Whenever I visit a place, I make a point of seeking out foods unique to the area. In Cincinnati, chili dogs are piled high with cheddar cheese. Ladies shape and cook tortillas that are sold piping hot from walk-up windows in Old Town San Diego, Calif. Deep-dish pizza, with its thick crust and ladle-full of tomato sauce pooled over a gooey layer of cheese, prevails in Chicago.
At home in Southern Appalachia, there’s one meal that defines our culture’s rugged and pragmatic nature more than any other—pinto beans, greens, cornbread and onions. Sometimes called a poor man’s supper, this staple is anything but a culinary relegation, as it’s just as hale and hearty as any meat and potatoes. It’s honest and unadorned.
And it confounds Yankees.
Last year, on a tour of the Sevierville, Tenn., area, I shared a table with a group of travel writers at Dollywood, country singer Dolly Parton’s family-oriented theme park. Affable and adventurous, the writers had little to no previous experience with Appalachia and were as mystified by and curious about our local culture as we mountain dwellers would be about their own. David was from China but lived in Southern California. Matt was from the Midwest had taken up in L.A. Sylvia hailed from Quebec, Canada. And Ruskana, from India, married a European and lived in Atlanta, Ga. Aside from our host Amanda, who was born and raised in East Tennessee, I was the only other Southerner. And we were the only two to know just what to do with a plate of pinto beans, greens, cornbread and onions.
As I shook a few drops of white vinegar onto my greens, cut up my onion slices to eat with my beans, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I heard someone ask, “How am I supposed to eat this?”
“Well, some people like to crumble their cornbread into their beans,” Amanda said.
I’m not in favor of crumbling, at least in large quantities, solely because I don’t like mushy bread. If I crumble, be it cornbread or crackers, I crumble only a little bit at a time so that the bread doesn’t lose too much of its density and texture. There are some, I’ll call them Those Who Sop, who believe in abusing bread with soup, gravy or the like to the point that it completely gives way, nearly losing its solid state. They’re the ones whose milk claims more cookie than their mouths, whose sandwiches fall apart under the weight of condiments. Those Who Sop are wrong.
I also don’t believe in crumbling one’s cornbread into a glass of milk, though my mother and grandmother would disagree. I recall many a hunk of cornbread meeting its demise upon being broken apart, plunged into a cold glass of milk and eaten with a spoon while standing in the kitchen. My dad, a Yankee, is opposed to cornbread in general, lest it be made with sugar and eggs, as opposed to the traditional method that does without such luxuries. I like it all, so long as there’s plenty of butter. And thus we remain a family divided.
Such culinary idiosyncrasies define us and immediately bring a sense of place back to our taste buds long after we’ve grown and perhaps moved away from our roots. Sometimes it takes a stranger’s wonderment at ours to make us appreciate the foods we’ve taken for granted.
This issue of Smoky Mountain Living explores Appalachia’s foodways—the historical ways things were grown and raised, how they were prepared, harvest duties shared, and the resurgence of interest in local food that is shaping our communities and professional chef’s menus. I hope it provides you with a hunger to discover your own culinary traditions and, if nothing else, food for thought.
— Sarah E. Kucharski, managing editor