As long as there have been humans in the Appalachian mountains, there has been Appalachian cooking.
In an era when buzzwords like "locavore," "farm-to-table," and "foraged" are popping up on restaurant menus from New York to Los Angeles, even when the dishes themselves are a pastiche of national food trends, it’s comforting to know that there are still some truly hyper-local foodways that are inextricable from their place of origin.
Appalachian cuisine is one of these regional oddities, preserved in part by the isolation of many mountain communities, by the unpretentious nature of many Appalachian dishes, and because many of the tradition’s most iconic ingredients aren’t found anywhere else. And although many foodies have only just discovered this offshoot of Southern cooking, Appalachian cuisine has a long, rich history as old as, well, the hills.
Smoked meats, fish, corn, beans, and foraged vegetables like mushrooms, muscadines, ramps, poke, sumac, berries, ginseng, chestnuts, plantain, artichokes, and dandelions were all known to indigenous tribes from north Georgia to Pennsylvania. Dishes like poke sallet, succotash, and cornbread all have roots in Cherokee, Seneca, and Iroquois cooking. Even country ham’s time-honored place in Appalachian cuisine is rooted in trade between indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers, with hogs making their way up old Indian roads from Florida to New England.
With European immigrants came not just ham, but other flavors and techniques for preserving the bounty found in forests from the Great Smoky Mountains to the northern Allegheny.
German immigrants, for example, swapped the cabbage in their beloved sauerkraut for pickled onions, string beans, and chow chow. Canning gave rise to all manner of fruit preserves. And European distillation techniques provided a means to turn humble corn into white lightening— especially when Prohibition meant bootlegging moonshine could pad many families’ paychecks.
The practicality and affordability of those ingredients helped protect the integrity of Appalachian foodways over the centuries. These dishes and flavors were often overlooked, deemed unsophisticated in comparison to, say French haute cuisine or modern dishes that relied on canned goods, refined flour, or pricy imports like pimentos. The very poverty of many Appalachian communities helped keep their beloved foods one of the best-kept secrets in the country.
Indeed, it’s easy to forget that Southern staples like biscuits and pimento cheese were once pricey status symbols, achievable only if you had the money to spend on things like white flour, butter, and mayonnaise, not to mention refrigeration and hired help to fuss over kneading and proofing dough. Appalachian cooks stuck to what they had always been able to find not on store shelves, but in their own backyards and hollers, even as cooks across the country embraced (or, in the case of early food stamp recipients, had little choice but to utilize) shortcuts like canned soups, gelatins, and frozen produce.
Even today, Appalachian cuisine is something like a time capsule, harkening back to a time when eggs were pickled, not deviled, when turkey was served not just on Thanksgiving, but whenever a wild gobbler wandered too close to a hunter’s blind, and when rough-ground cornmeal made on your neighbor’s mill was more widely available than flour. This is the stuff of hunting season, woodland walks, and smokehouses, a truly forest-to-skillet cuisine that requires no formal training, just an instinct for inventively making use of whatever’s on hand.
Born and Bred in Appalachia
Shelley Cooper is the Executive Chef of Culinary Operations for Oldham Properties LLC.
She directs all food operations and is responsible for culinary talent at Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro and Apple Valley Mountain Village in Townsend, Tennessee. Prior to this, she was the Executive Chef at TerraMae Appalachian Bistro in Chattanooga, Tennesee.
She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, into a family that revolved around a bountiful table always filled with farm-fresh Southern cuisine. Her maternal family hails from the Mississippi Delta and her father from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She credits this combination with providing her Southern culinary roots.
Both families placed a high regard for fresh, seasonal, and "made from scratch" foods, as well as instilling the appreciation of pure simple ingredients. Shelley could not help but be positively affected by such inherent passion.
She was professionally trained at Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Charleston, South Carolina, and The San Francisco Baking Institute. Chef Shelley honed her craft at Belfair Club in Hilton Head, South Carolina, 30° Blue at Bay Point Resort in Florida, Craggy Range Winery in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, First and Hope Supper Club in Los Angeles, Alaska Expedition on the Gulf of Alaska, and Monettes Artisan Seafood on the big island of Hawaii.
Now she is tapping into her true roots and fully embracing her heritage at Dancing Bear. The culmination of her life travels and culinary passion have merged to create her unique version of highbrow Appalachian fare.