Matt & Ted Lee refer to Ronni Lundy as a ‘native daughter of Kentucky’ and Victuals, her latest cookbook kicks off with a handy lesson in dialect for those of us not to the local manor born: apparently in southern Appalachia, ‘victuals’ is pronounced ‘vidls’ and not ‘vittles’ which is how I might have pronounced it. It’s just one example of how misunderstood this part of the USA is.
Lundy has form when it comes to providing us with the tools we need to understand Appalachia. As a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance she has always emphasised the role that culinary genealogy plays in helping to define what actually constitutes southern food and in doing this, she has challenged some of the more common – and inaccurate- tropes that have flourished in the minds of the lazy and those who wish to erase contributions from people based upon age-old prejudices. Lundy tells us about Malinda Russell, a free black woman and native of Appalachian who fled to Michigan during the civil war, leaving the bakery she opened in East Tennessee. Whilst living in Michigan she published A Domestic Cookbook in 1866 and this compendium of recipes used by her when she ran a boarding house and pastry shop and also cooked for the first families of Tennessee may well be regarded as the first published cookbook about the Appalachian south. As Lundy adds, Russell’s recipes may or may not be reflective of the recipes common to the region at its time of writing but ‘it certainly broadens our perception of 19th century Appalachian foodways.’
Victuals is the result of Lundy’s travels around the region where she was raised, a limning of history, people and place but it is not a regressive paean to times gone by although Lundy has always drawn upon the rich Appalachian heritage (and especially in a previous cookbook, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) to explain its foodways.
“People who come to and from these mountains want to know where they are when they eat,” writes Lundy, quoting one of the great pioneers of the contemporary mountain food scene, John Stehling. In 2011 a study headed up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabham and environmental anthropologist Jim Veteto validated Stehling’s opinion when they declared southern and central Appalachia to be the ‘most diverse foodshed in North America’. She celebrates the knowledge of the local people who are farming, brewing, producing high quality ingredients and trying to steer a course through the fiscally tricky waters of an American economy which doesn’t always seem to prize their endeavours, favouring multi-national corporations over the local and artisanal. These people are rooted in one place but they aren’t fixated upon it and have been able to help move Appalachian foodways in new and exciting directions.
Appalachian cuisine cannot be divorced from the land and feeding local families often involves more than a stroll to the local store. And when Lundy writes that ‘food was magical also because I got to be part of the making’ we get to read recollections of her aunt Johnnie’s garden full of half-runner beans and descriptions of local cider apple orchards which have to co-exist with nearby large-scale and homogenous commercial growers. For Lundy, the apple is rooted in her love for Jo from Little Women whose own pockets were filled with windfalls as juicy and taffy-sweet as the ones she remembers as once growing freely in the mountain hollers. There’s a meditation on the art of making apple butter and a description of what to aim for; ‘dark as sable, thick as pudding and deeply fragrant,’ is more helpful and evocative than any photo could be. Developing the master-recipe further, the reader is given mini recipes for Sherri Castle’s vinegar kiss and Lundy’s own ‘splash’ with a good glug of bourbon added ‘for the grown ups biscuits’.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the culinary genealogy of Appalachia (something I predicted was on the cards, several years ago) and local chefs such as Sean Brock, Shelley Cooper and John Fleer are all referenced via a selection of recipes and their accompanying text. One such recipe is Fleer’s buttermilk cornbread soup which takes an old tradition (although one not exclusive to the region) and turns it into a bowl of comforting something-something that looks at home on the table of either a good restaurant or plonked in front of your kids at suppertime. Like all apparently simple meals it relies on the very best ingredients and slow, steady time at the stove (which can be a comfort especially when one is busy and over-stimulated). The value of taking twenty minutes out for stirring the pot cannot be overstated and like all rhythmic actions, it soothes. Does it sound overly romantic to say this is also what connects us all to the past? I don’t think so.
Many Appalachian recipes and techniques have been hard won over time and it’s important to grasp this if you want to take the principles behind Victuals to heart. One emblematic recipe – the apple stack cake- is as much building as it is baking and both of these require a decent investment in time and technique. In this cake, dried apples are cooked and layered onto thick hearty disks of dough which were originally cooked in cast iron skillets then sweetened with sorghum. Lundy’s aunt Johnnie would pick and dry apples in June for cakes like the stack and for fried or baked hand pies although her cake recipe comes via her great-aunt Rae who made the cake for Lundy’s father.
Maybe the stack cake began life as a wedding cake with each family contributing a layer, or maybe it didn’t, but it is at its best after sitting for a couple of days which allows the spiced apple to seep its sweetness into the layers of cake. As Lundy says, ‘it reflects the pioneer spirit of converting something totally old (the eastern European tradition of layered tortes, brought to the region by German immigrants) into something totally new with the ingredients at hand.’ Necessity was the mother of invention but although the stack cake remains pretty austere in appearance and ingredients compared to the richly adorned tortes from the old country, its flavour is anything but.
Victuals reminds us of the great traditions of home preserving and also includes recipes which contained ingredients which would otherwise be unavailable to a landlocked part of the USA had commercial canning not existed. Fresh-water fish and shellfish were caught and eaten regularly but seafood such as oysters would have been out of the question had it not been for the fine tradition of smoking and canning. If you grew up reading Susan Coolidge and Laura Ingalls Wilder you will be familiar with the oyster soups made with this delicacy, transported via railroads in thin flat cans and Lundy’s version of a smoked oyster stew for two is a reminder that no matter how bountiful a region is, sometimes what is longed for is what cannot be grown or caught there. Oysters, she writes, were a salty mineral-rich addition to an Appalachian miners lunchbox designed to replenish their own salt levels after a hot and sweaty shift. They were added to simple potato soups or served with saltines and packed away in a tin pail for the fishers in the family and Lundy’s more luxurious version is flavoured with the olive oil the oysters are preserved in.
Alice Waters gets the credit for the farm to table movement which champions seasonality and a locavore lifestyle and went on to place California on the gastro-map yet Appalachia and the American south in general has always lived by this creed. James Villas posited that where farm to table is concerned, the south got there first and in her book, Lundy’s focus on seasonality and sustainability through heritage adds a decidedly contemporary twist to this philosophy. Modernity coexists happily with tradition in Appalachia and Lundy’s book smashes old and tired stereotypes of Appalachia into smithereens.
Victuals is my cook and food book of 2016.
Find Ronni on twitter @ronnilundy
All images from Victuals by Ronni Lundy