What is patriotism but the love of food we ate in childhood?
–Lin Yu Tan
Maybe I’ve used that quote too much, but it is what makes food interesting. Whether it’s Fritos and a Fresca or the dried beans called leather britches, flavors stick with us and take on meaning. They expand into a set of skills and community traditions, and eventually become part of what defines us.
In that sense, Ronni Lundy has written both a dictionary and love story to the foods and foodways of her Appalachian family. Though she grew up in Louisville, where her Dad found work, for Lundy, Corbin, Kentucky was “up home.”
Lundy recalls how her parents would easily slip back into family life on visits for summer or holidays, and that return would often be marked by food–Chili Buns and grape soda from the Dixie Pool Room, Aunt Minnie’s “crisp fried dried apple pies,” or lush, garden-grown watermelons.
Foods that have become fashionable, like kale, or have become the palette for a chef’s wild flights, like fried chicken were the taste of home, firmly anchored in what could be grown, raised, shot, or foraged. The foods were the work of the people who farmed, hunted, and knew the hills. And while many outsiders see Appalachia as a one note Scotch-Irish community, Lundy knows better and teases out the Hungarian and Italian influences on the region’s food. You’ll see it Pepperoni Rolls or Miner’s Goulash.
In her odyssey through Kentucky, West Virginia, southern Ohio, northern Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina, Lundy finds old ways like dried beans recorded at historic sites and old ways rejuvenated as at the J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works. She finds traditions made new like chef Lisa Donovan’s upscale take on the glove compartment classic–Cheese Nabs. And she finds the very particular flavors of the region–ramps, sorghum, sumac oil.
While Lundy touts the return and retooling of traditions, she points out that it’s only happening in some Appalachian communities–those close to highways or towns where you’ll see New York and DC license plates in the parking lots. Deeper into the hills, into coal country, rejuvenation is harder where streams are un-fishable and mountains are disfigured by coal mining practices.
Lundy describes a shifting community, facing a changing economy, that may find new meaning and some prosperity in its foodways.