Margaret Hester photo
Corn bread, home grown vegetables that were then canned, biscuits and gravy, stews, rabbit, chicken and dumplings and apple desserts—these are the foods commonly thought to be of Appalachian origin.
“I grew up in a very rural Western North Carolina mountain county on a small farm. Ninety-five percent of everything we ate was from the farm. We had huge gardens and raised our own cows, pigs and chickens,” said Laura Ferner, of Covington, Ky.
Family farms meant sharing labor. Women and children worked together to pick, snap, boil, and can fresh produce. Neighbors helped each other in tough times. Meals were simple and homemade be there venison, squirrel, rabbit or hog, pies or preserves. Seeking traditional recipes, I asked friends and family members across the region to share those that were dear to them. From my own grandmother’s kitchen in Pike County, Ky. came bologna schnitzel and coconut-black walnut pound cake, baked using walnuts from their property, cornbread and beans preserved by having been strung up to dry.
Everyone who shared a recipe had a story to go with it like Ferner’s memories of lettuce and onions.
“The dish was very seasonal and, of course, my grandmother’s was the best,” she said. “From about late March through late May we had it several times per week. It was made with our new green leaf lettuce and tiny spring green onions. The dressing was a smoking hot pork fat that sizzled and wilted the lettuce on contact. It was normally served with pinto beans and cornbread. Granny made it in a small wash pan.”
Despite having a recipe, dishes all too often fail to come out just as remembered—and are changed.
“I still make a variation of that recipe often today,” Ferner said. “However, the guilt of my rising cholesterol has pushed me into finding a healthier version that doesn’t sacrifice on taste.”
The Appalachian Region, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states including: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The region extends more than 1,000 miles and is home to more than 25 million people. The expansive territory and pockets of cultural influence within gave rise to a variety of foodways and traditions.
The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tenn. features many historical objects, an array of buildings to tour, a working farm and a knowledgeable staff, such that one can spend an entire day learning about past and present Appalachian life. Even their restaurant utilizes traditional recipes and grows much of the food on site.
“In our area, we primarily ate what we grew in our gardens, and our meat came from our farm,” said Elaine Irwin Meyer, president of the Museum of Appalachia. “Most folks had hogs, so pork was abundant. We would can our sausage, hang our hams in the smokehouse to cure and use the fat to season our vegetables. It has been said that the only part of the hog that was not used was the squeal!”
Corn, oft thought to be the most important vegetable, was abundant in Appalachian life be it corn on the cob, fried corn, creamed corn, grits, or corn meal.
“Even the shucks were used for mattress filling, and for chair bottoms,” Meyer said.
There wasn’t anything that would qualify as fast food—unless it was something that could be plucked right from the ground or tree and eaten.
“When I think of Appalachian food, I think of long simmering pots of food lovingly prepared by women who enjoyed creating a wholesome meal for those they loved,” Meyer said. “There was nothing quick about this kind of food preparation, and maybe that aroma created an anticipation that made the meal even more appealing. Mealtime was a time of sharing and listening and just being together time for busy families.”
Mark Sohn, Ph.D., a recently retired Professor of Educational Psychology at Pikeville (Kentucky) College, is a foods author, recipe developer, newspaper columnist, cooking teacher, food stylist and photographer. Sohn also was the food and cooking editor for The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
“One must consider topography and the ingredients available in the area,” Sohn said. “Pawpaws, squirrel, pike, morel mushrooms (called dry land fish by many), black walnuts, corn, beans and wild greens were common and used in many ways. For instance, corn can be served as gritted corn, grits, cornbread, hominy or moonshine. Apples were used in many ways as well.”
In an excerpt from an article Sohn wrote for Mountain Promise, The Newsletter of the Brushy Fork Institute, Summer 2001, he discusses how families worked together:
“During the frontier period and beyond, people in the region helped one another with various tasks such as corn shelling, bean stringing, sorghum processing and barn raising. This practice extended to cooking. For example, fine, complex foods served at social occasions were sometimes a cooperative effort. One example, the dried apple stack cake, has remained popular. To make a stack cake, mountain people would donate cake layers to create a stack of six to twelve spice-flavored layers.”
There were no such things as cookbooks early on and recipes were handed down orally. Common food combinations varied by what part of the world one was in and as people emigrated out of the region they tended to adapt to their new local food traditions. Mountain culture and foods started to lose their identity that native cultures once had shaped.
Some 12,000 years ago or more, nomadic people hunted, fished and gathered in the region, Sohn wrote. As the Native Americans began to cultivate foods, they developed methods for growing beans up corn stalks—a practice still common in many Appalachian gardens and, when grown with squash, called the Three Sisters.
As time passed, Cherokee cooking habits combined with European traditions as the settlers moved into the frontier. Peter Koch, Education Associate at the Mountain Heritage Center said that the, “Scotch-Irish had to transition from a diet based on dairy, potatoes, barley and rye to one based on corn, wheat and pork.”
Today, approximately 60 million Americans are of Celtic descent. One of the primary regions that Celts in the New World settled in was the Appalachian Mountains. In the first United States Census (in 1790), it showed that 75 percent of those settled in the Southern Appalachian Mountains were of Celtic descent.
The Scotch and the Irish agricultural traditions included the infield-outfield method of farming—heavy farming close to the home, lighter farming and livestock further from the home. They rotated crops for better production and learned the slash and burn method to create fields from the Cherokee Indians.
The Mountain Heritage Center, located on the Western Carolina University campus in Cullowhee, N.C., showcases the cultural and natural heritage of the Southern Appalachians including the Scotch-Irish with exhibitions and programs.
At the Log Cabin Cooking School in Asheville, N.C., West Virginia native Barbara Swell facilitates classes in her 1930s log cabin. The stove she uses is a wood cooker from 1928 and the cast iron pots are like those used in many homes in the region before electricity’s reach.
What Swell teaches goes beyond reading recipes and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor—she teaches Appalachian traditions. Using heirloom seeds, she cultivates ingredients. It can take up to a year of planning and growing for a class. There are stories that go with the seeds, stories of families and sharing and of handing seeds down to the next generation.
Swell has spent time with the community’s elders, learning about their lives and families. The Appalachian community was a fairly isolated place until World War II. Everything one needed had to be nearby: the garden, general store, school, church, post office, and grist mill were generally within two miles of home. Corn was milled in small batches because it turned bad quickly. Seeds from the garden were saved and handed down for the next year’s crops. The region’s topographic diversity is reflected in seeds’ adaptations to microclimates, helping develop unique varieties.
“A food that reflects the place,” Swell said. “It’s not just about what’s on your plate, but who you are eating it with. It’s a sense of place.”
Today’s grocery store vegetables are not the same as those enjoyed by our ancestors, but with increased interest in home gardens, farmer’s markets and farm to fork dining, heirloom varieties are becoming more readily available.
At the Heritage Foods Appalachian Storybank, women in their twenties and thirties are collecting stories from previous generations and recording them as oral histories. Discussions focus on gardening, saving seeds, preparing and preserving.
Reconnecting with agricultural and cultural history has resulted in a growing interest in serving regional foods in local restaurants. Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, Va. has its own farm and sources from more than 50 Appalachian region farmers, gardeners and ranchers. Magpie’s Bakery in Knoxville, Tenn is best known for its stunning wedding cakes and delightfully decadent cupcakes, however, their seasonal menu includes some of the desserts for which the region is known including dried apple stack cake and a three-nut (native walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts) cranberry pie.
But to many, connecting with Appalachia is about more than the food on the table. It’s about connecting family, friends, history and traditions. It’s the joy of generations sharing a meal and recipes—for cornbread, soup, chowchow, beans and jams. The food is tangible, but it’s the intangible wonder of the traditions that truly keep today’s Appalachian kitchens at the heart of the home.
Dried Apple Stack Cake
For the Apple Filling
• 8 c home-dried (very dry) apples
• 5 1/2 c water
• 1 c sugar
• 1/2 tsp cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp cloves
For the Cake
• 8 1/4 c all-purpose flour, divided
• 2 tsp baking powder
• 2 tsp ground ginger
• 1/2 tsp nutmeg
• 1/2 tsp allspice
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 1/2 c milk
• 2 eggs
• 1 c sugar
• 1 c 100-percent pure, sweet sorghum
• 1 c unsalted butter, melted
Prepare the apple filling ahead so that it will be cool when you bake the layers. In a large pot, combine the apples, water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. (I cook them for 10 minutes in a pressure cooker.) Stir in the cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Use a mixer, food processor or potato masher to break up the apples so that they are smooth like applesauce. Measure out 8 cups. Cool.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Cut eleven 12-inch pieces of waxed paper or parchment. (I prefer parchment because the parchment does not smoke during baking, and the cake does not stick.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together 8 cups of the flour, the baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and salt. Make a large well or nest in the center of the flour and pour in milk, eggs, sugar and sorghum and beat until well mixed. Add the butter and continue to beat until fully mixed and smooth. Mixing with your hands, slowly incorporate the flour mixture as you would for bread. When the dough is dry enough to handle, stop adding flour—some may remain in the bowl.
Roll the dough into a log and cut it into equal-size parts—1 cup each. Roll the pieces into a ball; if they are sticky, roll them in the remaining 1/4 cup flour.
On a sheet of parchment or waxed paper, press each ball into a flat disk. Using a rolling pin, roll it out as you would a pie crust. Using extra flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin, roll the dough into a flat disk a little larger than a 9-inch round cake pan. Then press the 9-inch pan into the dough so that the rim cuts the dough into a circle. Save the scraps for an eleventh layer. When you have rolled out and trimmed the layer, slide the paper and layer onto a cookie sheet. Bake for 8 minutes or until the layer is very brown on the edges and browned across the top. Repeat for each layer.
Remove the layers from the oven and place them on cooling racks or towels. When the layers are cool and you have discarded the baking papers, you are ready to stack the cake.
Assemble the cake: Place the first layer on a cake plate and spread about 3/4 cup of apple filling over the layer. Repeat this with each of the layers. Do not spread apple filling on the top layer.
Let the cake stand 6 to 12 hours at room temperature. This allows the moisture from the apple filling to soak into the layers. Refrigerate for 12 to 36 hours, or freeze the cake for several months.
From Hearty Country Cooking by Mark F. Sohn. Published by St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Recipe reprinted with permission of the author.
Laura’s Lettuce and Onions
For the cornbread
• 1 ¾ c buttermilk
• ¼ c vegetable oil
• 2 c self-rising cornbread mix
Mix ingredients and bake in an 8” pan (cast iron preferred) for 20-25 minutes or until golden.
For the salad:
• 12 c shredded green leaf lettuce
• 6 small green onions
• 3 tbsp grape seed oil
• 3 slices Hormel dry salt cured pork
• 1 tsp salt
• sliced cherry tomatoes for garnish
• Cornbread croutons (sliced and cubed from previous step)
Shred 12 cups of green leaf lettuce in a large, shallow baking dish. Mince six green onions and toss into shredded lettuce. Add one teaspoon salt or add to taste. In a heavy, iron skillet or frying pan heat three tablespoons of grape seed oil and three slices Hormel dry salt cured pork. Fry until pork is crispy and the oil begins to smoke. Carefully pour the hot oil back and forth across the lettuce and onions. Then toss using tongs. Remove the slices of crispy, fried pork. They can be crumbled and added back to lettuce and onions if desired. Dish into salad bowls, adding cornbread croutons and sliced cherry tomatoes. Enjoy immediately as is or accompanied with pinto beans. Serves four.