Long Misunderstood, Appalachian Food Finds the Spotlight

Chefs like Sean Brock and Katie Button are embracing and expanding on the region’s cooking, which is far more varied than most people realize.

Comments: 53

  1. '... two of the most unlikely words to be paired in the English language, “Appalachian” and “bagel” '. Cream cheese, added to them, makes it into a Newyorkised Appalachian cuisine. Where is venison, wild boar, phaesants shot in the fields, and good local moonshine, to chase the food down?

  2. @Tuvw Xyz Our shade tree mechanic can also get us any flavor of moonshine we want. We retired in WV because my husband is a native of this beautiful state. Bought property and started putting in flower beds. The deer eat anything we plant. Critters like possum and raccoons eat cat food we leave out on the back porch for outdoor cats. Peperoni rolls are popular in West Virginia and local bakery sold ramp flavored ones.

  3. A friend of mine whose family goes way back in WV was renovating his grandparents’ house when he came across a possum stew recipe behind one of the cabinets. Let’s see that come to highfalutin Asheville!

  4. @Adrift I live in a foothill ( just outside Appalachia) town that boasts a recipe book featuring varied recipes for "pasture pig" aka groundhog. I personally never indulged.

  5. The Foxfire Book series has excellent chapters on the foods of Southern Appalachia, including an expansive chapter on wild plants that were foraged for food and medicine. There’s also a chapter, with photographs, explaining how to slaughter, butcher, and prepare pork for preservation and cooking, with recipes for literally every part of the animal. (One recipe for pig lungs says to boil them into a mush-like gravy.) Anybody interested in the culture and folklore and home crafts of the Appalachian people should check it out.

  6. Yes, they just published a revised version of their cookbook “Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery” with work from Sean Brock included.

  7. As someone who calls Asheville home for much of the year, I welcome this story. Katie Button’s bagels are delicious, whatever you put on them (although hardly Appalachian fare). And I applaud John Fleer’s support for Benne on Eagle — Chef Hannan is a local treasure. Foraging, producing, being inventive — all good things to embrace.

  8. Appalachian cuisine at my grandma's house in Tennessee was focused on one word - fresh. When dandelions and wild onions sprouted in early spring the gathering began. Berries in summer, nuts in the fall, mushrooms, herbs for medicines - the woods were the source of so much food. Milk just brought in from the barn, eggs gathered in grandma's apron that morning, and a Sunday chicken on the table that had walked by the porch earlier that day. Vegetables straight from the garden. Meat came available one cow or deer at a time in the fall and was shared by family members to be eaten fresh; beef was not preserved but venison was. In winter, think salt. Salt pork, kraut (lots of Germans taught their neighbors about this easy to preserve food), pinto beans with fatback. Plus dried fruit and canned everything. (I didn't see a bagel until I went to college.)

  9. @bhs you should write a book about these memories. this is wonderful!

  10. You lay out the case for what defines any cuisine: what's fresh is what is on the table. We appreciate late summer and fall on the South Shore of Lake Superior when pick all the veggies, fruits and herbs moments before cooking--right now I'm up to my elbow in beets and apples. I admire places like Button's that do the best that they can in this regard. Also appreciate the nod to Senior Redzepi in the article.

  11. Based on recipes gathered decades ago from their mothers and grandmothers by students at a school in the Appalachians, “The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery” (1992 and 2019) is well worth a look by readers of this article and the chefs described herein. I read some of the original Foxfire books back in the 1970s, and I am sure there were no recipes for bagels. On the other hand, cultural fusion via cooking and food adaptations has been going on for millennia, so perhaps we can soon expect to see beverage recipes involving moonshine.

  12. Yes, I came to post that just today I got the 2019 “Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery” (with an intro by Mr. Brock) and can’t wait to try all the recipes. If y’all are looking to cook some of this food, get the Foxfire book.

  13. Asheville and Nashville (which IS NOT in Appalachia) are late comers. While I am glad for this article, it stand to obscure, commodify, and appropriate Appalachia, especially with how it is written. I hope readers will use this as a platform to share their foodways and go into the mountains and eat at places even more worthy of mention such as the Wrigley Taproom & Eatery, in Corbin, Ky., or Heritage Kitchen, in Whitesburg, Ky. The article is in danger of being part of a larger, centuries long, trend of appropriation for the nation's more wealthy people. To balance, it could connect to the places where these foodways are lived, daily ways. For instance, I am the director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, where we have classes on Appalachian Foodways, have hosted the Appalachian Food Summit, and is home to Grow Appalachia, which, with their partners, have worked directly with more than 5,700 families to produce more than 4 million pounds of healthy, organic produce.

  14. @Chris Green Fair points and thanks for the suggestions. I'd be surprised if Sean Brock doesn't partner with Appalachian food companies and promote small purveyors--hasn't he done that in the past with his other endeavors and influence with the Carolina Gold Foundation?

  15. @Chris Green - It is good to see Berea College continuing its work of charity and education. Godspeed. As for the history of the mountains, Steven Stoll's "Ramp Hollow" tells the story of how the poverty of Appalachia was created by outsiders trying to dispossess people who lived there. “The central event in Ramp Hollow is the scramble for Appalachia, or the rapid onslaught of joint-stock companies to attain the rights and ownership needed to clear-cut the forests and dig out the coal.” http://www.keyreporter.org/BookReviews/LifeOfTheMind/Details/2569.html

  16. I just returned from a visit to Asheville. My second trip from NYC in two years because there's so much to do, see and EAT. Dang, looks like I need a third trip. But I will not be eating bagels when I get there. Sorry, Asheville, but even most NYC bagel outlets don't know how to make a proper bagel. The Appalachian deep dive is really intriguing.

  17. There's not much "wild" left around Asheville, unfortunately. Built up, not many places to find chanterelles and ramps with the Floridians needing their third homes. I hope these chefs and rich people are putting land into conservancy.

  18. @Mr I live here in Asheville. There is plenty of "wild" left here. You just have to drive 20 minutes away from the downtown area and you will find your chanterelles and ramps. However ramp season is quite short.

  19. I was going to say... Aside from the rabbit and possibly the syrup, this looks like brunch in New Jersey. Maybe upstate New York depending on where you go. Either way, the food seems very familiar. It's a cool idea. I like it; it's creative. However, as someone who lived years very far from anything resembling a decent bagel, spare me the syrup-boiled-bagel stuff. Just give me a Jersey bagel. Make it a taylor ham egg and cheese on everything. Lox and cheese with tomato on salt for my friend here. Please. You can't imagine how painful living in a place that doesn't know how to make decent bagels can be. My family had been overnight shipping flat rate boxes so I could freeze them the next day. I was finally rescued when a couple from West Orange opened a bagel shop nearby. Just a plain old regular bagel shop. They were so successful, the owners know have multiple locations including one smack in the center of downtown. May they never go out of business.

  20. @Andy This bagel obsession I hear about all of the time mystifies me. Of all the things to get excited about.

  21. @whith Nothing mystical about the bagel obsession: people often get nostalgic about the food of their childhood.

  22. @whith Where to begin... If you've never had a good bagel, it's hard to describe the experience. People don't realize they're eating bad bagels until you show them a good one. I'd be indifferent too if I didn't know better. You also don't know what you're missing until it's gone. Bagels were missed very, very hard once I moved out of the tri-state area. Others on the list include eggplant parm and deli sandwiches. I still can't find a regular affordable source for either. I have to make due with what I can make myself. I've seriously considered opening a food truck specializing in either or both. There's nothing in the world like Jersey eggplant parm. The secret is to brine the eggplant first then slice lengthwise using an industrial deli slicer. Watch your fingers. You then layer this in an aluminum pan with copious cheese and marinara. Bake in a commercial pizza oven for about ten minutes. Serve with fresh bread and a side penne. Maybe a salad too. Some people obsess over chocolate. I couldn't care less. I obsess over eggplant and bagels.

  23. Grew up in E KY and SW VA (Appalachian Highlands) and find this article somewhat mystifying. One the one hand I'm glad to see folks from the outside give this area some attention beyond its inhabitants poverty and political leanings. On the other hand, the food described in this article has nothing to do with the history and culture of the area beyond the addition of familiar mountain ingredients to fancy "coastal" cuisine. The cuisine of my grandmother and aunts is dead unfortunately. No one cooks any more in this area. It's all fast food and it shows in the obesity one sees everywhere in the area. So, sure go to Asheville and Nashville (not in Appalachia) and enjoy the "expensive" fancy food. But there's little resemblance to the food I grew up eating and what's described in this article.

  24. Grew up in Ohio, went deep into Appalachia at least once a month for a long weekend visiting my Mamaw, now live in Nashville. I think the real difference in food is how poor my Mamaw was...everything was from her garden or from her monthly trip to the nearest Walmart. There were no frills, and even in the ‘90s the cooking was still like the Depression-era recipes one can find. The ingredients are much more expensive in the modern take but the heart is there and a lot reminds me of those visits when I was a kid.

  25. @rodw I agree with you. On the one hand - holy cow! - a positive article about Appalachia! Must be a blue moon, but thanks for that, NYT. On the other, adding some local, historically used ingredients- ramps on bagel-shaped bread for instance - should only be seen as a fusion cuisine. That's fine, chefs are doing that sort of thing all the time and this article was pretty clear about that. The restaurants featured here are offering city folks who are bored with current ethnic cuisines something trendy for their taste buds. But I doubt these folks would recognize a ramp or sumac if it said "hi, y'all!" anymore than they would recognize an Italian truffle in the wild. Real Appalachian cooking is not as pretentious as the artfully arranged dishes in the photos. It's basic, body sustaining nutrition, wild foraged or homegrown and served up simple. I do hope this article puts to rest that tired argument about 'cultural appropriation'. We all borrow, incorporate and improvise based on our nature and taste, it's just human nature. As long as the person creating is clear about what they are offering, no offense should be taken, even if some chefs believe Nashville is in Appalachia...

  26. @rodw My roots as well and I could not agree more. My parents and theirs, and probably all the way back, ate foods from their gardens and meat from chickens and hogs they slaughtered. None were obese, all lived long lives, and mostly all were very intelligent and adept at living a life of self-determination. Admirable people living simply.

  27. I well remember our regular Sunday dinner of smoked sable during my Appalachian childhood many years ago. Grandpa and I would go down to the creek and bring home a stringer of sablefish that Grandma would prepare and serve with a salad of radish pods and nasturtium leaves that my cousins and I foraged in the holler behind the house. Good memories!

  28. @MBM My family went to Hawaii, and laughed about the ocean fish served with nasturtiums and edible flowers and radish salad. Our family tradition was trout caught from the beaver dam by the creek (pronounced "crick"!), along with nasturtiums and other mysterious greens my grandmother and aunts got in the woods. My Sunday dinner memories include the bobcat who would look INTO the dining room window while we were eating Sunday dinner at my great aunt's house. It was a tiny log house built in the thick woods. Deer, bear and wolves and free-roaming cattle walked along this trail next to the house and would come look inside. Now that's country dining! lolol

  29. Keep in mind, Asheville is a city of just under 100,000 people. In art, food, drink, recreation, and education, Asheville punches way above its weight.

  30. @Mack... And science... Asheville is the climate data center for the United States, home to the US National Centers for Environmental Information

  31. Round bread with seeds on it does not make it a bagel. Otherwise, proceed.

  32. @nysf999 - if it's boiled, then baked, it's a bagel - not "round bread." I love and use delicious sorghum in a lot of my baking, including in bagels if I'm out of malt syrup. Shiny, chewy, dense - mine are the real thing. And I know from bagels, having grown up othe lower east side of Manhattan when pushcarts still lined Orchard Street.

  33. @nysf999 What do bagels have to do with Appalachia? If I put sorghum in flan, has it become Appalachian?

  34. Asheville and surrounding towns (Hendersonville, Mill Valley, et al) have numerous farmers’ markets during the growing season where one can find not only farm-grown fresh veggies but wild-picked mushrooms, ramps, sumac, knotweed and other delicacies. Also, as savvy consumers demonstrate demand for these atypical culinary ingredient, the market vendors and restaurateurs will almost certainly respond by increasing their variety and supply, not just in the Asheville area but all along the Appalachians.

  35. My Appalachian family obtains food; they don't buy it. They raise it, hunt it, fish it, grow it, or forage it from the woods. It's delightful to see young people honoring their past, and preserving these traditions. There's a real art to obtaining food and preparing it well with whatever items are at hand. Of course, it's not the same as old times. These are artists preparing culinary art, so it's not the Depression-era food most of us grew up with. But, that's how anything tradition survives through time...it molds to the needs and desires of that next generation. Hats off to the chefs in the article! It's wonderful to see this presented in the sophisticated NYT.

  36. This summer included a great find: the Asheville Sandwich Company. They had the best corn-based gluten-free batter I've tasted. We rolled many things in corn meal when I was growing up in Georgia, but I have not been successful at creating a corn-based batter for fried chicken or seafood that really works. I'll be back.

  37. Nashville is not Appalachian.

  38. @Thomas Glad someone finally said that. Nashville's bluegrass in more ways than one. You have to go east to at least Crossville to be in Appalachia.

  39. Misses the point about food from Appalachia. Somewhere the Cherokee heritage should be recognized. And knowing Hanan, she'd say her food is "Soul Food".

  40. i'd eat at Benne on Eagle every day if i had the chance...

  41. Ah, so "put some sorghum on it" is the new "put a bird on it".

  42. Of all the puff pieces I have read in the Food column, this is the most bouffant. It is good to see attention paid to the traditional life of the inland South, but this represents a desperate effort to gentrify a cuisine. I write as a Mississippian who has eaten squirrel, in a college dining hall in Virginia. For what mountaineers ate, as others have noted here, the Foxfire Books (particularly Foxfire I, from 1972) are a marvelous source. For what ordinary Southerners have actually eaten, across the generations, readers should check the Tennessee recipes in Cassandra Harrell's "Soul Food Advisor" (LSU Press / Southern Table Series, 2017). https://hottytoddy.com/2017/05/04/book-review-soul-food-advisor-recipes-tips-authentic-southern-cooking/ I wish all Southern restaurants well, but would advise that they need not try so hard.

  43. No mention of yellow grits (or even white)? Local apples? Fried bread? Biscuits? Hickory nuts or black walnuts? Sassafras? Bear meat? Blackberries? Wild turkey? Have these chefs ever eaten with an Appalachian family?

  44. Glad for all of the comments here, saying what I was thinking. I grew up in Appalachia. This food could as well be from an alien planet for all it resembles anything "Appalachian." It's baffling these chefs can take themselves seriously. This is haute couisine. Apart from a couple minor ingredients, it has nothing to do with Appalachia, which is historically and economically characterized by a lack of class pretension.

  45. The Appalachian Food Summit, the summit mentioned in the article, held its first gathering in 2014. We've since hosted summits in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018. We rotate these events around the Central Appalachian region. Our next Summit will be in Western North Carolina in 2020. People interested in Appalachian foodways can connect with us at: appalachianfood.com Lora Smith, Co-Chair Appalachian Food Summit

  46. Although I visited Asheville recently and enjoyed the ribs, my country memories from the 1940s, come from farm families, in Clinton and Dana, Indiana that cooked and baked wonderful Indiana farm food. I suspect that there are culinary roots stretching beyond Apalachia, across the farms of America with local variations, This was before indoor toilets and in a time when country kitchens used hand pumps for water. Farm families had gardens, fruit trees, and milk cows, chickens and pigs. Most of the warm seasons, they ate only fresh food. Every fall, however, they survived on what they themselves had grown. They canned the things they grew that could be canned and stored the jars in the cellar to be eaten during the cold months. They ate very well. What wonderful meals were served! Imagine freshly made egg noodles cooked with fresh milk or cream and with the fresh meat of chickens or fruit pies with fresh fruit and fresh cream! A deep thank you to the Beard family, Gladys, Lilly, Wayne and Ordie. God bless you, and your descendants too.

  47. Very complemented by the author and chefs but agree with others, the descriptions are of haute cuisine wannabe Appalachian food. Try The Harvest Table in Meadowview VA which is the closest I can find to the food my family and their neighbors grew and shared with one another. Church potlucks provide another opportunity to experience the real deal.

  48. Lived in Appalachia for a good part of my early adulthood (Eastern Kentucky). Appalachian food is not the fancy stuff described in the article. Appalachian food is country ham, butterbeans, leather breeches beans, pickled peaches. Vinegar pie may be authentic, although I didn't encounter it in Eastern Kentucky. Most of the food I did run into that folks seemed most proud of was pretty simple, plain, overcooked, over salted, over greased. That included in the fanciest restaurants I sampled. It is nothing to brag about. When one of the fancy chefs you write up serves woodchuck, or leather breeches beans, then I'll accept the offerings as Appalachian.

  49. The Appalachians actually run further than Canada. They run under the sea and over to Iceland. Some make an argument for even as far as Iceland and Scotland.

  50. Born in eastern KY. Let us now praise beaten biscuits and cured ham. And cold buttermilk. Let us also remember that long ago, at a T-junction on a truck route in Corbin, KY, a man made an awful lot of local people happy with his fried chicken, while his wife made an equal number happy with her pies. Appalachian cooking was a mix of Scots/Irish and African American. Okra, black eyed peas, collards with fatback and vinegar, pies, chicory and other field greens, corn, ham, sweet potatoes, "irish potatoes," and lots of chicken.

  51. So you’re saying Nashville is Appalachia but Virginia is not? Ok! The heart of Appalachian culture is in Southwest Virginia.

  52. Having lived my entire life in the heart of Appalachia, I really was laughing too hard to read t read past the effort to describe a smoked sable bagel made by a Jersey girl as "Appalachian cuisine" because she dices a bit of a ramp into her cream cheese schmear. As pretentious and ridiculous as this article is, some of the food (clue: real Appalachians would not call their home style food "cuisine.") sounds quite tasty but stop with the absurd efforts to claim it is an authentic update of food from the hills.