different foods and generally cooking less.”

So the soup beans are surviving, but what about everything else? If there's a fundamental question raised by Appalachian cuisine, it's this one: It is possible to preserve superannuated customs without giving up entirely on modern society? It's fortunate that what we're trying to keep here isn't so much an overaching way of life as it is the cuisine that grew out of one (otherwise we might find ourselves retreating to a damp cave with nothing but a bundle of sticks and a chunk of flint). The celebratory or ceremonial intake of food, glorious food, makes any sort of historic preservation easier.

Photo by jens1134

Landscape victorious

The thing about food is that it's the foundation of virtually all economies and cultures. We communicate, relate, share, manipulate, and grow close to one another over the breaking of bread; forget shoes, eating a meal with someone will tell you more about them than ten miles in a pair beat-up Vans or Gucci loafers ever could. Despite this almost magical properties of cultural preservation, previous generations of Appalachians were all-too-eager to discard their brambly roots in favor of the new, the shiny, the prosaic, and the plentiful.

They can try to cast off the history, but they can't cast off the land. Appalachia's lunatic landscape of jagged mountain peaks, rock-strewn hills, and sloped valleys may end up saving the region’s unique cuisine on its own, whether the populace rallies to the cause or not.

"The kind of large-scale agriculture that encourages a certain kind of crop cultivation isn’t realistic in Appalachia," Rose McLarney of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) told me. "Only small tracts of land are available for farming between the mountains." So as farmers move away from growing tobacco (profits have plummeted in recent years as manufacturers turn to cheaper imports from developing nations), they’ve found that the crops that end up bringing home the proverbial bacon are, unsurprisingly, heirloom varieties of tomatoes, beans, corn and squash — the same old local crops that are the staples of Mountain Cookery, McLarney explained.

Photo by Cheneworth Gap

People who care

The banner of preserving Appalachia’s culinary traditions has also been taken up by organizations local and national. I talked about the ASAP in an earlier installment, and there are also national organizations like Slow Food USA's Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a collective founded in 2004 to conserve, restore and celebrate endangered food traditions in North America.

Gary Paul Nabhan, the founder of RAFT, is compiling an ever-growing list of over one thousand threatened or near-extinct North American seeds, plants and animals. He's written a book about it (Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foodsbuy at Amazon), and at the time of its publication, 74 animal breeds in Appalachia were under threat, including the legendarily delicious Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel and the American Guinea Hog.

Gussying up the good stuff

So until flying squirrels are again so numerous they darken the sky, we may have to sate our appetites for down-home cooking with a dose of up-market panache. As luck would have it, an arduous, worshipful frenzy for all things local, sustainable and vaguely odd has gripped the chefs in Appalachia’s cities just as vigorously as it as seized Dan Barber, Alice Waters, and their fresh-faced young acolytes up and down both coasts.

Admittedly, Appalachia's hautest toques are hardly gittin’ Pa’s gun to track down a few possums to slap on their prix fixe menus. But they’re taking their region's ingredients and fancying them up a bit so they wouldn't look out of place in a saturated editorial in any given food glossy. Gone are the heavier gravies and smoked meats of yore, replaced with modern takes on local ingredients that emphasize freshness right alongside tradition.

The Market Place, a restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, has been a fixture in town since the late 70s. It's led the way in refining and redefining Appalachian cuisine, while still staying loyal to its rustic roots. In the restaurant's mission statement, chef Mark Rosenstein says "There is no cuisine with out gardens and farmers. Since my very first days in 1972 as chef and restaurant owner at the Frog & Owl Café in Highlands, NC all my cooking has started from a local garden, pond, wild forage or grazing field. The basis of the craft of cooking is to honor those ingredients. … Today, that tradition is central to our kitchen."

Rosenstein goes on to pay homage to his suppliers: tailgate markets, Sunburst Trout, Spinning Spider Creamery, a local mushroom gatherer — even a Tennesee harvester of Perigord truffles. This high cuisine stance plays out on The Market Place's menu, as high-falutin' ingredients play nice with homier farm staples. Call it haute Appalachia: Wood Grilled Beef paired with a cauliflower puree, mushroom ragout, blue cheese butter and sauce bordelaise; Cornmeal Dusted North Carolina Flounder paired with fingerling potatoes, sautéed spinach and remoulade sauce; English Walnut Fig Bar with Blackstrap Molasses Ice Cream.

Bringing it home

So where does this all leave Mountain Cookery? It's in limbo, to be sure, but there's a lot of people in high places pulling for it. Throughout these articles, we've argued that Appalachia boasts one of — if not the — strongest, original, and consistent regional cuisines in America. We’ve also documented undeniable signs of its decline, a victim of convenience foods and changing tastes crowding out hoary old favorites like cushaw pie, fried ramps and new potatoes with gravy.

But just when it seems like chow chow and dried apple stack cakes are about to vanish from kitchens entirely, this ragtag crew comes along to save it: food historians, museums, local food cooperatives, oddball little food festivals, and just plain concerned citizens. Working at first independently, but increasingly in a collective, they've emerged to rescue the quirky, sustainable, hip-without-even-trying cuisine from extinction.

It’s too early to call a press conference and string a “Mission Accomplished” banner from Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, but I think it’s safe to say (without the slightest tinge of irony) that we'll be seeing fried squirrel and soup beans for a long time still.

— Kathleen Willcox

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