Discover more from Tales From Topographic Kitchens
We washed into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, barely ahead of the storms, which caused mass flooding and the loss of lives in the autumn of 2018 after a frantic drive through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains via Cherokee in North Carolina. Our car (which had already done 1700 miles) had become a moving skip filled with detritus from road snacks: wrappers from Moon Pies and Goo Goo Clusters and foot-dented Styrofoam containers were scattered underfoot, awaiting the next rest-stop rubbish bin. I think we’d stopped at every single road stand where I’d mooned over piles of squashes and squealed over bubbling vats filled with boiled peanuts and gathered jars of muscadine jelly and sorghum syrup unto me in the same way Christ gathered his flock. I had become a travelling cliché. In my excitement at living, for real, what I had been reading about, I delayed asking the question that had been percolating in my subconscious for so long: what am I not seeing?
Gatlinburg was a fascinating case study into how the USA commodifies its own heritage for tourism, especially regarding what and whom it leaves out. I could not stop laughing when I saw hordes of tourists rocking themselves in porch chairs, listening to bluegrass inside a giant complex devoted to what was called ‘moonshine’. I had to leave. It was oddly endearing and appalling when you consider the troubled history of moonshine and prohibition in general. Discovering that Francis Ford Coppola used to send a private jet to obtain his own supplies from a famous moonshiner made my dissonance even worse. Moonshine flavoured with cotton candy was on sale, for goodness sake. Back in the day, you’d have got a butt full of buckshot for producing such monstrosities and letting tourists believe them to be an accurate representation of an incredibly storied foodstuff deserves a similar fate.
This was Appalachia post-field dressing with its guts and pluck ripped out. I felt complicit because God knows I have been as guilty as anyone when romanticising Appalachia and the American South. I think that’s why I am so keen to return to this region again: I thought I was familiar with it because of the confiding nature of southern storytellers. It turned out I was wrong, so wrong. I saw Appalachia as a separate state instead of a region as diverse as the rest of the United States. Its growing pains cannot be subtracted from the forces that have shaped the rest of the country, as historian Elizabeth Catte wrote in her rebuttal to JD Vance’s over-valued book, ‘Hillbilly Blues’ (of which more, later). Appalachia and her people are not as homogenous as the media would have us believe. Still, both remain vulnerable to the forces of homogenisation as Larry T. McGehee wrote in his essay’ Vacant Kitchens For Sale’: “We hang our hams in a willow and weep. Dixie has become America and the flavor is almost gone from the stew.”
Of late, we can see Appalachian food writers, chefs, and producers starting to refocus this narrative away from stereotypes. They’re fighting back. We’re also getting to hear from people whose ancestors didn’t come from Ireland, Scotland or England and people who lived in Appalachia well before the first colonisers arrived. We’re hearing from the Appalachian diaspora, including LGBT folks who have remained in or moved to the south, which is (and this needs to be emphasised) home to one of the largest populations of LGBT people in the USA. We’re hearing about Queer Appalachian food and its finding a new home in large, urban centres. This is not to say that commodification isn’t still occurring, but overall, these emissaries seem to be righting the wrongs of the past. They are people honouring a well-established, home-grown tradition of radicalism. I am learning from them all the time.
Here are some of my favourite pieces of writing:
“Within certain communities, it’s become popular to host “white trash parties” where people are urged to bring Cheetos, pork rinds, Vienna sausages, Jell-O with marshmallows, fried baloney, corndogs, RC cola, Slim Jims, Fritos, Twinkies, and cottage cheese with jelly. In short—the food I ate as a kid in the hills,” writes Chris Offutt in this devastatingly honest essay about what is referred to as ‘trash food’, published in the Oxford American. “Participating in such a feast is considered proof of being very cool and very hip. But it’s not. Implicit in the menu is a vicious ridicule of the people who eat such food on a regular basis” he adds.
Last week I tweeted a link to an essay by Omar Tate about the retaking of ‘struggle food’, and although Tate’s piece is not about Appalachian food culture per se, its subject is analogous. I've often wondered about the wholehearted embracing of foods considered déclassé for structurally troubling reasons versus the ironic embracing thereof, and who must do the former and who *gets* to choose to do the latter. These two essays need to be read in tandem. Now, read Chris Offutt on why he has to write about Appalachia.
Rick Bragg has written extensively on the legacy of blue-collar eating. His latest memoir, ‘The Best Cook in the World, ’ is compelling. There’s an interview with him here.
And here is Silas House on the indulgence of pickled baloney
Ronni Lundy is a hero of mine. Her voice is clear, strong, and true (and Ronni, more than anyone, has educated me about all the ways JD Vance has misrepresented and misinterpreted Appalachia and its people). She has written quite a few cookbooks (although ‘cookbook’ is not an adequate definition for what Ronni Lundy achieves in her documenting and diarising of this region), and ‘Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes’, ‘Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken',' The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens’ plus another, smaller, text called ‘Sorghum's Savor’ are some of my favourites. Here’s a review of ‘Victuals’ by Rocket & Squash’s Ed Smith.
Ronni has collaborated and contributed extensively to the Appalachian canon. I highly recommend buying a copy of ‘Cornbread Nation: Foods of the Mountain South’, which she was guest editor of. In fact, if you are flush, buy every edition of this series (there are six). Her introduction, where she uses the string bean as a metaphor, is as good a piece of writing on connection and what it means for Appalachia and its ability to thrive in an increasingly homogenised, commodified world as anything I have ever read. In a similar vein, Ronni provides the afterword to a newly published collection of essays about contemporary Appalachian tables called ‘The Food We Eat, The Stories We Tell’ with its stories of Blue Ridge tacos (‘A Preliminary Taxonomy of the Blue Ridge Taco), kimchi with soup beans and bread, a brilliant essay titled ‘Confessions of a Spear Packer’ which reminds us about the humans that (then) lay at the heart of the agrarian-industrial processes, wine tourism in Appalachia, and a reminder that the Cherokee were here first.
More Ronni (a chapter in Edward Lee’s exceptionally good ‘Buttermilk Graffiti’ where she takes a road trip with the author) and another interview with her about her home region's stereotyping.
What happens when traditional foods become trendy? This Q&A with chef Sean Brock is an interesting supplementary read. Brock has, at times, attracted criticism, and Michael Twitty’s open letter to Brock helps explain why this criticism has arisen.
Ronni on ‘Victuals’.
Anthony Bourdain visited Appalachia. Here’s Meredith McCarroll on what his work meant to the Appalachians, and she asks a crucial question: “But then what do you do with an insider like J.D. Vance who never learned to listen? And what do you do with an outsider like Anthony Bourdain who did?”
An Appalachian elegy for Anthony Bourdain.
On the diaspora's return and the redressing and rebuilding via the medium of food and this, about the ‘Expatalachians’, and their food truck, which melded their Pakistani-Appalachian roots, is wonderful. “When we started the food truck, we sat down and did a Venn diagram,” Mohsin says. "Virginia’s lust for bacon and ham wouldn’t show up on the Pakistani side. Likewise, there weren’t many uses for chickpeas and tamarind in the Appalachian circle. But it was the shared significance of traditional ingredients in the overlapping section– okra, cornbread, tomatoes, stewed beans– that stood out. “The more we thought about it, the middle part kept growing and growing.”
The centring of African-American voices in Appalachian food.
And this redressing may well include the reintroduction of native species.
I’ve touched on our drive through the city of Cherokee, one of the other gateways to the Blue Ridge Mountain National Park. I felt deeply awkward about what I saw, and then I felt even worse when I thought about who gets to benefit from their heritage fiscally. So, I decided to read more. ‘Native American Recipes From the Appalachian Mountains: the AAIWV Tribal Cookbook’ by AAIWV members was one of the books I encountered. Although this tribe of American Indians is based in West Virginia and (obviously) not in Cherokee, their book is a great way to remind oneself of the fact that all cultures are dynamic, non-static entities, and here, we have traditional recipes, recipes that are modern adaptions of those recipes, and some that are truly of this time. “We as Indian people adapt,” they write.“This is how we have survived.” And what recipes! Clover soup and a soup made with hazelnuts. A Chippewa bannock flavoured with hazelnut oil or bacon fat, maple syrup or honey. A cranberry cornbread. Buffaloaf. Dandelion quiche. Lakota plum cakes. So timeless yet contemporary -and criminally under-acknowledged.
You can learn more about equity of food justice and history and how this especially applies to Native Americans at The Heritage Foods: Appalachian Story Bank at Slow Food USA. And here’s some information about Cherokee food culture and the city of Cherokee itself.
‘Buttermilk and Bible Burgers: More Stories from the Kitchens of Appalachia’ by Fred W. Sauceman.
The Foxfire Books on Appalachian food and culture are essential references for anyone wanting to go deeper. This is my favourite:
Smoke, Roots, Mountain Harvest by Lauren McDuffie.
A Foxfire Christmas: Appalachian Memories and Traditions by Eliot Wigginton and Bobby Ann Starnes
Modern Moonshine: The Revival of White Whiskey in the Twenty-First Century by Cameron D. Lippard (Editor), Bruce E. Stewart (Editor)
More Mountain Spirits: A Continuing Chronicle of Southern Appalachian Corn Whiskey, Wines, Ciders and Beers by Joseph Earl Dabney
Salt Rising Bread: Recipes and Heartfelt Stories of a Nearly Lost Appalachian Tradition by Genevieve Bardwell
Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore
Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes by Mark F, Sohn
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Tenth Anniversary Edition: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream (New Approaches to Appalachian Studies) by Graham Hoppe.
Joe Dabney's 'Smokehouse Ham, Spoonbread and Scuppernong Wine
Multimedia stories about the region by the people who live there: https://appalshop.org/
Crystal Wilkinson’s collection of stories about the lives of Black Appalachian women is deeply moving: “Being country is as much a part of me as my full lips, wide hips, dreadlocks and high cheekbones. There are many Black country folks who have lived and are living in small towns, up hollers, and across knobs. They are all over the South—scattered like milk thistle seeds in the wind. The stories in this book are centered in these places.”
Chocolate Gravy is the pride of Appalachia by Sherri Castle. I didn't eat chocolate gravy in Appalachia, but I was served it at Abe's Grill in Corinth, Mississippi. The owners of this tiny rural diner welcomed us with open arms, and we watched them move around the griddle in a dance as intricate and cognizant of time and space as that of a ballet dancer.
And Sherri again on why the pinto bean is so popular in Appalachia although it is not, has not been, widely grown there.
“A biscuit sits at the center of both a real and imagined class struggle. Biscuits have long been signifiers of class in the mountains,” writes Lora Smith in this exposition about how an advert featuring a biscuit stirred up fury in a part of the world dependent on coal mining and riven by debates over environmentalism and who benefits most from the continued existence of strip mining.