Preserving tradition: Appalachian Food Storybank collects tales of mountain meals

SIMPLE CELEBRATIONS: Apple stack cakes made with locally accessible ingredients like sorghum, buttermilk and dried apples were among simple but delicious dishes traditionally served on Appalachian holiday tables. Photo by Tim Robison

“There’s a world of difference now than there was then. We were all in the same boat as they say: Nobody had nuthin’.” These are the words of 102-year-old Rose Clark of Macon County. And while times were lean for her growing up in the Appalachian mountains, she also laughs about the first biscuits she ever made (“I could knock a house down with them”) and speaks fondly of the cornbread her mother would cook in pans over the woodstove and the four hogs a year that her father turned into sausage. “We raised everything on the farm except salt and soda and sugar,” Clark says, with a hint of pride in her voice.

Lester and Marietta Crayton of Asheville have been married for 70 years and have similar memories of growing up on farmland that is now the Oakley community in East Asheville. Marietta recalls going barefoot all summer. When fall came, she gathered chestnuts to sell to the grocery man so she could buy shoes in Mars Hill for school. Around Thanksgiving time, says Lester, people would kill and butcher their hogs for the winter — an event that often turned into a neighborly celebration.

The Appalachian Food Storybank has been collecting stories like these since 2011. Susannah Gebhart founded the oral history initiative, which is a project of the Heritage Food Committee of Slow Foods Asheville. Gebhart is the owner of Old World Levain (OWL) Bakery and studied food anthropology in college, so the initative was a natural extension of her interests. But there is a little more to it than that.

“I had moved [to Asheville] from Sylva and had been involved in the local farming community there and knew a lot of old-timers from the farmers market,” says Gebhart. “When I moved here, I found out that several of them had passed away, and I always regretted that I didn’t get to hear more of their stories or have the opportunity to record them.”

Since that time, she has banded together a small staff of trained volunteers to interview and record elders in the community who have been nominated by friends or family members to share their stories of childhood and sustenance. While the focus of the conversations is food-based, the stories always seem to transcend topics like canned beans and “putting up” for the winter.

“Food is one of those really accessible topics, and it’s a beautiful entry point into understanding more deeply lifeways and rituals and traditions,” says Gebhart. “So we will talk about recipes and how they canned beans, then a lot of times the interview will naturally progress toward some pretty poignant observations about society and change and the community, as well as the relationships that developed around the production and consumption of food in the mountains.” All of the full-length interviews are available to listen to on the Appalachian Storybank website and are archived at the state’s Western Regional Archives in Oteen.

One of the most powerful themes in the Storybank interviews, says Gebhart, is the way people shared within their community. “In nearly every interview that I’ve done, someone has said in so many words that ‘everyone was poor,’” she says. “Everyone was on the same socioeconomic level, but no one went hungry. … So if someone’s beans weren’t coming in, they would borrow them from a neighbor and return the beans or give them something else, another gift of food when their crop came in.” And in communities where money was hard to come by, people often used food as a means of exchange. For instance, people paid the miller not in money to mill their grits and corn, says Gebhart, but with part of their corn crop.

With money so tight, one might imagine that the holiday season wasn’t much to celebrate, but that wasn’t the case. “People talk about Thanksgiving,” says Lester Crayton. “Well, I have it all the time.” Lester is referring to the gratitude he experiences every day, but the sentiment could easily be applied to the other Storybank subjects.

Barbara Swell, a Storybank volunteer and local cookbook writer who’s long collected food stories, says that people didn’t do much differently for Thanksgiving from what they did for any other gathering. This is not to say that the table wasn’t full of delicious dishes. “The thing that’s so wonderful about this holiday is that it celebrates truly American foods,” says Swell. “And that’s what people here have been eating and sharing anyway. Cornbread, sorghum syrup, a bird of one sort or another, smoked ham, onions, shuck beans, pies, buttermilk, cabbage yanked out of the ground — they were stored upside down with the stems poking out. … Even cranberries grow here up in the higher elevations.”

Gebhart echoes this idea of simple but rich meals for the holidays and throughout the year. “Even if there was a perceived socioeconomic difference, people still ate the same food, and everyone had a hand in food production. It was really simple food, but it was also really rich and diverse,” she says. “People ate so many different vegetables because everyone had a big garden and they put up all their foods. So even though they didn’t have fresh vegetables in the winter, they had canned turnips and beets and sauerkraut. They had canned beans, soup beans, all sorts of things that really made the table a very rich place.” Special treats like wild turkey, fire-roasted chestnuts and apple stack cakes, made from sun- or kiln-dried apples, gave people something extra to celebrate during the holiday season.

More so than Thanksgiving, Christmas was an important holiday, says Gebhart. To earn a little extra money for the festivities, people would grow small cash crops. “Most people had a little patch of tobacco, and that would largely be used to fund Christmas,” she says. “So people would sell their tobacco in the fall, and that money would be used to buy gifts. And the gifts were very simple. … People always talk about getting an orange and maybe an apple and maybe a few pieces of candy in their stockings.”

Listening to the Appalachian Food Storybank interviews, that holiday spirit of being thankful for what you’ve got — even when it isn’t much — truly shines through. “That’s really what is touching to me about these interviews,” says Gebhart, “how much more food was than just food.”

Listen to full interviews and learn more at appalachianfoodstorybank.org.

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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