Roger Wilkins

Appalachian Food: The Next Regional American Cuisine?

Like most things in life, trends in food seem to come and go. Many people are only familiar with their regional food and may not have had a lot of opportunity to taste cuisine from other parts of the country. Everybody knows that water towns offer seafood, the southwest offers a big flavor of Tex-Mex, and health food is plentiful in the Pacific Northwest. But, there is a region that is vast and rich in culture, though poor of money: Appalachia. This term applies from the Mountains of West Virginia to the hills of Tennessee and then some. What is special about the food that can be found in Appalachia and why might it make an appearance elsewhere?

Corn - one of the most commonly genetically modified foods in the U.S. [Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images]
[Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images]
Like most local cuisine, Appalachians eat what they have available and is culturally known to them. For hundreds of years this has meant living off of the land, often with no way to get to any type of store. Pioneers milled grain by hand to produce cornbread, since corn was richly abundant through most areas of Appalachia. Wild greens are frequently consumed as well: leaks, ramps, watercress. Coal miners needed something that was enough to fill their belly for a while but things that also appealed to their Scottish and German palate. Beans and corn fit that bill — and continue to be a staple of Appalachian culture today.

Appalachian foods all have one thing in common: they were borne of necessity. William Dissen, a native West Virginian and owner of the Market Place restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, calls Appalachia the “backbone of Southern cooking.”

“There’s real beauty in these dishes. They yield amazing flavors, the flavors of a subsistence culture. A humble pole bean tastes like a pot roast. You work with what you have because you have to eat.”

For centuries, that’s what the people of Appalachia did — they hunted and canned and preserved and salted meat. They learned to utilize what they had, and it’s an idea that is catching on, according to The Telegraph. Indeed, many people are fascinated by a way of cooking that seems as if it would be replaced by easier methods, but still continues out of love for culture and local goods.

Forest
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Last fall, scholars, chefs and activists journeyed to Abingdon, Virginia, to attend an Appalachian food summit, to examine how the region’s food heritage can boost local economies and awaken the taste buds of people who are not familiar with smoked venison or collard greens. There’s no doubt that like many cultural foods, it takes a bit of exposure to old Appalachian food customs to appreciate them. They come from a time when most people were very poor and had to grow or forage for food in a region that knows the depths of all four seasons, meaning certain things were plentiful in the summer, but sparse in the winter. That why preserves, jams, jellies, and salt pork is so prevalent to the region: it doesn’t go bad for years. People continue to consume a lot of deer meat and turn it into stews and jerky.

Why might this soon be a trend everywhere? It’s appealing to truly utilize the land and be sustained from it, and the economy may demand it. What once was considered “poor country cooking” may now be viewed as a thrifty alternative to gourmet ethnic cuisine.

While coal mines may be taking a hit due to EPA laws, other things cannot be removed from Appalachia: wild berries, apples of every kind, and wild morel mushrooms that are so prized in the spring. This is an area of revenue for Appalachia to explore: sharing their food, and therefore their stories, with the entire country.

[Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

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