Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.

The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’”

Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.

Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.

Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.

While Victuals established a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods.

The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.

According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods.

Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.


Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.

THE Compromise Cake

One of my friends who has an eye out for old community cookbooks at rummage sales, flea markets, and thrift shops ran upon a Christmas Sampler from the girls of Ladies’ Night Out at the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi. Therein I found a recipe for compromise cake, not just any old compromise cake, mind you, but “THE COMPROMISE CAKE.”

The recipe just stopped me in my tracks; just what kind of compromise does this cake represent? Given the zeitgeist I suspected some sort of quasi-political origin such as a traditional dessert for such a Southern political–a barbecue or fish fry–but when I passed the recipe around on social media for clues, a friend, upon seeing the applesauce ingredient, pointed out that apple cakes were traditionally served at hillbilly weddings back in the day, so maybe the compromise is between the groom cake and the bride cake.

That’s how I learned about apple stack cakes, which mountain housewives made from apples they’d dry for the winter. Pieces of apples were threaded onto strings and hung in the rafters or in a special outbuilding that had a small kiln inside for drying fruit and other foods. Dried apples were cooked with water and sweetening into a thick, fragrant sauce. The layers were made with sorghum, applesauce, and flour, thin and crisp, really more like a big cookie than a cake.

Stories were told about poor mountain brides who could not afford a wedding cake and were gifted with stack-cake layers donated by friends and family members. The layers were brought to the wedding, stacked and cut on the spot; the more layers, the more popular the bride. Stack cakes usually had at least five layers and most people believed there should be an odd number for luck. I’m sure someone had a stack or two ready in case things didn’t add up right.

The catch is that because of the dryness of the layers, a stack cake–at any height–must sit for at least two days. Given that time, the moisture from the apples–and more often than not the applesauce between–softens the layers a bit, melding the flavors and making the cake moist and delectable. Cutting into a stack cake as soon as it is assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cooks.

My theory that the cake was intended to go with the couple on their honeymoon in case things got out of hand was gently debunked by Elizabeth Carter, who said, “You’ve told a lovely story about apple stack cakes that is very true, but you missed the point of the Compromise Cake. My mother (who recently—2022–passed away at the age of 91 and I discussed this more than once.”

“My grandmother, aunts, and my mom all make an applesauce fruit cake that contains lots of assorted fruit and nuts, and no eggs. It’s very moist, but only bakes successfully if you put in the required cups of fruit & nut mixture.”

Elizabeth also remembers a newspaper article “back in the 1960s or 70s” about The Compromise Cake that retold the story from an elderly couple.”

“It seems the young bride tried to make the Applesauce Fruit cake their first Christmas but it didn’t go well and her husband didn’t want all the fruit. So to please her new husband they “compromised”, she only put in what fruit and nuts he liked, and added more ingredients as normal cake would have, and it baked just fine.”

Another correspondent, Kate, wrote, “I am going through my recipe box and just came across The Compromise Cake recipe. It is in my hand, and I believe I wrote it more than 50 years ago. The recipe is exactly as you have written with one exception: my recipe includes 2 Tablespoons of cocoa. I do not recall ever making the recipe, but vaguely recall having eaten it somewhere and having been impressed with it, copied the recipe.”

Here’s the recipe from the Ladies’ Night Out from the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi.

The Compromise Cake

1 1/2 c. applesauce
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped pecans
1 1/3 c. sugar
2 c. cake flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped dates
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

Lightly oil and flour a 10-inch tube pan; refrigerate. Combine applesauce and soda; set aside. Mix raisins, dates, and pecans; set aside. Whip shortening with sugar, add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour and spices; add 1/2 cup flour mixture to raisin mixture. Gradually mix very well remaining flour with shortening. Add applesauce and fruit/nuts mix. Stir in vanilla. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour, or until toothpick dry. Cool thoroughly before removing.