Appalachian Cuisine: Former Food of Poverty Now Culinary Gem

Jun 22, 2016

You can tell a lot about a culture from its cuisine: what it values, what challenges it faces. In Appalachia, where people have lived off the land for centuries, it was common practice to ‘eat local’ way before that was cool. Now that the rest of the world is trying to do the same, people are looking anew at this region’s cooking. Instead of seeing it as a food of poverty, some are suggesting it’s an undiscovered gem in American regional cooking.

Part One: Former Food of Poverty Now Appalachian Chic

Credit Creative Commons/Ron Dollete

In fact, the term "cucina povera," Italian for "cuisine of poverty," is itself now quite the opposite ever since the food of Tuscany gained fame for its elevation of simple, rustic fare to an art form. Fred Sauceman teaches a course called Food Ways of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.

“You go into a farmhouse kitchen in southern Appalachia in the middle of  the summertime and you’ll find -- it almost would make you think it’s a a vegetarian diet because you’ve got sliced fresh tomatoes, you’ve got boiled corn on the cob, you’ve got maybe some green onions, you’ve got cucumbers bobbling up and down in a bowl of ice water. It’s unadorned food, not highly seasoned in many cases. It’s food that’s honest and true and the smart Appalachian cook knows how to bring out those natural flavors without masking them with a lot of seasonings."

Well, except for the holy trinity also known as salt, pepper, and sugar. But in its purest form, says Sauceman, that’s pretty much it.

“The food shines through.  That’s another hallmark of Appalachian cookery: not complicating it. Not masking those natural flavors. Respecting the products of the land and doing as little to them as possible so that those flavors emerge.”

And it’s less work for yourself, because clearly there’s plenty of work to be done in cuisines where people tend to cook from scratch; to hunt, catch, or grow their own.

Sauceman says, “a meal in Appalachia in the summer time, whether you’re in south west Virginia or northern Georgia, often involves what we’ve called ‘the 3 sisters’ over the years: corn, beans and squash. And use of those vegetables in combination in the garden, now makes perfect biological sense, but the Native Americans planted them together really not knowing a whole lot about the biology as we know it today."

He continues, “They knew that those plants had a symbiotic relationship. Corn takes nitrogen out of the soil. Beans encourage nitrogen’s development, corn provides a natural trellis for beans to climb on and squash is a low growing plant so it shades the feet of the other plants and holds in moisture, so those three essential elements harken back to the very earliest days.”

Then you add a little pork -the first pigs were brought to southern Virginia by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Throw in some black-eyed peas and yams, which came from Africa a little bit later, and you have a multicultural rustic cuisine. Just the kind of thing modern Americans love.

So why has the food world taken so long to appreciate Appalachian cuisine? Amy Loeffler is a food and science writer in Pearisburg.

“Human beings need a narrative to pin ideas to, and this notion of Appalachia being this backward place where people eat fried squirrel brains and do all kinds of weirdly exotic things fits a narrative. If you live here, you know that there are chefs cooking at a very high level. I think people have become more interested in Appalachian Cuisine because in general, people are interested in living more authentic lives. If you live here you know that there are chefs here cooking at a very high level.”

Part Two: Palisades Restaurant Cooking at a High Level

Sometimes, you have to leave home to find it again. That’s what happened to the owner of the Palisades restaurant in Giles County, Virginia. She left there the day after high school and traveled the world as an events planner. Ultimately she came back home and opened a restaurant called the Palisades. It combines this region’s home cooking with accents from all over - - and the result is something you might call, “Appalachian Chic.”

The Palisades restaurant takes its name from the dramatic cliffs over looking the New River in Eggleston, Virginia.  Owner and Manager Shaena Muldoon grew up a few miles from this 1926 building, that’s always been a gathering place for this village. It used to be the local hardware store. Now it’s an historic landmark.

“And when I walked in, I was instantly  like, 'This has got to be a restaurant.'”

After college, Muldoon became an events planner traveling to all eight continents. Her goal was to one day produce the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. But something about these original tin ceilings, the red oak floors, the beautiful brick and the original wooden merchandise shelves, just the whole feel of the place, had a strong pull on her.

“It just had a warmth to it that spoke to me I guess and said I needed return home and make it live again, so that’s what I did."

There’s live music some nights and special events during the week and on holidays, a belt-loosening brunch on weekends and an eclectic dinner menu.  And everything, literally everything, is made from scratch. And that’s unusual these days. Muldoon says that’s just part of the culture she grew up with.

“Where everyone did everything from scratch. You didn’t even think of getting things out of the box.  You picked it out of the garden and then you made it. Or you went hunting and then you cooked it.”

And now that the rest of the world is rushing to adopt these old-time practices, it’s fun for Muldoon to see others getting on the bandwagon. 

Credit Palisades Website

“I always laugh about the farm fresh eggs.  Farm fresh eggs?  This is what we have locally. You’re like, ‘Oh of course we have chicken on the farm. They’re farm fresh all the time.' Or like the garden, ‘farm to table.’ Some of these terms to us growing up in the country are kind of funny, because it’s just what you always did. And so it makes it kind of interesting that what we grew up with and have always down is now chic."

That’s Appalachian Chic. In this outdoor wonderland in Giles county, Muldoon wanted people to feel as comfortable coming in here after a day on the river or hiking the Appalachian trail as they would on date night. Tonight, people of all ages are here and the place has the feel of a big party. The food and the ideas behind it just seem to delight people, things like Palisades’ version of the pineapple upside down cake.

“It’s not your mom’s typical  pineapple upside down cake. The cake is in little pieces and that’s your accent piece rather than that being the mainstay. Instead, the pineapple is in the ice cream and then the cream surrounding it. This is the kind of thing that we do. You’re taking something that everyone remembers and just kind of put our spin on it."

The "Three Sisters of Southern Appalachian Cooking,” corn, beans and squash, are all grown up now and mixing with foods from all over the world.

“You know it’s important to me bring a little bit of things that I’d seen around the world back home. We try our best to take something that’s comfortable to you and twist it up a little bit, and that’s been my motto since we opened, is making people feel comfortable; you’re giving them an edge, but they feel comfortable with what they see; but I think ‘Appalachian Chic’ sort of fits in with that too because you’ve got the Appalachian theme where people are a little bit more down to earth, but then you’ve the chic feeling where you’ve added that little element of sophistication."

Part Three: Appalachian Cuisine; Undiscovered Gem?

In the food world, we now hear the words, ‘farm to table’ and ‘locavore’ all the time. But those are things that mountain people have been practicing forever. In our final report on Appalachian cuisine, we look at how it’s taking its place in the world of fine dining as chefs draw on their traditions and then break the mold wide open.

“We’re working on s’mores ice cream.  Figuring out a way to get the smoky flavor in to the ice cream base … by actually burning wood chips and steeping them in the base before we make the ice cream, so it has a campfire like flavor to it.”

That’s Chef Aaron Deal at the River and Rail restaurant in Roanoke. 

Chef Aaron Deal Talks with Guests at The River and Rail

Chef Deal is originally from Morganton North Carolina; he went to cooking school in Charleston and has worked in the Boston area, Chicago and beyond but came back to Appalachia to run this place.

“It’s where I grew up eating and living, and I guess it took me a while to really build the appreciation for what it was and how much of an impact it had on my life. And so that’s when I started thinking about what I like to cook and where I wanted to do it. And all that is a great justification on paper, right? But I think deep down there’s something more about being in the mountains, in the environment, breathing the air.”

As for the idea in this series on Appalachian cuisine that the food he grew up with and the way he’s cooking it now is about to emerge as the next undiscovered trend in American regional cooking…

"I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m reinventing Appalachian cuisine – that’s a load, I guess we could say. But am I applying the things that I grew up seeing, watching my grandmother put up green beans that she picked and cleaned out of her garden; same with corn – when it was there, we took advantage of it. And we would eat it when it was fresh, but we would definitely put it away in order to have it later in the year."

And that’s exactly what Deal does with the Appalachian staple known as the ramp, a garlicky wild onion that sprouts for a brief time in spring in the mountains and vanishes just as fast. A delicacy today, but there are stories from years ago of kids being sent home from school for having ramp breath, and the vegetable seemed to symbolize cucina povera, the food of poor.

“From my standpoint, obviously, it’s the flavor, the ability to not only preserve it easily, but you can utilize the leaf as well as the bulb. And the flavor is distinct; you’re not going to find it in anything else, and I think that’s really what sets it apart. There’s nothing like it.”

The River and Rail Restaurant in Roanoke, VA

Dean uses these local ramps to make a Korean-style Kimchi, a fermented food with that singly Appalachian ingredient. The skill set he developed over the last 15 years is being applied here, but he’s also honoring the traditions of this area, using its products and applying its techniques.

“There are a lot of thoughts that come to my mind when I think about Appalachian cuisine, and it’s a part of something larger, which is the Appalachian culture. And I just don’t think about avant garde cuisine being served to the five percent of the population who can afford it.

Deal says River and Rail does everything the right way, and that’s the expensive way. From careful local sourcing where small batches mean higher costs to the time consuming and careful process of curing meats and fermenting vegetables in a root cellar downstairs.

"I think in a very romantic way, I feel like each plate that we put together and each ramp we pickle and each batch of sauerkraut we produce is somehow not only preserving the heritage of what I grew up seeing and knowing, albeit, one guest at a time, that it’s going to influence them in some way. So if they come here to the restaurant, whether they live here or whether they’re passing through, and they have our fermented ramp Kimchi, that is exactly what Appalachia is to me.”