Chefs, scholars, eaters, drinkers, and thinkers from across the Southeast gathered Oct. 18-21 in Chapel Hill for the eighth annual Terra Vita Food & Drink Festival. Focused on sustainability, the gathering revolves around featured dinners, panel discussions and cooking presentations. The final hoopla, the Grand Tasting, caps a long weekend filled with lofty ideas, local food and regionally focused booze.
This year, for the sustainable classrooms, which took up most of the day that Saturday, seminars covered everything from social justice in the restaurant industry to the effects of climate change on the wine industry to the roots of soul food. But of particular interest to those of us from the western part of the state was a class called The Appalachian Table: a Humble Region Gets Its Due, scheduled to be presented by Ronni Lundy, James Beard Book Award winner and Burnsville resident; Mike Moore, Blind Pig of Asheville owner and chef; Susi Gott Séguret, Seasonal School of Culinary Arts director and Madison County native; and Ian Boden of The Shack in Virginia.
By the time the moderator, writer and UNC Appalachian scholar Elizabeth Englehardt, had settled the crowd into their seats and commenced the presentation, it was clear that Lundy was absent. Apparently, her van broke down en route, leaving her stranded in Western North Carolina. The panel forged ahead without her.
“If the South is the heart of America, Appalachia is the heart of the South,” said Seguret. “There are certain products that grow in the mountains that will not grow in the Piedmont, so by and large, the food that was eaten there has always been grown there. Preservation was a necessity because you couldn’t just go into town to buy food, and what you didn’t grow, you foraged.”
The growing global trend of Appalachian cuisine is a bit of an oddity. Traditionally, Blue Ridge Mountains culture has not been greatly admired. After all, it is the birthplace of the term “hillbilly” and has always been grossly negatively stereotyped in the media through films like Deliverance. But the steady trend of sustainable and locally grown food has put a spotlight on the region and the cuisine.
“Historically there has been a lot of shame involved because of the poverty associated with Appalachia,” Moore told the audience of historians, professors, food writers and chefs. “There has definitely been a lot of change in the past 20 years with the way people see Appalachian food, and the world is realizing that Appalachian food is nothing to be ashamed of — in fact, it is something to hold up and be proud of. These were people that preserved things in order to live.” Classic Appalachian fare like pot likker, leather britches, succotash, morels, half-runners, and even humble beans and cornbread that were once items of ridicule among culinarians can now be found on the menus of haute cuisine houses from New York to San Francisco.
Citing Jeff Biggers’ book The United States of Appalachia, Englehardt said, “He argues that rather than being a place that was out of step, Appalachia has always functioned for the United States as the crucible where our best ideas get worked out. Sometimes those ideas are deeply progressive, sometimes those ideas are deeply conservative, but it has always been a place where those ideas get tried out. African-American rights, women’s rights, revolutions in working and communication, all took root in Appalachia.”
Indeed, she noted, even Black Mountain’s Blue Ridge Assembly was founded as a place of equality for the YMCA by Willis Weatherford in 1906 and became a key meeting place for civil rights leaders, hosting the first integrated Unity in Action meeting in 1912.
“This sustainable approach is what we have done here in Appalachia for as long as it has had that name,” said Seguret, who grew up on a small, self-sustaining farm in Madison County, where her family of four survived on about $200 per year. “You also have to keep in mind that America is still a fairly young country by comparison with Europe,” she pointed out, noting that French cuisine has had a few more centuries than that of Appalachia to develop a refined palate.
“We’re getting there; we are coming up in the world,” she said. “Things move a lot slower in Madison County. We are one of the last counties to not have a McDonald’s. This local, sustainable trend is exactly how we have always cooked in Appalachia.”
She remarked on the older generation that is still bringing old family recipes to church gatherings and potlucks, but that there are children now that don’t even realize that hamburger meat comes from a cow. “I believe that my children’s children will be a generation that does recognize the worth of these ingredients,” she said. “There’s still a lot of education to be done to where local and sustainable foods are the obvious choice.”
But Boden pushed back on the idea that it is mostly the old folks preserving these traditions. He pointed to a split in how poverty has been dealt with in Appalachia since the advent of modern conveniences like fast and packaged foods. For a case in point, he referenced his wife’s grandfather — a native of Appalachia — who recently passed away. “He lived in a one-room shack his entire life, and all he wanted was Tasty Freeze burgers and Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies,” he said. “That was literally all he would eat. I think the poverty here drives people in different directions. He grew up as a subsistence farmer, and his wife cooked constantly and is whose cuisine we themed our entire restaurant around. But as soon as she was gone, he stopped everything.” He went on to say that the younger generation is revitalizing the old traditions.
Terra Vita has been widely praised since it began in 2010, and it has proven to be a place where the conversations dig a lot deeper than the discussion panels that tend to fill the schedules of many food festivals. Perhaps that is because its location in the Triangle affords easy access for many scholars and historians who can amplify the dialogue. Rather than serving as a promotional tool for bars and restaurants, Terra Vita keeps proving to be a forum for expanding our understanding of the food systems around us, even if that means going all the way to Chapel Hill to learn about Appalachia.
“I worry about the way our food system is becoming,” Moore said. But with a note of optimism, he added, “There is so much we can learn from the people who grew up in Appalachia, who foraged, and who grew food in their own backyard. It is a lesson for us today to slow down. We rely on technology so much, but we really need to slow down and smell the flowers and taste the things that come out of our backyard.”