Victuals by Ronni Lundy: a review

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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Buttermilk pie

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 out more

Find Ronni on twitter @ronnilundy

All images from Victuals by Ronni Lundy

 

 

Going back to my (culinary) roots with the help of granddad

nic 007 When I want to easily remember my grandfather and hear his voice as if he was speaking to me in real life, all I have to do is wander down the street to my local branch of Waitrose. As I peruse the shelves, he rushes into my head, clear as day with his Midlands accent unchanged by the thirty years he lived in Suffolk. I pick up a pot of double cream flavoured with golden rum and spiced ‘winter fruits’: “What are you buying that for when I we’ve got an old bottle of rum in the roof somewhere- let me look for it and you can just chuck a slug of it into a pot of Elmlea.”  Or as I stand in front of plastic packs of ready mashed potato and orange cubes of butternut squash: “How much time does it take to make mash? Don’t be idle Nic – look at the price!” Or linger by the pretty bottles of pink lemonade: “It’s lemonade with food colouring- they can see you coming.” And then I imagine him going home and rummaging in his shed to triumphantly pull out a traditional flip topped bottle from the back that likely once contained weedkiller: “I’ll give it a rinse out with this Milton’s that I kept from when you were a baby and you can decant some Schweppes into it.” “That’s at least thirty years old, that Milton’s, granddad” “S’alright.”

He was a man with twenty plastic tubs of miscellaneous screws, washers and nails picked up from roads, gouged from wood off cuts or bought from Jacks in Colchester and transported home in a white paper bag in his pocket. My grandmother waged a permanent war against these as they infiltrated the twin tub and then her prized automatic Zanussi, clanging their way around the drum as she peered balefully through the machine window, waiting for the wash to come to a stop.

It is his ‘Waitrose voice’ (a voice of reason some might say) that triggers the strongest sense of Imposter Syndrome within me- the idea that I either don’t belong here, or am betraying my roots or social conscience every time I set foot inside the temple to gastro-gorgeousness that is Waitrose or any other chi chi place. Whether that be the two floors of food heaven at Snape Maltings selling beautifully packaged ten quid a shot pasta, all bronzed die cut rough edged loveliness and made with the best doppia 00 flour or a small local deli is immaterial.

For him, locavore and seasonal meant Weldons Pick Your Own and whatever was sold on the Bury St Edmunds or Sudbury markets instead of extravagantly marketed local food in the regions best farm shops or an upmarket supermarket trying hard to not look like one. When I go to the market to buy my fruit and veg, browse the cheese stall and choose my bread, I am buoyed by the approval I know he’d feel that I am supporting the sellers and the memories that are there to be revisited at each stall too. I recall the smell of the super hard Cheddar he’d always go for- ‘Roy’s stinky cheese’ as christened by my Grandmother (He insisted on being called Roy) from the man in the white van with drop down counter.

I remember the bags of apples, oranges and peaches in season that he’d buy for us to cut up and eat on our laps every night at 8 pm on the dot after Coronation Street had ended. (Or ‘Silly Street’ as he referred to it.) He’d come into the sitting room as he heard the closing strains of the theme tune with his fruit in a brown paper bag, yesterdays newspaper and a paring knife. The ‘Fruit’ ceremony would ensue- newspaper spread across his lap as he carefully peeled and doled out slices of fruit, the peaches left whole to be eaten by me but my grandmother ate hers sliced because somehow this method prevented them from ‘repeating on her.’ Then peelings were tidily wrapped up in the paper to be disposed of on the compost heap before they locked up for the night.

This ceremony with its roots in inter and post war fruit shortages cemented the notion of fruit as the greatest treat for us kids although the moderation of my grandparents in all things was not inherited by me. I soon graduated to putting away an entire bag of satsumas in one sitting. The fruit was kept on an old brown wood sideboard in the back bedroom and I would try to sneak in there and help myself, but the moment I opened the door, the heavy,ripe scent would slip into the hall and give the game away. He’d be appalled at its price now and half intrigued, half repelled by the choice we have, not just between species of fruit but the different varieties too, and all out of season. In his day we grew our own Bramleys and Cox’s and he was pretty conversant with many more varieties: the Pitmaston Pineapple, Worcester Pearmain and Egremont Russet (the latter which I now grow on my allotment). There were a lot more branches in our pomological family tree then, chosen to meet a specific need: keepers to eat throughout the cold winter; apples that had superlative flavour and must be eaten immediately as they were unable to be stored, apples that could be dehydrated into chewy, fudgy rings and apples that cooked down into pies and puddings. Now the fruit in supermarkets now is there for one reason only- it suits the store and its bottom line and flavour comes second.

Supermarkets such as Waitrose like to make us feel that our choice to shop there is the more ethical one compared to those ‘other places’ but I feel conflicted because their illusion of foodie sophistication, more considerate practices and worldliness masks a more difficult to palate truth. My grandfathers voice in my head is akin to the child in the Emperors New Clothes telling me that I am kidding myself that I am not harming the food chain and local economies by shopping in the manner that I often do. It tells me that I actually do not need to cook my way around the world, that millions of people eat adventurously without consuming imported goods out of season from lands far away and that being a food lover is not commensurate with having to try every weird and unusual ingredient. It reminds me that the only value label in store that matters is what that item costs the rest of the world. He was of his time, not ahead of it, and food for him was pleasant fuel, a way by which some people earned a living; worth thinking about because of this but little more beyond it.

He was an engaged man with great curiosity in the world and somebody who should have gone to university: he would have avidly read some of the great food writers I enjoy, writers like James Villas, Edna Lewis, Sara Roahen, and Molly Wizenberg. But he’d have been satisfied with just reading them.  I try to temper all this dissonance by doing the ‘High/Low thing’ (although I don’t like that rather flippant description) by shopping at the holy trinity of Waitrose, Aldi and the local market/independent shops. I make these lists of ‘essentials’ that need not have the provenance of a well bred truffle or rarity value of a Chinese Snow Leopard- flour, sugar, washing powder (no you don’t need Ariel), vinegar etc and lists of the more ‘luxe items’ that Aldi do well- maple syrup, the smoked salmon, everyday Parmesan (I sound like Marie Antoinette), basic olive oil, brioche et al, joyous in the knowledge of monies saved. I hope that economies of scale confer these lower prices- bulk orders, the centralised European storage and delivery systems, as opposed to five year old kids working in fields. 

I may be a scratch cook generally, but I am not going to make my own vinegar, salt, butter and yoghurt, dig six foot deep pits in the back yard to produce authentic pit ‘cue or ferment kimchi. Neither do I plan to try to grow wasabi in my garden pond after rigging up a water flow system with some Professor Branestawm contraption. I cannot be bothered to smoke my own salmon- it is effort enough to find one that hasn’t been abused prior to its death in a fish pen; dosed with medicine, riddled with worms and swimming in its own excrement. I understand that cultivating rare or niche ingredients here allows humans to reduce air and road miles with their attendant negatives but I am also a fan of Andrew and Beth Chatto who caution against growing plants unless you have the right climate and ecology- anything that requires expensive or time consuming measures is not worth it and should be left to grow in a more conducive place. 03bab62faead5e1a670bc2e6762967e4

I have several thousand books about food and cooking, gastronomy and the culture of eating. My cupboards, fridge and pantry are full of little tubes, jars, pots and packets of niche ingredients. Some of these were purchased out of genuine curiosity- is there truly any difference taste wise between generic Jasmin rice and the more expensive and rarer variety, the green stamped Hom Mali? Answer, yes. Others drew me like a moth to a flame because I adored the romance of the culture that birthed them (Zatarains Shrimp and crab boil) or loved the packaging (the blue and cream print on tubs of American baking powder by Bakewell Cream) even though they don’t perform any better. I haven’t used the tub of Crisco I bought but the name and iconography attached to it meant I wanted it. Someday I’ll fry that buttermilk soaked pullet in it before it goes rancid.

I am trying to make it simple again: not having to have a different blooming meal nearly every night and not feeling inadequate if I have yet to try the latest buzz ingredient that some bearded bloke ‘discovered’ on his food road trip to Macon, Taipei or Seoul. I am going to retrain myself to be happy just reading about food instead of always having to ‘source’ it and try to readopt and adapt the ethos behind the way my grandfather and grandmother ate, allowing for the culture gap that has opened up as the years have gone by.

I’m not saying that those folks who choose to experiment with an El Bulli cook book and molecular cuisine kit should be burned as heretics, far from it, even though I reckon ‘molecular gastronomy’ is the wankiest culinary term ever and people who use it seriously should undergo spherification and be fed to pigs.  Rather I am suggesting a less avaricious attitude to the acquiring of gastro experiences, with us asking ourselves if we truly need to try every form of berry discovered in the Brazilian rainforests, much less write to supermarkets demanding for them to be stocked, year round.