Something’s about to happen in Western North Carolina that happens in few other places across the Southeast: fall.
Current climate trends excepted, Appalachia has four distinct seasons, a meteorological rarity below the Mason-Dixon line. The land has responded in kind, giving carrots all summer long and freezing over during harsh mountain winters. Generations of cooks responsible for feeding their families have had little choice but to forge dishes suitable to the seasons, inadvertently shaping a regional cuisine that’s long been deprecated, dismissed, denigrated and denied.
“Nobody wants this food,” sighs Mark Sohn, author of the James Beard award-nominated Appalachian Home Cooking (University Press of Kentucky, 2005) “Nobody has ever gone to New York and put up a sign saying ‘Appalachian Restaurant.’”
Pinto beans, cabbage and sassafras tea rarely figure into most Americans’ understanding of so-called “Southern cooking,” which typically fixates on the chitterlings-and-collards cuisine developed by enslaved Africans living in the flatlands of places like Mississippi and Tennessee. That popular definition ignores the size and diversity of the American South, says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
“You can argue there is not one South, but many Souths,” Edge says. “They share some common aspects, but when you think about the American Southland, it’s a region the size of western Europe.”
Domestic diners seem to accept that German food is nothing like Italian food, which is entirely different from Scottish food. They savor the idiosyncrasies of the various cuisines, celebrating schnitzel, Bolognese and haggis. But they’re not yet clamoring for vinegar cake.
“Americans love peasant food so long as the peasants live in another country,” laughs Sheri Castle, a freelance food writer and culinary instructor who was born in Boone and makes a mean potato salad with chow chow.
The Biltmore Estate is aiming to change the prevailing perception of Appalachian food with an ambitious 10-day festival, featuring nearly all the marquee stars of modern Appalachian cookery. With remarkably little fanfare—the festival’s schedule was posted on Biltmore’s Web site just last week—the Estate has assembled a corps of award-winning authors, farmers and chefs who care deeply about mountain cooking.
In addition to Sohn, Edge and Castle, the lineup includes chef John Fleer, formerly of Blackberry Farm, who was named a “Rising Star of the 21st Century” by the James Beard Foundation; Joe Dabney, author of the groundbreaking Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine, out this month in a 10th anniversary edition (Cumberland House Press, 2008); John Egerton, who jumpstarted scholarly interest in regional cookery with Southern Food (University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Ronni Lundy, who has contributed the definitive writing on shuck beans and stack cakes to the hillbilly food canon, and—for good measure—well-known Southern humorist Roy Blount Jr. Local luminaries Mark Rosenstein, John Stehling, Jamie Ager and Damien Cavicchi are also slated to participate.
The “Field to Table Festival” will revolve around Biltmore’s River Bend Farm, which will host ongoing demonstrations of farm tasks like shearing sheep and collecting eggs, and its winery, where Biltmore chefs will stage cooking demonstrations. According to Biltmore spokesperson Elizabeth Sims, the estate’s commitment to the farm-to-table concept predates the current trend.
“This started in George Vanderbilt’s day,” Sims explains. “One of the things he did was bring sustainable agricultural practices to this part of the world. When he bought the land, it was overfarmed and overlogged.”
Vanderbilt’s first profitable North Carolina venture, Sims adds, was his herd of Jersey cows.
The estate is a fairly grand setting for frank discussions of potlikker and explorations of bacon-flavored cotton candy, but the juxtaposition of folk and finery doesn’t bother Sohn.
“The Biltmore is an Appalachian place, and so’s the Greenbrier,” he says, referring to the high-end West Virginia resort that annually hosts a major culinary get-together. “I always like to keep a balance between the Biltmore and the little old Baptist church.”
Traditionally, poverty has been among the most influential forces in defining the Appalachian diet: Low wages and the relatively late arrival of the railroad meant mountaineers depended on local bounty long after eaters in other regions were feasting on oranges and oysters. “One thing you see is the tethers between field and table that once defined Appalachian cookery were lost in the past generation, but you’re not going back three generations, you’re going back one,” Edge says. “I think about Appalachian cookery having its roots in poverty and creativity.”
Just as Appalachian cooks compensated for the blandness of their native vegetables by adding salt and vinegar to their dishes—the region has always loved a pickle—Castle says the people of the mountains counterbalanced the simplicity of their suppers with good conversation, which will surely be a centerpiece of the Biltmore celebration.
“They talk about food,” Castle says, “and before they tell you what it tasted like, they’ll tell you how their family made it.”