Since colonization, the region’s foodways have been shaped primarily by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and Africa. The most pervasive and lasting influences on the cooking of Appalachia, however, were the practices of Native American populations.
The region’s reliance upon corn, beans, and squash, for example, is a legacy of white settlers’ first encounters with tribes such as the Cherokees and Iroquois. One of Appalachia’s most common meals, beans and cornbread, represents the coming together of white and Native American traditions. Seasoning the iconic pot of beans is lard, the rendered fat of the pig, first brought to America by the Spanish in the 16th century and the English in the early 17th, when the animals ran wild and foraged. Beans were cultivated by Native Americans long before white settlement, as was corn, used to make the cornbread that has become a standard accompaniment to a bowl of soup beans and a symbol of the South.
True Appalachian cooking remains, today, unadorned and loyal to its origins in the earth. It is a cooking style that grew out of hard times. A popular gravy in the mountains is called redeye, made from the simplest of ingredients—browned particles from a fried hunk of ham, the grease from the meat, water, and, oftentimes, leftover coffee. Food writer John Egerton has described it as a “divine elixir,” and, despite health concerns, the region is experiencing a redeye gravy renaissance of sorts. The gravy is featured for breakfast at “white tablecloth” establishments such as The Martha Washington Inn, in Abingdon, Virginia. Meanwhile, it remains on the menus of classic mountain eateries. At The Southern Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia, slabs of ham swim in the two-toned, briny broth, bordered by fresh baked biscuits.
Although Appalachian mountain people are prolific gardeners, their use of herbs and spices is sparing. Salt, pepper, and sugar are frequently the only seasonings in an entire meal.
The simplicity of the Appalachian table bespeaks the cuisine’s working class, even hardscrabble, origins—food that fed farmhands, coal miners, and millworkers. It is not uncommon for mountain cooks, particularly those raised during the Great Depression, to spread the table with the treasures of the farm and then humbly apologize for the “scarcity” of the repast.
Offerings on Appalachian tables are governed, in large part, by the cycles of the seasons. As a first sign of spring, Cherokees herald the appearance of ramps, a pungent wild mountain leek, the first green plant to pop through the leaves on the forest floor and valued for its reputed ability to cleanse the blood after a winter of relative inactivity.
Strawberries, spring’s earliest fruit, have been found in archaeological contexts in the Southeast dating to around 500 B.C., and the first bowl of sugared strawberries in early May is still cause for celebration.
For Cherokees, strawberries symbolize happiness and home. In the Cherokee story of creation, the first woman, Selu, the Corn Mother, leaves her husband, the first man, in a fit of anger. He calls upon the Great One for help in bringing her back. As she flees, the Great One places before Selu a tree full of ripened Juneberries, a bush of juicy huckleberries, and a patch of blackberries. None of them, not even the scratches of the blackberry vines, stop her flight. And then the Great One creates a field of strawberries. The fragrance causes Selu to bend down on her knees and taste. Her anger disappears.
“Some say that strawberry preserves were born that day. Maybe they were. What we can say for sure is that every well-meaning Cherokee housewife keeps strawberries in the house year-round, whether frozen, or canned, or preserved, or fresh,” write Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey.
Spring’s first lettuce and green onions are picked from the garden and “killed” with a mixture of hot bacon grease and vinegar. When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears, mountaineers comb poplar thickets for the precious morel mushroom, to be taken home, battered, and fried as “dry land fish.”
Appalachians’ veneration of vegetables is so deep that in mid-summer, tables are oftentimes devoid of meat. A typical meal might include boiled sweet corn, seasoned only with a pat of butter and a shake of salt, pork-flavored green beans cooked until no trace of a crunch can be found, new potatoes just grabbled out of the ground, sliced tomatoes on a stark white plate, and garden-fresh cucumbers bathed in ice water. The best mountain cooks see no reason to embellish nature’s creations.
Then, as the summer garden wanes, end-of-season green tomatoes and peppers are gathered to make a type of relish called chow-chow, used as a topping for the ever-present bowl of soup beans.
Perhaps Appalachia’s greatest contributions to world cuisine are the ingenious ways mountain cooks have devised to preserve the bounty of the farm. Fall, usually around Thanksgiving, is the traditional time for hog-killing. Biting winters and steamy summers provide the perfect conditions for salt-curing of hams, aged for as much as two years. Mountain people savor side meat, or bacon, called, by some, with an Elizabethan-inflected second syllable, “streaked.”
The bean harvest is preserved well into the winter through canning and freezing, in addition to the time-tested method of drying. Leatherbritches are string beans dried in wind and sun and threaded, to be reconstituted months later in a pot of boiling water.
Likewise in the fall, church groups and families unite around brass kettles for the making of fruit butters, boiled down, thickened, and spiced. Apple butter, spiked with cinnamon, is a common offering at roadside stands and flea markets. In addition to being used as a filling for pies, the meat of the cushaw, a green-and-white-striped squash prized by Native Americans, is cooked into a golden yellow butter served as a biscuit accompaniment.
When not eaten straight out of the field, summer’s corn is blanched and frozen, ground into cornmeal for cornbread, or converted into corn liquor, popularly known as “moonshine.”
Home-dried apples provide the filling
for the dessert most closely associated with the Appalachian
highlands. Rarely found in restaurants, the seven-layered
dried apple stack cake resembles a Central European torte.
The time-consuming confection must cure, allowing the apple flavor
to permeate the cake, a source of stern discipline for mountain
children who did not have the patience to wait the required three
Carrying on the influence of the German settlers who wagoned down the Blue Ridge to North Carolina and across the Appalachian spine into Tennessee, home canners make sauerkraut, adhering strictly to “the signs” and the phases of the moon.
Along with honey, one of the region’s oldest sweeteners is sorghum syrup, produced when sorghum cane is squeezed and the liquid boiled down into an amber thickness. Typically, sorghum syrup is used as a “sop” for biscuits at breakfast time, either alone or mixed with butter. Sorghum “stir-offs” were communal events in the days when the liquid was extracted from the cane by the circular tramping of a horse or mule. An all-natural product, sorghum syrup is experiencing a resurgence in Appalachia today, and Kentucky and Tennessee are making more of it than any other states.
As tobacco farming has declined, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture have re-emerged. Operations like Davidson’s Country Store and Farm in Hawkins County, Tennessee, which once grew tobacco and raised beef cattle, have converted to the production of heirloom vegetables—greasy beans, Turkey Craw beans, and supersweet corn varieties. At Johnson County High School in Mountain City, Tennessee, an area hit hard by the loss of tobacco profits, students learn the science of farming tilapia. Near the western North Carolina town of Canton, Sunburst Trout Farm has been in the business of sustainable aquaculture since 1948 and now sells trout caviar, a product that was once discarded.
As they have done for ages, the Appalachians, even in the modern age of convenience food and rootless mobility, continue to grow green beans, bake cornbread, can apple butter, harvest black walnuts, and cure hams. While encroachment of chain food establishments threatens mountain cookery just as it does traditional Southern cuisine in general, Appalachian fare has always been centered in the home and in the garden and guided by the seasonal variety of the land and the larder. Those who attend church dinners on the ground and family reunion feasts around the region may see more commercially prepared fried chicken and store-bought cakes on the tables nowadays, but those dishes, cooked by unknown hands in corporate kitchens, have yet to supplant home-canned half-runner beans, home-baked fruit pies firmly in the English tradition, sun-warmed tomatoes, and primeval sweet corn, foods as persistent as the mountain people who have rejoiced in their life-sustaining simplicity for nearly four centuries.
Executive Assistant to the President for University Relations
Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies Chair, ETSU Centennial Steering Committee