Why is such a bountiful region struggling to get healthy food onto dinner tables?
On the outskirts of Staunton, Va., sits a little red brick building with a screen door and whitewash shutters. It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but what happens inside the aptly named restaurant The Shack is emblematic of a movement that is much larger than its 400-square-foot space.
“Do I cook Appalachian food? Well, I cook food of the region inspired by the region with ingredients from the region, so sure, I’m an Appalachian chef. Why not?” says The Shack’s owner and chef Ian Boden.
His hesitancy to associate with the label “Appalachian” might come across as crass were it not for the fact that The Shack is a tribute to Boden’s wife’s Grandma Tissy, who raised her children in a humble cabin nearby. The Shack’s logo is an artistic rendering of Grandma Tissy’s home. Inside the restaurant, framed black and white photos of the family’s history adorn the walls.
“She was the epitome of Appalachian hospitality,” says Boden. “She raised the neighborhood even though she had no money. She gardened, she canned, she bartered, she did whatever she had to do to get by and feed her family.”
It’s that sense of good-natured, open door geniality that Boden was yearning for after spending nearly a decade in New York’s exclusive restaurant scene. His own Russian-Hungarian-Jewish upbringing in northern Virginia, which at the time was largely farmland, fostered a strong sense of place that he hardly realized was important to him until he ate at restaurants that missed the mark.
“It felt forced,” he says of eating at a barbeque restaurant in New York. “It felt like a hoax,” not because of the ingredients or techniques the restaurant used, says Boden. “I think it’s a feel.”
So What is Appalachian Food?
The Shack was listed as runner-up for best new restaurant in Esquire’s inaugural American Food and Drink Awards in 2014 and ranked as one of Southern Living’s Best Restaurants in the South. Boden’s locally sourced dishes reflect the blend of Appalachian and eastern European influence in his life: chicken and dumplings made with matzo, butterbean hummus without the chickpeas. Despite his tendency to hold labels like “Appalachian” and “farm-to-table” at arm’s length, Appalachian food advocates are rejoicing in the national coverage restaurants like The Shack are receiving for one reason—the region is finally being recognized as the culturally diverse hotbed that it is.
“Appalachian and southern food in general has been pigeonholed into a stereotype, a caricature of itself,” Boden says. “People have simplified what Appalachia is. They’ve tried to boil it down to its essence and what they think the essence of it is is completely off-base.”
No one understands this misperception more than chef Mike Costello. His own Appalachian roots can be traced back to the late 1800s when his great-grandmother moved to Helvetia, W.Va., from Switzerland at the age of 10. For so long, Appalachian culture and cuisine has been depicted as a monoculture, Costello says, and with mainstream media playing into that skewed portrait, he worries that it’s even affecting how Appalachians view themselves.
“Our heritage here in Appalachia is so rich and so diverse. Food is our opportunity to tell a better, more accurate story of Appalachia,” he says. “If you ask someone what are three items they think of when they hear ‘Appalachian food’ they’ll say biscuits and gravy and country ham. What might surprise people about Appalachia is something like an eastern European borscht is just as Appalachian as gravy and Italian sausage is just as Appalachian as country ham. The list goes on and on.”
Through their 170-acre property, Lost Creek Farm, Mike and his wife Amy are giving Appalachia’s food heritage the voice it never had. They forage for wild ramps, plant heirloom crops, pickle and can. Then they take those ingredients, as well as their own family stories, on the road. From The Central Collective in Knoxville to Rising Creek Bakery in Mount Morris, Penn., Mike and Amy’s schedule is packed with pop-up dinners and culinary workshops throughout and beyond Appalachia. Part dining, part storytelling, their message is simple: Appalachian food is defined by sense of place.
“What they eat at the base of New York state, the top of the Appalachian region, is completely different than what they eat in northern Georgia,” adds chef Travis Milton.
Like Costello, Milton’s past is rooted deep in the hills of Appalachia. Originally from Castlewood, Va., Milton decided to return to his hometown to open not just one but three restaurants in Southwest Virginia that pay homage to the food and farm culture on which he was raised. His restaurants feature items like leather britches, sour corn (think sauerkraut, but with corn), and Candy Roaster squash, an heirloom variety native to central Appalachia. Having worked as a chef outside of Appalachia for years, Milton says that when he finally made the decision to head out on his own, he knew his restaurant had to be close to home.
“One of the things I preach is being non-extractive,” Milton says. “If I open an Appalachian restaurant in Richmond, what benefit is the Appalachian region seeing other than the word ‘Appalachian’ appearing in an article in the magazine? I wanted to come back here because foodways can be a part of the economic diversification that needs to happen in Appalachia.”
Reclaiming Sense of Place
What Milton is putting into action is something indicative of Appalachia as a whole: an unabashed sense of pride in place. It’s a fierce, determined pride, subtle, not gloating, and according to Milton and Costello both, if the region could just harness that passion, Appalachians might stand a chance of actually deciding their economic future, as opposed to having an outside industry dictate it for them. The problem, says Costello, has everything to do with the stigma surrounding all things Appalachian.
“When I first worked at a restaurant in Charleston, the further away ingredients came from the better,” Costello says. “In a place like West Virginia, ‘local’ was not a symbol of quality. It was frowned upon. We sort of have this tendency to see what we have to offer as not all that special or marketable. We look at other states and see what looks popular and then try to do it here. What we come up with is a much less authentic version.”
Costello likens this phenomenon to opening a beach-themed water park in the mountains—it just doesn’t make sense. As with the region’s musical heritage and outdoor recreational amenities, Costello wants Appalachians, and especially West Virginians, to honor their place-based food heritage and be the ones to share those stories. Otherwise, somebody else will.
“If there’s a chef in Brooklyn who’s decided that he’s going to show off an Appalachian menu with ramps and morels, if he doesn’t know those stories behind those things, it goes from Appalachian food to Brooklyn food that just so happens to have some Appalachian ingredients,” he says. “There is a movement around Appalachian food right now and if we don’t do enough to insert ourselves in the narrative, that’s going to continue to happen and those rich stories about our land, our people, and the traditions connected to that land aren’t going to be told and that’s going to be a real shame for Appalachia.”
Josh Bennett doesn’t need to be told to own his story. A West Virginia native, Bennett is keeping the cider-making traditions of his community alive through Hawk Knob Cidery in Lewisburg, W.Va.
The cidery, which Bennett started with his business partner Will Lewis back in December 2015, is West Virginia’s first cidery. Dry yet approachable, Hawk Knob’s ciders are unique not only in their slight bourbon aftertaste (a result of using oak casks for barrel aging), but in the fact that Bennett uses 100 percent West Virginia heritage variety apples.
“Financially it’s quite a bit harder to do,” Bennett says of sourcing locally, particularly with heritage varieties. “If I weren’t dedicated to having a truly West Virginian grown product, I could do this a whole lot cheaper. But in the end, it’s not going to be the same kind of product. There’s something to be said for keeping things close to home.”
Local Food on the National Agenda
Business for Hawk Knob has been good. In the first three months of opening, the cidery sold out of product. For Bennett, the challenge isn’t so much getting West Virginians to drink his cider—it’s connecting the dots to form a bigger picture that puts West Virginia right up there with its Virginia neighbor as a food and beverage destination unto its own.
“Napa Valley didn’t happen because there were a couple of producers doing their own thing,” Bennett says. “Napa Valley happened because of a conglomeration of growers and the state backing that industry. We have the same potential here. We’ve had to shoulder the weight ourselves of promoting this sort of thing. There’s a lot of room for the state to be involved.”
More importantly, argues Burnsville, N.C.,-based author Ronni Lundy, the federal government should be involved, too. Lundy, a Corbin, Ky., native, has spent the better part of her career immersing herself in Appalachian culture. Her recently released book, Victuals (pronounced, “vidls”), explores Appalachian food traditions across the region. In eight years of research for Victuals, Lundy says she was heartened to see the regional food movement’s scope thus far, but fears the change in political agenda may be a detriment to that energy.