Photograph by Grady Blevins
If Appalachian cuisine could speak, I think it’d sound like my grandmother: loving but no-nonsense, pleased but bemused by your enthusiasm over the meal she’s just made from little more than dried beans and a tin of flour. This unassuming simplicity is part of the cuisine’s charm (to say nothing of my grandmother’s), but it’s also why the region’s cooking has remained more or less invisible. It’s rare to see a restaurant self-identify as Appalachian, or to see a menu highlight regional ingredients. Dr. Lucy M. Long, director and founder of the Center for Food and Culture, has an insightful take on this detached sense of culinary propriety in her North Carolina Folklore Journal article “Culinary Tourism and the Emergence of an Appalachian Cuisine: Exploring the ‘Foodscape’ of Asheville, NC.” In it, she recounts overhearing an Asheville waitress describe grits as “Appalachian polenta”—a claim that is not only flawed but that also undermines the soul of Appalachian food by defining it in the context of something else:
In the waitperson’s explanation, grits were being reframed from not only an object of touristic curiosity but also an eating experience worthy of money and "fine dining." Translating them as Appalachian polenta suggests that Appalachian foods could not be understood and valued on their own terms. This suggests to me that there is occurring a cultural shift re-defining Appalachian food’s identity from one tied to cultural history to one grounded in the natural resources of the region.
In other words: This is not the food of a people, just the food that grows on their land. It’s unfortunate timing for such an attitude. This is a moment in our culinary landscape when a chef’s cultural footprint has never been more precise. Flip through a cookbook like Louisville chef Edward Lee’s Brooklynite-Korean-Southern hybrid Smoke & Pickles, or visit a self-reflective restaurant like Manhattan’s Torrisi, where Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone are reinterpreting not just their vision of Italian-American food but their vision for Little Italy. These chefs have dual citizenship to their ancestral cuisines and their modern American experiences, and are reclaiming ownership of their cultures with contemporary voices.
In West Virginia, there are expressions of Appalachian food culture that display this kind of verve, like the local devotion of Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia and the creative dishes of chefs like Damian Heath, who owns Lot 12 Public House in Berkeley Springs, and Marion Ohlinger of Morgantown’s Richwood Grill. The problem is that these efforts must convince West Virginians—who, after decades of roadkill-based mockery, are long accustomed to Sysco over soup beans—of the importance of the revival, in addition to convincing outsiders who are long accustomed to dispensing said roadkill-based mockery. Heath and Ohlinger, for instance, both have trouble getting West Virginians to try their food. (“I always say in articles, ‘Don’t be afraid of us,’” Heath said.) Southern cuisine is in the middle of a profound renaissance—in large part because of the personalized, place-based cooking being done by chefs like Lee, Sean Brock, and Hugh Acheson—yet Appalachia remains silent at the periphery of it. And if we can’t get excited about our own cuisine, how can we expect other people to?
Damian Heath grew up in Berkeley Springs, WV, foraging morels, failing to hunt squirrel, and traveling around the East Coast with his artist parents. His restaurant, Lot 12 Public House, is the synthesis of these experiences, plus a healthy dose of his Italian lineage. His cooking isn’t Appalachian per se, but his approach is to let Appalachian ingredients shine, to “take what’s there and do something that’s not done all the time,” like braising rabbit in cider for pot pie, topping bruschetta with ramps and country ham, or even just serving venison medium-rare when West Virginians are used to it dipped in flour and fried in butter. If he needs trout for an event, Heath has a roster of outdoorsmen friends to call on. He’s a member of Slow Food USA, Local Harvest, and Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, and a holistic supporter of local purveyors. Just about the only thing that isn’t local in his dining room: the customers. About 70 percent of Lot 12’s patrons visit from East Coast hubs like Richmond, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
“There’s a definite disconnect between the locals, even the ones that could afford to come every day—they’re not adventuresome in their eating. It’s hard to get them to break out of their shells,” he said. Which isn’t to say that Heath is pessimistic about the future of Appalachian cuisine, in West Virginia or in his restaurant. He’s starting to see mom-and-pop establishments advertise the trout from their creeks, and locals have proven curious about a new smoker trailer that Heath is tinkering with outside the restaurant. There’s the Food Network effect, too; he has friends who would’ve never come into the restaurant before who are now visiting because their wives watch food television. Teenagers are coming in as well, and Heath is hopeful that his kids’ classmates, growing up aware of the restaurant, will eventually do the same.
“It’ll change,” he said. “People wanna try things, given the opportunity.”
It’s a theory Marion Ohlinger is also testing. A twelfth-generation West Virginian and lifelong traveler—he and his wife have visited nearly forty countries and all fifty states—Ohlinger opened Richwood Grill (in my hometown of Morgantown) to supply two needs he saw in the state: a place to honor both the culinary heritage of West Virginia and those of other countries. (A crest on the restaurant’s website reads “Think Global. Eat Local.”) He might be the only Appalachian-restaurant owner who grows his own lemongrass, but he takes his native cuisine seriously, as seriously as he thinks it deserves to be taken by everyone. “The whole idea is that Appalachian deserves to be known and respected as a culinary vernacular and it isn’t,” Ohlinger said. “We have every right to be up there beside Cajun and Tex-Mex, and we’re just not recognized at all.”
Ohlinger started a series of “deconstructed gastronomy” dinners at Richwood, serving gymnastic recipes like red cabbage gazpacho with venison puree and black-walnut oil, and corned duck breast with rye whiskey foam, buckwheat toast, and red shiso—a page from el Bulli, if Ferran Adrià had riffed on biscuits and gravy. He also started a global dinner series, interpreting dishes from Namibia to Suriname with Appalachian ingredients. (The “Jappalachian” dinner was a traditional Japanese keiseki run through the Appalachian ingredient mill, resulting in dishes like corn broth with trout roe and fiddlehead fern, and buckwheat noodles with matsutake and maitake mushrooms.) Interest has been building, just not among native West Virginians—which is tough for a Mountaineer whose family ties to the land predate the United States. “I’d love to see more of my people here, but my people think I’m weird,” he said.
“We’ve been trying for years now to bring the world to West Virginia while putting West Virginia up to the world equally,” he said. “Both have been challenging.”
This doesn’t mean we’re not proud, but Mountaineer Pride involves a fair amount of bombast, and bravado is almost always a deflection of insecurity. We talk about any cuisine in terms of culture and history, and both can be loaded terms in Appalachia. It can be difficult to excavate Appalachia’s cultural identity from underneath the safe prefab conventions of modernity that we’ve sought refuge in for half a century, and it can be problematic to untangle the history of Appalachian cooking from the dire circumstances that contributed to its development. Even now, with 17.5 percent of West Virginians below the poverty line, it would be obtuse to belabor the worry that not enough West Virginians are trying sous vide venison. Yet a discussion about the future of our cuisine is crucial. In a state and a region that’s been ostracized for decades, letting our cuisine go fallow means failing to express our collective self, to defend our identity. To cook is an explanation of what we’ve gone through, how we’ve grown from it, what we’ve made from it, and why we’re better for it.
There’s nothing wrong with reinterpreting Appalachian cuisine for outsiders, but they can’t be the only audience. West Virginians have to want to eat their own food instead of hitting the drive-through, and fine-dining establishments like Richwood Grill or Lot 12 can’t be the only options. (Though both restaurants are cost-conscious for their category: Ohlinger encourages adventurous eating by pricing those plates cheaper, and Heath is hoping to turn out under-$10 items from his new smoker trailer.) Opening a restaurant is not easy anywhere, but West Virginia presents its own challenges. The population is scattered across a rural landscape, has less disposable income, and—perhaps most dangerous—is used to value-chain meals priced lower than the cost of anything that’s actually edible. It’s hard to compete in those conditions, but we need to figure out how to give Appalachian chefs and Appalachian cuisine an advantage in this marketplace. Maybe that means fewer destination restaurants and more everyday cafes, or fewer brick-and-mortars and more food trucks that can hit several counties in a week. It certainly means fewer Applebee’s.
For Appalachian cuisine to survive—and to avoid extinction—West Virginians need to re-embrace their food heritage, like so many other regional cultures have already done. We need to remember why it’s remarkable to come from this place. When I spoke with Ohlinger, he bemoaned (as I have) the Walmarting of West Virginia, the epidemic of homogenous retailers and fast-food joints:
West Virginia is an eccentric and odd place, it’s full of ghosts and rumors. It used to be okay to be weird here, and then we started getting McDonald’s and Walmarts and the things that make everybody the same, and now it’s looked down on to be eccentric. I see it starting to lose a lot of its identity because it’s trying to fit in, and there’s nothing worse than a misfit trying to fit in. We’re not like everybody else; we should be proud to be Appalachian.
We need to brag about it, on all four burners, while we still can.