It’s that time of year in Appalachia where friends begin to make social media posts begging for information about where to find ripe pawpaws. Private messages are exchanged and
secret locations are disclosed. Timing is critical because the fresh fruit only lasts a few days, perhaps a week, if they’re refrigerated. You won’t find them stocked in grocery stores, or in many places outside of the region. Farmers markets and friends are your best bet.
Many of Appalachia’s finest foods are like the pawpaw. They are best consumed at the right time in the place where they were grown. Sheri Castle, food writer and cooking teacher, points toward the French term terroir to explain this mystery. Loosely translated, terroir means to taste the earth in the food.
“When you go out to your yard and pick a tomato or pepper that was meant to grow right where you live, and was allowed to stay in the garden until it was ripe and ready to pick, that’s going to be a very different and superior product to one you’d buy at a grocery store,” Castle continued. “There’s an exquisite flavor that we can get that’s completely unlike anything you’d find if you leave the mountains. I absolutely cannot buy beans that feed my ‘mountain-ness’ anywhere other than up where they grow.”
Tom Colicchio, head judge on the popular culinary competition show “Top Chef” and Kentucky Chef Edward Lee, a guest judge on the show, agree that this regional food focus is a trend that they are seeing across the United States.
“America is rediscovering its regional roots,” said Colicchio while in Kentucky filming an episode of the show which has incorporated regional cooking this season. “Whenever we film in a city or a state, that place almost becomes a character in itself. In the past couple of years we’ve really tried to tease out the particular food cultures in those states and areas.”
Lee, author of “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine,” believes that the reason nationally televised shows are exploring the region has a lot to do with the resurgence of small farms.
“The agriculture of Kentucky keeps getting better. It helps chefs like me do what we do. Kentucky’s small farms are basically the bones of the restaurant industry,” Lee said. “It’s the restaurant industry in Kentucky that is creating this movement which is why you see “Top Chef” coming here, and why you see the Appalachian Food Summit, and chefs like Kristen Smith in Corbin, Ky. doing really cool things. It’s not just Louisville and Lexington anymore. There’s a lot of attention being paid to Appalachia.”
Nationally-known food writer Ronni Lundy elaborated saying, “What I’m most excited about right now is how people in the region are reclaiming their identities, their stories, and their futures from those outsiders who have historically, and continually, appropriated and distorted them for personal gain.”
“The study of our food and foodways is a big part of writing an accurate history of the region; and the producing, processing, and serving of our food can be a piece of a new multi-faceted economy going into the future,” said Lundy, the James Beard Award-winning author of “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes,” and founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Lee continued, “There is a spirit to Appalachian food. There’s a reason why some of this food is passed down from generation to generation. Appalachians are stubborn people. When they migrated from the east through the mountains, they were supposed to pass through them to places that were friendlier to agriculture. The people that did settle tended to be very hardheaded, very strong people. Everything they did, for good or bad, those traditions survived. That’s the core of Appalachian food.”
That Appalachian stubbornness can be found in the food itself. One example? The beans. “As a trained chef, a food writer, and a hillbilly, I can tell you that if you were to go to a grocery store in Kansas City, or Savannah, or San Francisco and buy yourself a bag of those skinny little beans that are grown to be cooked as a fresh vegetable – you’re obviously not going to cook them for an hour, they’d be overcooked,” Castle added. She continued, “In Appalachia you go to a farmers market, your granny’s backyard, or a local roadside stand you’ll be buying some greasy beans or half-runners or one of our hundreds of varieties of beans. Our beans are grown not as a fresh spring vegetable but as a source of protein. You have got to cook those beans until they are tender and nutrient available. It’s not overcooking beans, it’s cooking them until they’re right.”
Proper preparation of Appalachian foods is essential. Castle and Lundy agree that preservation is one way that Appalachia stands apart from its neighbors in the Deep South.
“The reason that preservation is both necessary, and certain techniques of it possible in the mountains, is that unlike the rest of the south, the mountain south has a distinct winter season, and often a severe one,” explained Lundy who has been writing about the food, music, and culture of the southern Appalachians and the American South for more than 30 years. “That comes with a cool fall and spring, as well, which means that while our growing seasons are more limited, we have certain foods (apples, of which there were once well over a thousand varieties; forest foraged greens and mushrooms; and sweet sorghum) that are scarce or non-existent in the deeper south.”
Castle added, “We are really good at preserving food. The ways that we pickle and ferment and dry and smoke and put up. I think that those flavors and techniques are what represent us most. I would say that we could go up against anyone on a world stage when it comes to preserving food.”
Appalachia’s food story is an amalgamation of the many cultures that have lived in the region. “The strong prevalence of German preservation techniques reminds us that the region’s first European settlers were anything but a mono-culture. Likewise, Cherokee or Native American cultivars (the candy roaster squash) persist despite both intentional and non-intentional histories that ignore their huge impact,” Lundy said. “The tremendous amount of hard work that goes into raising and preserving enough food to get a family through the winter, and the wisdom involved in knowing exactly how and when to do what belie the vile myth that mountaineers are inherently lazy or ignorant.”
Although Appalachian food honors the past, it isn’t married to it. It is always exploring new traditions as people move into the region. “I’m excited about the ways that younger chefs are building on the solid foundations of what is and has been distinctly Appalachian in taste, as well as tradition,” Lundy expounded. “That Mountain Umami I refer to can be enhanced/created in a number of ways that may make a traditionalist pause. Part of the adventure is not just about satisfying your taste buds, but also in challenging your assumptions about what Appalachia is, has been, and can be.”