An underground food tradition

Like most homegrown cuisines, Appalachian cookery is rife with makeshift techniques and food-stretching ingenuity. But for pure resourcefulness, no mountain dish can match buried cabbage, an underground delicacy for which the preservation period starts this month.

The recipe for buried cabbage sounds like the punch line to a "How poor was he?" joke: In the pre-refrigeration high country, folks who couldn't dig a proper root cellar discovered they could skip the fancy cellar-building step and stick their cabbages directly in the dirt. The mountaineers apparently had the last laugh, producing sweet heads of cabbage that tasted crisper and fresher than any of the vegetables they canned for the winter. Mitchell County cabbage grower Ronnie Sparks, whose produce is fervently sought by elderly locals who persist in burying cabbage every fall, claims buried cabbage is "better than any other cabbage you've ever had."

Sparks annually grows two acres of Rio Verde cabbage, one of only two cabbage varieties he says can survive hibernation. According to Sparks, grocery-store cabbage rots underground.

"Those little old things are so tough you can't chew them," Sparks spits. "Rio Verde and Danish Ballhead, that's the only two kind you can keep."

Kept correctly, Sparks adds, buried cabbage is delicious fried, boiled or chopped up for slaw.

"I make slaw," Sparks says. "That's what I like. Slaw."

According to Appalachian food authority Sheri Castle, author of the forthcoming The New Southern Garden Cookbook (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), Blue Ridge dwellers had two favored ways of burying cabbages. There was the aboveground school of buried cabbage, which called for submerging cabbage heads in mounds of soft hay. A variation on that strategy showed up in a Nov. 25, 1908, edition of The Winchester (Ky.) News: The author of the paper's "Farm and Home" column advised readers to stack their cabbages and then "get good corn fodder and place it around the dome of cabbage, tying it at the top the same as a shock of corn."

Far more popular was the belowground solution, which called for practitioners to scrape out a shallow trench of earth, dipping just below the frost line, and then nestle cabbages — still wearing their roots — beneath an insulating layer of soil. Many buriers would align their trench with the side of a barn so they could find it in the spring, Castle explains.

"You bury them like pearls on a necklace," Castle says. "They're always buried upside-down, so dirt won't get in the leaves. What happens is, the cabbage does dry a little bit on the outside, but the inner core is wonderfully sweet.

"It's a concentrated sweetness, like dried apricots," she adds. "Just an intense cabbage flavor."

Buried cabbage can be dug up the day after it goes in the ground, or left untouched till spring. Castle theorizes the cabbage's crunch was an especially welcome sensation in deepest winter, when meals became dreary with mushy canned beans, well-stewed squirrel and squishy corn puddings.

"In my opinion, this was done out of necessity, to have something vaguely resembling fresh vegetables," Castle says.

Not surprisingly, mountain homesteaders subjected other foodstuffs to the burial test, experimenting with what might happen to, say, a turnip left under ground. The results were unimpressive: Most vegetables wilted and rotted when left untended. Cabbage had the advantage of tough, protective outer leaves (which typically turn yellow and brittle while buried), and — perhaps more importantly — ubiquity.

Cabbage was a plentiful crop throughout Appalachia, Castle says.

"It's in my DNA to love cabbage," says Castle. "I'm descended from cabbage farmers. I just love cabbage."

Castle is particularly infatuated with buried cabbage, a delicacy she fears could be endangered. The advent of modern food technologies, including flash-freezing, largely wiped out homespun preservation techniques. The notion of burying one's food for seasonal safekeeping strikes most contemporary eaters as old-fashioned and odd.

But cooks who grew up burying their cabbages — colloquially known as "holing it up" — have been understandably slow to abandon what they consider a delicious tradition. As soon as Sparks starts pulling his cabbages, typically in mid-October, a decent number of Mitchell Countians begin preparing their burial grounds.

"Old-timers are still doing it," Castle confirms.

For Castle, few foods better encapsulate Appalachian kitchen wisdom than buried cabbage, a dish that blends available ingredients and preservation smarts to delectable effect.

"The people that live in the Blue Ridge are masters of food preservation," Castle says. "They figured out if they buried this cabbage, it would keep through the winter, and it really does. If you could think of one distinguishing characteristic of Appalachian food, it's that they know how to make it last."

Food writer Hanna Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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