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Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors

Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors

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Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors

249 pagine
1 ora
Jun 1, 2015


Dozens of indigenous fruits, vegetables, nuts, and game animals are waiting to be rediscovered by American epicures, and Appalachia stocks the largest pantry with these delectable flavors. Eating Appalachia looks at the uniquely flavorful foods that are native to the region—including pawpaws, American persimmons, ramps, hickory nuts, and elk, among others—with 23 mouthwatering recipes and 45 color photographs. The book also profiles the food festivals including the Pawpaw Festival in Albany, Ohio; the Feast of the Ramson in Richmond, West Virginia; and Elk Night at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonburg, Kentucky. There are recipes for every ingredient: Pawpaw Panna Cotta, Chianti Braised Elk Stew, Pan-Fried Squirrel with Squirrel Gravy, Persimmon-Hickory Nut Bread, and Wild Ginger Poached Pears. Nordahl also discusses some of the larger agribusiness, governmental agency, and ecological issues that prevent these wild, and arguably tastier, foods from reaching our table.
Jun 1, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

Darrin Nordahl is an urban designer who writes and speaks about food and public transportation. He has degrees in landscape architecture and urban design from the University of California. Darrin is the author of My Kind of Transit and Public Produce, both available from Island Press.

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Eating Appalachia - Darrin Nordahl




West Virginia: Appalachia, Cornucopia.

I have a huge respect for American ingredients, declared the British food critic to a captive audience of American cooks. So what I’ll be looking for … is someone who is honest in those ingredients, has great integrity, and can bring those ingredients to the fore rather than their ego.

This was the frank advice offered by Food Network celebrity Simon Majumdar during the 2010 season opener of The Next Iron Chef. The season’s theme was American cuisine. Ten hotshot chefs from every corner of the United States would have to prove their mastery of American ingredients if they wanted favorable marks from Majumdar. And they would have to do it through prototypical venues of American food: the beach cookout, the diner, the county fair, the Las Vegas buffet, and Thanksgiving dinner.

Majumdar’s coupling of American and ingredients intrigued me, because it is an expression we don’t typically hear. We often refer to American food as just that, American food, which we use interchangeably with American cuisine. But I wasn’t sure what Majumdar meant by American ingredients, or whether the contestants or even Majumdar himself fully knew what he meant by the phrase.

Stop for a moment and think of your favorite American dishes. Chances are (unless you are vegan) beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, and cheese are the dominant ingredients in your favorite American foods. But the cow, pig, and chicken were introduced to North America by Europeans centuries ago. And the wheat used for your hamburger buns, fried chicken batter, pizza dough, and apple pie crust traces its origins to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Ditto for the oats in your breakfast cereal.

Now let’s include vegans. Most suspect that bananas are not native to the United States, though few realize they are the most popular fruit in America. (Bananas are native to Southeast Asia and probably were first cultivated in Papua, New Guinea.) Florida oranges are native to China, as are Georgia peaches. California raisins—made from dried sultana grapes, more commonly known as Thompson Seedless—came from the Ottoman Empire. Even the apple, the oft-considered quintessential American fruit, is not native to America. It hails from Kazakhstan.

Tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples, avocados, and peppers are native to the Americas—South America, Central America, and Mesoamerica—but not the United States of America. Peanuts are native to Peru and cashews come from Brazil. Black walnuts and white walnuts are native to the United States, but few Americans today have tasted them. Most live their entire life having tasted only one type of walnut: the so-called English walnut, a native of Kyrgyzstan.

But wait a second, you interject. What about that Native American trinity of crops? You know, corn, beans, and squash?

Indeed, when the first Spanish explorers set foot in America during the 1500s, numerous varieties of these three staple crops were abundantly cultivated. However, each had been introduced to Native Americans—by which I mean tribal folk living in what we now call the United States—by Mexican Indians centuries earlier. Though these crops have thrived in American soil for almost a thousand years and are deeply rooted in the traditions and folklore of the first inhabitants of our country, these foods have never existed naturally in our nation.

Majumdar’s advice illuminated for me the great irony of American food: American ingredients are scarcely present in American cuisine.


The realization that true American ingredients are absent from our most beloved American foods doesn’t sit well with foodies like me. For one, it compels me to contemplate the whole notion of American cuisine. After all, what is a national cuisine if it doesn’t utilize those unique ingredients of your nation?

If you look up cuisine in your favorite reference, you might find a simple definition, such as a manner of preparing food, or something more elaborate that links food with culture, tradition, and geography. Cuisine is hard to define precisely. But when I sift through the different constituents of each definition, I come away with a meaning that seems succinct yet accurate and encompassing: a set of cooking practices and traditions influenced by the local ingredients of the region.

This definition works well for almost any cuisine in the world. That is, except for American cuisine. When you dissect the typical American meal, nary a single ingredient is of the region. American ingredients, like the founding families of our nation, are immigrants hailing from everywhere but the territory we call the United States. Explorers, conquistadors, slaves, and colonists brought with them ingredients to make familiar meals in their new, foreign home. And in short order, true American ingredients disappeared from American meals. American cuisine today, it would seem, is undernourished, bereft of food born from our diverse and distinct regions.

What a pity, because even today our indigenous ingredients are naturally bountiful in and around the places we live. Not only that, but their flavors are delectable and unlike anything we have ever tasted. Even more intriguing to me is that no single American ingredient naturally occurs throughout America, in all fifty states. That is because the United States is so vast, with a tremendous diversity of landscapes and ecosystems from sea to shining sea. The plants and animals that inhabit the Alleghenies of eastern West Virginia are quite different from those in the Sonora desert of southern Arizona and still others around Puget Sound in northwestern Washington. These ingredients, natives of our distinctive landscapes, are the true foods of place, and the real basis for cuisine.

The fascinating connection between food and place really took hold of me one chilly, drizzly November morning in Duluth, Minnesota. I wandered downstairs from my hotel room to the restaurant to grab some breakfast. I wasn’t expecting to eat anything special, but listed among the usual offerings of pancakes, oatmeal, French toast, omelets, and egg dishes was something truly out of the ordinary: Lake Superior Lake Trout Cakes with Wild Rice Hash. As Duluth borders Lake Superior to the southeast and Rice Lake Reservoir to the northwest, the ingredients could not have been more local. Lake Superior lake trout is, obviously, indigenous to Lake Superior. Wild rice, at least this particular variety served for my breakfast, is endemic to the Great Lakes states. And the rice is still harvested the way Native Americans had done for centuries: collected by hand via canoe. While I usually spend a few minutes mulling over a menu, on this particular morning there was no hesitation or second-guessing. I ordered this locale’s interpretation of true American cuisine. I was about to experience a sense of place through my sense of taste.

As I waited for my meal, I pondered this notion of tasting place through indigenous flavors. The inclusion of a dish on the menu made with ingredients native to Duluth struck me as a sort of obvious but only after the fact genius on the chef’s part. Of course! Restaurants around the country manically tout their locally sourced foods. What better way to showcase your local, sustainable food principles than to use those tasty ingredients that occur naturally in your environs?

But then why aren’t more restaurants doing this? Why was I so surprised to see these unique local ingredients on a hotel restaurant menu? The absence of true American ingredients from restaurant pantries—and even from our own kitchen cupboards—is confounding. After all, it was America’s great menu of indigenous foods that sustained Native American people (and presumably offered great gustatory delight) for millennia, from coast to coast, Canada to Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii. Maybe Duluthians know something the rest of us do not.

The longer I thought about my meal, the more I mused on the inimitable qualities of particular American landscapes, their food crops, and the inextricable bonds between the two. Why is wild rice so abundant in the northern reaches of Minnesota? What is it about Maine’s geography that makes it so great for blueberries and lobster? What do Olympia oysters tell us about the relative health of Puget Sound’s estuaries? And why do interior Alaskans prefer moose, reindeer, and ptarmigan while people in the lower forty-eight insist on beef, pork, and chicken?

In seeking answers to these questions, I have become convinced that rediscovering these forgotten American foods is not only joyful but good for us and good for the environment. A renewed interest in native ingredients could help alleviate some pressing concerns in our country, such as the loss of agricultural diversity and its ill effects on habitat and soil quality; the loss of dietary diversity and its ill effects on our physical health and longevity; increased food miles and big agriculture; plants and animals threatened with extinction; and our desire for distinct, identifiable landscapes, towns, and cities in the face of dulling homogenization.

I’m not advocating we abandon the dishes that currently epitomize American cuisine, those that are relished regardless if we live in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. Heck, I love a good hamburger as much as any of my compatriots. (Though I prefer the American bison’s leaner, finely marbled meat over the long-ago introduced—and fattier—beef cow for my patty.) But I do believe Americans are missing out on some really great meals, simply because we have overlooked so many tantalizing foods right in our own backyards. There is delight in discovering flavors native to your corner of the country. And I look forward to an evolution in American cuisine, when the dishes of Pittsburgh, by and large, are quite different from those of Little Rock or Bakers-field—a reflection of each community’s unique ingredients.

When breakfast arrived, the presentation was simple but the flavor was extraordinary. Much of my gratification was admittedly psychological, knowing that the food I was eating was as local as an urban locavore could hope for, harvested fresh from the landscape that girdled Duluth. But there was more than intellectual satiety on my plate. The flavors were quite distinct, like nothing I had tasted before in America. The food tasted, well, wild, but a wildness that was truly unique to this country. The rice hash was nutty and chewy, with notes of earth and woodsy spice. The trout was delicately flavored—as all trout is—but with a certain Lake Superior minerality, a flavor absent in farm-raised trout. "Now this is American food, I thought. I was savoring the flavors of a particular American geography, flavors from those local ingredients of the region." My epiphany that morning was that I was literally consuming a small portion of the Great Lakes landscape: the westernmost shore of Lake Superior. I was eating Duluth, and a city never tasted better.


Speaking of unique meals in different communities, think of a few foodie cities in America, places with mouthwateringly distinctive foods. What came to mind? New York, perhaps? Maybe San Francisco? The French-inspired fare of New Orleans always excites the taste buds, as do the spicy flavors of Santa Fe. And let’s not forget the luxurious assortment of seafood in Seattle.

But I bet Prestonsburg, Kentucky, or Richwood, West Virginia, didn’t come to mind, nor did Albany, Ohio, or Cherokee, North Carolina. Yet in and around these diminutive towns nestled deep in the hollows of the Appalachians lie some of America’s most delectable foods. Ramps, pawpaws, wild elk, spicebush, sassafras, butternuts, hickory nuts, and our nation’s very own persimmons typify this distinct geography and are proudly honored by Appalachian folk with annual celebrations. These are real American ingredients, with incomparable flavors and textures that would tickle any epicure’s taste buds and excite food wonks like Simon Majumdar. Even so, Appalachia is hardly considered a mecca for foodies.

Appalachia is off our food radar not because of its culinary landscape but because of the sea of ignorance engulfing many Americans, including me. As a food snob who spent far too much time in the culinary bubble of the Bay Area, I could have been the President of the PWKNAA (People Who Know Nothing About Appalachia). Upon a quick glance, few outsiders would think this rugged landscape possesses enough indigenous ingredients to craft an extensive menu of condiments, salads, entrées, and desserts. My home state of California has an incredible diversity of landscapes: coastline, mountains, bays, estuaries, more mountains, deserts, still more mountains, and a big ol’ valley that supplies half of the nation’s fresh produce. One would expect a large area like California, with so many distinct landscapes, to harbor a diversity of foods. Appalachia—which is about as long as California and encompasses a similar area—seemed so homogenous by comparison.

Boy, was I wrong. I was so ignorant of Appalachia, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. Before I share why Appalachia is special from an ecological (and thus culinary) point of view, let me spare you the embarrassment of mispronouncing this region’s name, lest you bear the brunt of a real Appalachian conniption.

If you’re a West Coast dolt like me, you would say App-uh-LAY-shuh. But say that to folks of Appalachia and they’ll whack you with a hickory stick. (Believe me—I know from experience.) I have since learned there are only two correct ways to pronounce Appalachia, depending on where one lives.

If you live in the mountains north of the Mason-Dixon line, you would say App-uh-LAY-chuh, keeping the long ‘A’ in LAY (as most in the West say it), but pronouncing that last syllable with a ch sound, as in church. But the people who most proudly identify with Appalachia live south of that line. And I was fortunate to be schooled by Jerry Coleman, a Cherokee descendant in North Carolina, on how to properly pronounce this region’s moniker.

At first, I didn’t grasp it. I kept saying App-uh-LAY-chia, as in Chia pet. Jerry scolded me. No! You still have it wrong. You are overenunciating and you’re pronouncing the third syllable like a Yankee!

But I was determined to sound like a true Appalachian. So Jerry recited a parable to help me with my pronunciation. It goes like this: One day, in the Garden of Eden, God told Adam, Now look here, boy! Don’t you come near this tree, alright? If you do, I’ll throw an apple at ’cha.

After my initial groans, I chuckled at Jerry’s colorful mnemonic. I’ll never again stumble over the proper pronunciation of this uniquely American region. I can now say Appalachia like a true native. Well, a native south of the Mason-Dixon line, anyway.

I may not have known how to pronounce Appalachia when I began writing this book, but I did understand how special the region is. The reason fruits and nuts, meats and vegetables, spices and potherbs abound in these mountains is because of the region’s exceptionally diverse ecology. What makes Appalachia distinct from other landscapes of America is its sundry mix of broadleaf forests. Some of these contain relic plant species not seen anywhere else in North America—thanks to the age of the Appalachian mountains (some 600 million years old) and their escape from glaciation. A typical forest community in North America is dominated by two or three canopy tree species. In Appalachia, there can be as many as thirty canopy species at a single site. Biologists estimate that in the Blue Ridge Mountains alone (one of the three principal ranges that make up the core of the Appalachian Mountains), there are over one hundred native tree species and about two thousand understory plant species. Such diversity outside of the tropics is rare. In fact, southeastern China is the only other locale in the temperate climes that shares the same fertile mixture of broadleaf forests. (Hickory nuts and sassafras, for example, are foods indigenous to both Appalachia and southeastern China.)

A rich diversity of plant life begets a rich diversity of animal life. Appalachia is the center of Earth’s salamander diversity. Five hundred species of vertebrates call Appalachia home. There are more species of shrews, darters, and endemic fishes in these mountain forests and streams than in any other region

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