We should all be cooking more like Appalachians

When you hear the term “Appalachian cooking,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If your answer is scrappy, down-home country fare, heavy on southern influence (maybe with a squirrel thrown in for good measure) you’re in good company — but you’re also wrong. At least partially. 

Appalachian cooking isn’t necessarily southern. It can look a lot like comfort food, and yes, comfort food can be rich, savory and biscuit-centric. But Appalachian cuisine is far more interesting than just sausage gravy. It reflects a culture and belief system much deeper than just putting food on the table, and it can be a whole lot healthier – and more cost effective – than you imagine. In fact, it’s likely that you already incorporate some Appalachian concepts into your cooking and lifestyle without even realizing it. 

Do you grow vegetables, fruits or herbs? Have you ever repurposed food scraps, meat bones or a Thanksgiving turkey into broths or a hefty sandwich? Ever cooked a meal too large for your family and shared some with your neighbors? If so, you’ve cooked — and lived — Appalachian-style. 

Encompassing all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states as far north as New York and as far south as Georgia, Appalachian food is an amalgamation of Native American, African American, German and Italian influence based in hundreds of years of tradition and thrift around the maxim, “Waste not, want not.” The result is a swath of cuisine ranging from pepperoni rolls, favored by Depression-era miners as a quick grab-and-go meal, to sophisticated farm-to-table dishes flavored by hand-picked ramps, wild onions and morel mushrooms.  

Houston Oldman, owner of Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in Townsend, Tennessee, has made it his goal to provide the best Appalachian dining experience in the U.S. and to teach people that modern principles can coincide peacefully with food traditions that always relied on what you could grow or procure locally. 

“I try to make our restaurant a center of conversation about this type of food,” Oldman says. “We have access to foods and techniques our ancestors could only dream of, so we bring modern touches to the quiet, peaceful nature prevalent in the Tennessee culture.”

What does that look like? Dancing Bear’s executive chef Jeff Carter, formerly of Blackberry Farm, makes everything from scratch, with almost all the ingredients grown or raised locally. “The recipes and techniques come from our forefathers,” says Oldham, “like using local, pasture-raised meat, vegetables grown in our own garden, and methods such as pickling and butchering to preserve every part of every ingredient. But having access to foods outside of our region and adding a new hydroponics farm provide modern-day options that give us the best of both worlds.”

With an emphasis on community and all natural ingredients, Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider, West Virginia’s first cidery located in Lewisburg, is proof that embracing old-school techniques can uncover new flavors. Unlike sweeter ciders you might find in your local brewery, these brews are closer in taste to a sour ale or dry wine. Chef and manager Amanda Bennet says that’s because – true to Appalachian tradition – no sugar enhancements are added. “We let the apples do what they do,” she says. 

“We use every part of the fruit, press it on property, and wait patiently for fermentation without the assistance of sugar, either in the still or in repurposed bourbon barrels,” Bennet continues. “The skins and pulp are not discarded – they’re used as feed for cattle and pigs. Then we hand-bottle and label, so from start to finish, the process is personal.” 

The result is a product that is local, seasonal, and homemade, without relying on artificial ingredients or preservatives. Even the environment is Appalachian – pull a chair up to the pond, drop a line and wile away the hours having good conversation with your neighbors.  Healthy, sustainable food and drink, a strong sense of community, and a keen respect for every part of an animal or plant source are the tenets of the Appalachian tradition.

So if you’re looking to lower your grocery bill, eat more organically, and avoid the waste that tends to come with privilege, dip into the Appalachian methods that still hold water a century later. Your wallet and your health will thank you. 

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