In the Spotlight, At the Margins
“Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” —Wendell Berry
I doubt anything really disappears in West Virginia; the landscape wouldn’t allow it. It’s all peaks and trees, benevolent but imposing like fairy-tale giants. In this image, Appalachian cuisine was made, generations earning their rights to another year by living from it. Growing vegetables, catching trout, hunting deer, foraging greens, preserving everything. This state of dependent independence remained there long after becoming an artifact in the rest of America. I come from a fairly populous city in West Virginia, but it is still Appalachia, and that is still a word that implies isolation of the highest cultural and geographical order.
Welcome to West Virginia Sign. Image courtesy Spirit of America/Shutterstock.com.
This was less true longer ago: The Appalachia of the 1800s was an agricultural hub (not to mention a popular health retreat for urbanites of delicate constitution). Dr. Lucy M. Long, director and founder of the Center for Food and Culture, explained to me that by the early 1900s the evolving American food system, with its industrialized agriculture and changing transportation routes, was bypassing the region. That was the start. Enter the Great Depression, exasperated there by the mountains’ containment, and the stereotype of Appalachia as backwards and backwoods was clinched. “The irony of Appalachia is that it became more isolated in the twentieth century than it was before,” Long said.
The irony is riper today, thanks to the food-obsessive’s current tendency toward living like that long-mocked homesteader. This is especially true in New York, where I now live. (To wit: recent buzz over a Brooklyn squirrel hunter, which I would’ve yawned over had my jaw not been clenched.) These people are, in some sense, rediscovering Appalachian cuisine; they just don’t know it. Without getting swept away—without forgetting that these hunter-gatherer acts represent an era that many barely survived—it’s still important to remember that trends like pickling eggs or distilling moonshine, whimsical though they may seem, are not abstractions. They come from real places of dirt and history, communities and dinner tables. And if we care about the integrity of our ingredients, how they’re grown and where they come from, then we must also care about, well, how they’re grown and where they come from: the integrity of their roles in all the places that, together, constitute American cuisine. (Appalachia being a, not the, birthplace of these traditions.) These places have been using sorghum, ramps, country ham—whatever the fetishized ingredient of the moment is—for years. Waxing about local farms without comprehending their local cuisines is as incomplete a transaction as buying farmers’-market Berkshire pork then undercooking it.
One reason this is all lost in translation when it comes to Appalachia—or at least my part of it, West Virginia, the only state fully within Appalachia’s borders—is that the modern diet there is evermore dependent not on the land but on the assembly line. Embracing modernity is not a sin, of course, but in Appalachia, it is a progression complicated by the aspiration against poverty.
As Long put it, by the mid-twentieth century Americans were being encouraged to modernize and to salute a shared patriotism by “eating American.” (Canned soup! TV dinners! One hundred uses for Jell-O!) Marginal populations, including Appalachians, seized the opportunity to become mainstream in part by adopting this new diet, she said. “The perception is, ‘Well everyone is middle class, there’s a Burger King.’ I think that’s part of what’s going on. That’s the way they see mainstream America: It’s easy, it’s convenient, and the reality is it’s cheaper.”
I asked Richard Wilk, provost professor of anthropology at Indiana University, whether that makes for a conflicted perspective on a place’s past and future food culture—whether Appalachians would want to shun any trace of a self-subsistent diet because it had come to symbolize poverty. Wilk shared a theory of his called the “style sandwich”: The people on the bottom of the socioeconomic sandwich will eat something—say, squirrel—because they’re poor. They have to. Those on the top eat it because it’s exotic, rare, or expensive. The people in the middle won’t have anything to do with it. Wilk does much of his fieldwork in Belize, where he said there were similarities to be drawn to Appalachia.
“When I first came to Belize, nobody would eat shark,” he said. “Poor people ate shark because it was free or cheap—after the fish market closed, poor people would go there and get slices of shark for like five cents each. Middle-class people would tell you that they don’t eat shark. Then you’d go around the Peace Corps volunteers, and they’d get a fisherman to go out and catch a hammerhead and butcher it for them.”
Within West Virginia’s folds and pockets traditions like preserving, foraging, and old-fashioned cooking do still exist; there are foggy mountain communities where I am sure they always will. The trouble is not extinction but dissolution, reduction to heritage-festival curiosity—and this as these same rituals experience their renaissance elsewhere. Consider Wilk’s style sandwich on a larger scale, with the middle of the sandwich in West Virginia and the top of it in the country’s urban food scenes, latching onto the exoticism of rural food culture like it’s a freshly caught shark.
Long Arch Bridge over New River in West Virginia. Image courtesy Jacek Jasinski/Shutterstock.com.
It also doesn’t help that Appalachia’s is a relatively muted cuisine. Its recipes—plainer dishes like chicken and dumplings or soup beans and corn bread—are not as distinctive as those of other sub-Southern cuisines like Cajun or Low Country. Actually, Long hesitated to call it a cuisine in the technical sense of the word, which experts like herself use to cover a set of ingredients, aesthetic, cooking methodology and the like that officially represents a group or culture. “Historically, people weren’t saying, ‘These are the best dishes of our region,’“ she said, “partially because people considered Appalachia so backward.”
When I spoke to Wilk, we talked about the fact that many agrarian cuisines start to fade once areas industrialize and processed food becomes available. Yet most traditionally rural areas—which is to say, America—have industrialized to this point, and we still speak of the Barbecue Belt, of Cajun Country. What keeps these food cultures strong while others weaken? Wilk says you need one of two things: a younger generation that wants to revisit its roots, or bright entrepreneurs who can market those traditions.
Last summer, in a tiny West Virginia town, I encountered both.
“Is this your first time in downtown Rock Cave?” Dale Hawkins asked me. Rock Cave is a cupcake crumb of a town a few state-routes deep off I-79, West Virginia’s aorta, the only major north-south road. It was August 2011 and we were at the local IGA, owned by Hawkins’s parents and where he was using the attached kitchen to ready CSA deliveries. A youthful chef with a robust figure, Hawkins is something like a medicine man of Appalachian cuisine; I’d sought him out because, once I started researching the topic, his name kept cropping up. Actually, Hawkins calls his food New Appalachian Cuisine: a regional spin on global foods with local ingredients, which grew from his time working in out-of-state restaurants and discovering that the humble ingredients he grew up with—morels, rabbit, quail—had become haute dishes with price tags to match. He moved back in 1991, wanting to do with West Virginia, he said, what Emeril Lagasse had done with New Orleans.
He’s since turned Fish Hawk Acres, the farm he grew up on, into a brand of value-added products, a catering company, a CSA, and a community-supported kitchen that sells local breads and cheeses alongside wholesome convenience food like Thai beef salad or biscuits and gravy made with his father’s sausage. He also runs, with a man named Allen Arnold, a Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, which does for the state’s culinary traditions what Fish Hawk Acres does for its ingredients.
The Collaborative has many initiatives, among them a state map of “101 Unique Places to Dine,” but one of the most notable is the annual Cast Iron Cook-Off. There, chef contestants use the eponymous pan to re-imagine traditional ingredients and recipes into creations that evoke the spirit of New Appalachian cuisine, dishes like greens in sweet-and-sour vinegar sauce, beans in mole sauce, and custard-filled corn bread. (Those came from a Fayetteville-area catering company called Gourmet on the Gorge.) Anne Hart, the chef/owner of Provence Market, a French restaurant in Bridgeport, West Virginia, has submitted entries like moonshine haute chocolate, ramp bisque, and (coming full circle) squirrel nachos.
“Creating New Appalachian Cuisine was not difficult, as you had to look no further than your dad’s freezer,” Hart told me via e-mail last year. “Creating dishes using ingredients that were legally available for food service created a whole different challenge.” She’s been using local products since Provence opened in 2002, when it was difficult to find in-state certified chicken, let alone venison or boar. It’s a testament to the Collaborative’s efforts that this is no longer the case (lack of restaurant-ready squirrel notwithstanding). America’s larger cultural shift toward local sourcing contributes, but the Collaborative’s matchmaking skills have helped put it into action in West Virginia, teaching farmers how to interact with restaurant chefs and how to market their wares better and smarter. Take Jim LeFew, who stopped by the IGA that day in August. LeFew runs JL Foods, a business that is essentially him driving around the state picking up ingredients then dropping them off at restaurants. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that his job description might not exist without Dale Hawkins.
West Virginia Farm. Image courtesy Jorge Moro/Shutterstock.com.
“I don’t want [New Appalachian Cuisine] to be a trend,” Hawkins said then. “I want it to be a lifestyle. I don’t know where it’s gonna go. I do know the culinary awareness has changed.”
When considering the gap between these two worlds—the glossy farmhouse and the family farmhouse—it’s worth considering, still, the isolation that kick-started those Appalachian stereotypes so long ago. In ways literal and figurative, it’s a trick to get into and out of West Virginia. To maneuver within it, even. But it’s all still there, all the aesthetics and methods and traditions that so many shiny foodies are playing with now. Hopefully, the homespun movement to promote and revitalize Appalachian Cuisine (and New Appalachian Cuisine) can link outsiders to an understanding of those foodways at their roots. There, a much more complex type of isolation is found, one that creates independence, resourcefulness, and the by-product of these, pride. That isolation isn’t about feeling shunned or illegitimate or irrelevant, but about being sustained by a backdrop in which, as generations have proven, not much else is required. Even if, especially if, it took everyone else so long to come around.