The Oxford American magazine published an outstanding article on New Appalachian Cuisine In the Spotlight and At the Margins’ Courtney Balestier noted the link between current food trends and traditional Appalachian foodways, and how that link is under recognized amidst the hubbub made over New Southern recipes and buying local. She wrote, “People are, in some sense, rediscovering Appalachian cuisine; they just don’t know it. Without getting swept away “without forgetting that these hunter-gatherer acts represent an era that many barely survived” it’s still important to remember that trends like pickling eggs or distilling moonshine, whimsical though they may seem, are not abstractions. They come from real places of dirt and history, communities and dinner tables. These places have been using sorghum, ramps, country ham ‘whatever the fetishized ingredient of the moment is’ for years.”
It is indeed impossible to fully separate a place from its supper, to discuss a food without discussing a lifestyle. To talk about poke sallet is to talk about foraged foods. To praise chow chow is to start a conversation about canning. To wax nostalgic about moonshine is to recall the history of Prohibition and isolation in small mountain towns. This is what is so often lost in discussions about local food and regionally sourced ingredients is what that local is, and what history that region has. It’s interesting, important, and delicious to explore not only what grows in a particular soil or climate, by why those ingredients are prepared the way they are in certain cuisines.
The ingredients of the coastal South are not so very different from one another, yet Low Country and Cajun cuisines are distinct. Appalachia has the distinction of not only unusual ingredients like ramps and poke, but also distinct reasons for using and preparing them, reasons rooted in isolated communities, poverty, a close relationship with the land. Though anyone can pickle an egg from West Virginia to Brooklyn, and anyone can enjoy ham from Tennessee to Tuscan, it isn’t the same without appreciating how pickled eggs and curing hams became the staples that have filled Appalachian pantries for centuries.
At Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro, we try to keep our modern takes on Appalachian food rooted in the lifestyle and the land. That’s why we don’t just source our ingredients locally, we grow them on our own farm. That’s why we have a community table in our dining room and host special events that bring people together to learn about Chef Shelley’s dishes and unique food and beverage pairings. That’s why we reintroduce humble ingredients like frog and rabbit and quail to the contemporary table, encouraging a new generation of diners to dig in and learn about local food on a whole new level.