Beyond Banjos: The Bountiful ‘Victuals’ of Appalachia
People living in the mountains stretched from New York to Alabama have a vibrant food culture that defies stereotypes, says author Ronni Lundy.
By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • Aug. 30, 2016
Sometimes there are cookbooks that you wish had stuck to the recipes. Witness, for example, Thug Kitchen. And then there are books like Victuals, by Ronni Lundy.
A food writer by trade, Lundy was born—and partly raised—in Corbin, a “railroad town in eastern Kentucky.” Her family spent summers there, which Lundy loved. But when she left home, Lundy was surprised to learn that most of her new friends equated Appalachia with some mishmash of “The Beverly Hillbillies, the War on Poverty, [and] Deliverance.”
It’s a whole lot more complicated than that, and Lundy uses the recipes in her cookbook to tell stories about food preservation, slaves in the salt mines, what Jamie Oliver got wrong when he went to West Virginia, and the perpetuation of the stereotype of the angry, white poor Appalachian.
The recipes in Victuals are appealing enough to have begun making their way into my repertoire—an August experiment with her dead-simple recipe for cornbread led to my eating a whole pan of it within 24 hours. But it’s the nuanced glimpse the book offers of Appalachia, both poor and rich, supportive and combative, that I imagine will stick with me.
This interview with Lundy has been edited for clarity.
Tracie McMillan: In Victuals, there are a lot of pictures of tattooed chefs, local food, and guys with banjos. My first thought was: ‘Oh, this is just like a hipster trend thing; a very long Portlandia sketch.’ But it’s really not that at all. Why not?
Ronni Lundy: [Appalachian food] is rooted in a tradition…that began in the earlier times of settlement here. Sure, there’s a lot of people going back to the land and…doing that Portlandia kind of thing. But [those traditions] never went away here. I don’t mean that it didn’t go through changes here, but it’s not something [new] that people are creating.
Gary Nabhan and Jim Veteto [did a] study, which talks about the fact that Appalachia is the most biologically and botanically diverse food shed in North America. And Jim is explicit in saying, ‘This is …because of the practices of the people who have lived here and still live here to continue to seed save and to forage and to hunt, and to husband that process, to not exhaust it, and to continue practices that allow it to continue.’ We didn’t become seed savers. We have been seed savers all along.
I wanted to present those positive aspects, but I wanted to be clear-eyed about it as well. I didn’t want to romanticize it. I didn’t want to pretend that there weren’t darker sides.
There’s a lot of talk about hillbillies and the white poor and working class—groups associated with Appalachia—lately. What do most people assume about the residents of Appalachia? What do they get wrong?
We are painted as clannish to the point of hostile. We are painted as inherently intrinsically violent people. We have been painted as people who are depraved, who have lesser moral standards than the rest of the country. We are painted as people who are ignorant, who have not only been not schooled but who have no native intelligence. We have been painted largely as people who are not deserving of the place where we live and that has been very helpful to those speculators and industrialists—and now newcomers who would like to claim this land without feeling any particular guilt over the people that they push away from it.
There’s a thing that we refer to in Appalachia which is when a photographer parachutes in and starts looking for toothless, poor, angry people that they can photograph—and then zips out and presents their photo study of the Appalachia—and it’s called a drive-by shooting.
That was an issue for me with Jamie Oliver [and Food Revolution]: there was no acknowledgement of what might have been in the region. There was no attempt to actually engage with people who had farmed in the area and were continuing to farm in the area. [He] comes from England and by way of the coast [to Huntington, WV] and he just creates a reality show of ‘look at these ignorant fat people feeding their children horrible food.’
[People] say [bad diet like that] is specific to Appalachia and it’s not. Eating cheap food that has been highly processed that is questionable how much nutrition we get for empty calories—all of those things are actually issues in our whole country.
You write a lot about restaurants and chefs in Victuals: Travis Milton, Ian Boden, Shaena Muldoon. But don’t their restaurants serve a clientele that’s much richer than most of Appalachia, where poverty rates can be as high as 25 percent?
Appalachia is not a monolithic place. The food movement that you see happening in Asheville [for example]…that sustainable local food movement has a bourgeois clientele.
That’s the wrong word isn’t it? But you know what I mean.
[But] people who are working in sustainable food systems are…trying to create food that not only sustains the community itself, but that can be marketed out of the region. I tried to avoid finding people who were hobby farming or people who were boutique farming, as opposed to trying to find people who had some level of rootedness in the region—or at least a deep enough awareness of…the region that they were trying to work in those traditions.
It seems like a number of chefs are trying to figure out how to serve both markets: folks with money to burn, and people who just need a meal. Who’s doing that in Appalachia year-round—and why?
[Chef] Ian Boden…tells a story about [one of his wife’s] high school friends saying to him, ‘I really would like to come to your restaurant but it just looks a little too expensive and a little too strange to me.’
[Editor’s Note: Boden, who trained in prestigious kitchens, moved to Staunton, Virginia from New York City, opening Staunton Grocery in in 2007.]
And so he closes that restaurant. And when he comes back to reopen, he opens The Shack, which is kind of an upscale burger joint that attracts both groups of people. He’s trying to serve both parts of the community, the wealthier retirees and tourists and visitors as well as the people who grew up there who work in the businesses that make this an attractive town for wealthy retirees and for us. He adds in these more upscale, cheffy kind of entrees and the people who want that come and get that, but he still makes it possible for somebody to eat there who has a lower income.
One of the things I found most surprising was the way you included African-Americans in your discussion of Appalachia. You write about how slaves were leased and used as workers in Appalachian salt flats and in cattle droving. And you reference Toni Tipton-Martin’s work in The Jemima Code, discussing how a black female cook, a freewoman, wrote what’s arguably the first cookbook of Appalachian food. Those aren’t typical cookbook topics; why include them?
That is our history. I mean why would I not talk about our history? That’s what I want to get at. I want to know who I am and where I come from. And the way I have chosen to explore that is through the foodways.
And so if we have to understand something difficult like, yes, there were slave owners; there were people who benefitted from the fact that there were slaves. Slaves were perhaps misused in our foodways, and they did some very wonderful things in our foodways as well.
And in our culture we need to understand that. We need to have the shadow as well as the light for our better understanding of who we are and what we’ve dealt with and what we’ve overcome. Why wouldn’t we want to know that whole history and come to terms with it? It just seems to me it would be a lie not to tell that whole part of the story.
You can make this in other pans, but to have truly great mountain cornbread, you really need a cast-iron skillet.
- 2 cups cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 large egg
- 1½ cups milk or buttermilk
- 4 tablespoons bacon grease or butter
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Break the egg into the bowl and poke it to break the yolk. Add the milk and stir quickly and vigorously to combine. The consistency you are looking for is denser than typical pancake batter but still pourable. Add more milk or water if it needs to be thinned.
Put the grease in a 9- or 10-inch ovenproof (preferably cast-iron) skillet and put the skillet in the oven to get sizzling hot, but make sure it doesn’t start to smoke. Butter will brown quickly after melting, but browned (not burned) butter can add a rich tone to the final bread as well.
Remove the skillet from the oven and carefully tilt it to coat the bottom and the lower half of the sides. Slowly pour most of the sizzling grease into the batter, leaving a thin layer of grease in the pan. Stir quickly to incorporate it, and then turn the batter out into the hot skillet. Place the skillet in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the center of the cornbread is firm and the edges are brown, crispy, and pulled away from edges of the pan.
If you want a more browned top, run it under the broiler for just a few seconds (keep a sharp eye on it because it can burn very easily).
Serve immediately from the pan or turned out onto a plate, cut in wedges. I have learned to put butter on the table for others, but in my family we use none because the drippings in the bread are sufficient.
Griddle cakes use the same basic recipe for the batter, but the bacon grease or butter is melted on a griddle or frying pan on the stove, with more reserved for frying. The batter is then spooned onto the hot greased griddle and cooked like pancakes. If you add more buttermilk to make it thinner, you get a more delicate cake, a little like a crepe. If you have a good thin metal pancake turner and a deft hand, you can add enough milk to the batter that the edges bubble out to make a thin crispy edge, earning them the name “Lacy Cakes.”
Crackling bread can be made with this recipe by adding about ½ cup of small cracklings to the batter. (Cracklings are the bits of meat remaining after lard is rendered, and butcher shops that sell lard often sell cracklings.) You can also mince good bacon, fry and drain it, and add it to the batter for a similar taste.
Recipe reprinted from Victuals. Copyright © 2016 by Ronni Lundy