Our Appalachian Table

Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast, but his thoughts kept returning to his childhood home. “The more I learned about the restaurant business, the more I appreciated the food culture I’d grown up in,” he says. “I started dreaming of a restaurant that would capture and celebrate that lifestyle, allow me to explore where it came from.”

Milton is profiled in a recent Gastro Obscura article, “The Chef Restoring Appalachia’s World-Class. No matter your definition of “world-class” the term seems incongruous to most when applied to Appalachia, a region of grinding poverty and hard-scrabble existence, so it’s not surprising that his idea was ill-received by his fellow chefs. “When I’d say ‘Appalachian Cuisine,’ they’d hit me with a shit-eating sneer,” says Milton. 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 establishes 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.

CRY-BABY COOKIES

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

My friend Michelle Hudson, who volunteers at the St. Luke’s Thrift Shop, always has an eye out for community cookbooks or ones decidedly offbeat such as the eggplant cookbook in the shape of an eggplant she once found. Several weeks ago, she ran upon a Christmas Sampler from the girls of Ladies’ Night Out at the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi and 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 event as a barbecue or a 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 are sweet, pliant and flavorful and were cooked with water and molasses into a thick, fragrant sauce. The layers were made with sorghum, dried apples and a little flour, thin and crisp, really more like a big cookie than a cake, and applesauce was spread between the layers. Stack cakes usually had at least five layers and most people believed there must be an odd number. 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 allegedly brought to the wedding, stacked on site, and cut on the spot. Purportedly the more layers, the more popular the bride.

The catch is that at any height, because of the dryness of the layers, a stack cake 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 cook. So, the wedding theory is a charming story, but a freshly stacked cake is no gift at all, and if people then were really that poor (and I assure you they were) likely a groom’s cake was just not even considered.

So, the mystery remains, and I offer the recipe as a hopeful aside, an incidental, a footnote, not to past matrimonials, but to present reconciliations.

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 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped dates
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. vanilla

Grease bottom of 10-inch tube pan; line bottom with waxed paper. Grease and flour lining and pan; set aside. Combine applesauce and soda; set aside. Combine raisins, dates and pecans; set aside. Cream shortening; gradually add sugar, beating well at medium speed. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour and spices; add 1/2 cup flour mixture to raisin mixture; toss gently and set aside. Gradually add remaining flour mixture to creamed mixture, mixing well. Add applesauce mixture and raisins mixture. Stir in vanilla. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake an additional 20 minutes or longer or until toothpick tests clean. Cool in pan 15-20 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.