By Steve Oden
I’ve been reading in magazines and online about a sudden interest in traditional Appalachian foods and cookery. Seems that urban “foodies” have stumbled across our heritage of eating and meal preparation that goes back hundreds of years. They’re even trying to update favorite recipes, while publishing numerous top 10 lists of dishes.
I am delighted that Appalachian cooking is finally finding a larger audience. Having lived in different parts of the mountain region and surrounding areas influenced by its people and cultures, I find that it is impossible to classify a single approach to foods and food preparation that reflects Appalachia as a whole. You just can’t do it because so many traditions are involved.
This is why the recipes and cookery are so diverse and delightful. From the Italian-immigrant pepperoni rolls of West Virginia to the backbones-and-rice, collards and corn fritters of Appalachian soul-cooking, the cuisine is a mish-mash of native, Scotch-Irish, African and international influences.
Recently, a critic bashed the new trend of Appalachia-gourmet by describing it as an attempt to turn the region’s cookery into a commodity for chefs and their customers to experiment with and mutate. I fear this is happening in many large cities. In the interest of branding, they’re taking our recipes further away from the mountains and valleys from which they sprang and cross- pollinated.
First, the Appalachian cooking my grandmother mastered and handed down was original farm to table. You grew what you ate, either the yield of the corn fields and gardens, the pork from hogs raised in pens or allowed to range freely in river bottoms, the chickens that provided eggs and meat, milk products from the cows, the harvest of woodland fruits, mushrooms and wild vegetables and the game and fish you trapped, caught or shot. This is the approach to cooking that fed large rural families whose hard-working members needed calories to fuel morning-to-evening labor on the farm.
The meals—breakfasts and the noon feasts called “dinner”—were massive. Mornings started with several meats on platters, fried potatoes, dozens of eggs (always fried), fluffy biscuits stacked in pyramids, grits and gravy, sliced tomatoes, homemade jellies and jams, sorghum syrup for the flapjacks, churned butter, pitchers of milk and buckets of scorching hot coffee that folks supped from saucers.
When the men and boys answered the dinner bell at high-noon, the spread awaiting them was even larger, but this time it included pork backbones cooked in rice, fried chicken, oven-baked pork chops in gravy, ham steaks, fried squirrel and fresh-caught fish, maybe a roasted racoon or possum, chicken-and-dumplings, all the garden produce in season (fried, baked, stewed or pickled), cornbread, leftover biscuits, homemade condiments, cakes, pies, cobblers, gallons of sweet tea and hot coffee again.
Then, for the men it was back to the fields and their work in the woods, cutting and snaking out trees for the sawmill. My grandmother and aunts resumed their chores, including housekeeping, laundry, sewing, gardening, vegetable and fruit picking, canning and taking care of the animals. The abundant noon leftovers were covered with tablecloths to keep off the flies and served as the evening meal.
A fat person was a rarity back in the day when Appalachian families were tied to the land. Folks expended energy at a high rate and burned off the calories, even when most of the fried or baked dishes contained lard. So, a friend asked me to list my family’s favorite unadulterated traditional foods, and I gladly complied.
Here is the obligatory warning, however. These dishes are probably not heart healthy unless you’re training for a triathlon or working 12-hour shifts in the construction business: Field peas—Garden fresh, shelled by hand, these tiny reddish legumes were sometimes called bird peas by the older folks. The preferred method of cooking was with a ham hock in a kettle of seasoned water allowed to simmer for hours until a soupy gravy formed.
Crackling cornbread—If you have never tasted cracklings, you probably don’t realize how much better made-from-scratch cornbread is when baked with those chewy bits of fried pork skin in the batter. Stewed okra and tomatoes; crispy fried okra; shoe-peg corn, delicious fried, in a casserole or made into a chowder; squash casserole; green tomatoes, fried or pickled; sliced cucumber-and onion in seasoned vinegar; leather britches beans cooked all day; purple-hulled peas flavored with fatback.
Wilted leaf lettuce and ramps—Hot grease (lard is best), vinegar, salt-and-pepper and those garlicky wild bulbs found growing on the hillsides and hollows. Boiled ham—I’m a lover of pork in all its cooked forms, even chitterlings properly prepared, but a fresh, never-cured ham boiled slowly for hours is my favorite, edging out even pit barbecue. Sliced potatoes—Fried with chopped onions, peppers and small okra pods coated in cornmeal, seasoned with only salt and pepper. Crappie or bream filets, breaded and fried in lard—You can have my catfish, bass, walleye or trout. I’ll take crappie, bluegill, shellcrackers and other members of the sunfish family, lard-fried in a cast-iron skillet to a golden brown.
Morel mushrooms, battered and fried in butter—No more needs to be said. Apple dumplings—My paternal grandmother made these simple pastries for me as a child, and I have never tasted the equal since.
Coconut cake—The queen of cakes, in my opinion, and very special in our family because it was prepared only during the holidays. Buttermilk pie is another of my favorites. Banana pudding was a more common dessert but no less delicious.
Feel free to add to this list if a particular food or dish has been passed down in your family. Appalachian cuisine is simple country cooking with ingredients you’ve grown, gathered or preserved. There’s nothing hoity-toity about what our ancestors ate. This was how they survived and kept the wolf of starvation off the doorstep.