Among the most burningly universal human traits is the craving to be known — truly known — as we believe ourselves to be. In a sense, it’s why we paint or sculpt, build or boast — and, against all odds or logic, tread the often-thorny path of romance.
But because who we are is at least a sometime function of where we’re from, sense of self is inevitably bound up with sense of place. And more than anything else, that passionate attachment to the home place is what drives Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South (University of North Carolina Press, 2005). Now in its third year (though with a different focus in each edition), the annual anthology is put out by the Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
Notwithstanding its title, however, this is no cookbook (nor even one of those cooking/culture hybrids designed to tease kitchen aficionados into exploring some new terrain). Not a single recipe graces these pages, and readers wondering how to make, say, biscuits and gravy will come away no wiser than before.
Nonetheless, food stays front and center throughout the wide-ranging volume’s roughly four dozen essays, poems, scraps of fiction and mini-memoirs. Whether we’re talking fried pies or possum, ramps or heirloom apples, the production, preparation and, most importantly, sharing of food and drink are dissected, discussed and delved into in tones that can only be described as rhapsodic.
Yet as editor (and sometime Asheville resident) Ronni Lundy points out in her penetrating introduction, all this talk of food is ultimately not the moon but the finger pointing at it. “Looking through the lens of real Southern mountain food — the methods of its growing, processing and eating — we began to see a vivid picture of the region and its people,” she writes, “that had little in common with their most prevalent and demeaning stereotypes.”
“How do you hold to assumptions of ignorance when you see a list with dozens of native greens, berries, barks, and seeds that were turned into food and/or medicine? Or believe in traits of clannishness and hostility when you hear the catechism of a Loaves and Fishes ethic that made friends and strangers alike welcome to mountain tables, that caused pork-chops-enough-for-the-family to be reconfigured … into a pork casserole that would provide as well for any and all drop-ins?”
Compelling arguments, to be sure. And yet it’s also clear that complementing the religion of food in the Southern Appalachians was (and is) that other old-time faith. In “The Fruit of Temptation,” Frank Browning describes the motley crowds who braved the rutted mountain roads to his family’s apple orchard to buy fruit. But whereas everybody else would conclude their Sunday-afternoon “sniffing, punching, peeling, slicing the fruit” etc. by making their selections and carrying off their bounty in gunnysacks, those preachers among the multitudes “would ask us to set their apples aside in the rear packing room. Then they would return Monday to pick them up and pay us.” And later in the same piece, Browning recalls “a substitute teacher [who] once eyed a novel on my desk as if it were a satanic cookbook.”
What’s marvelous about this eclectic collection is how effortlessly it leads the reader down unimagined blue highways of the mind. And like their subjects, the authors of these pieces are a wildly diverse lot. A number come from North Carolina, and several grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Others represent the full spectrum of the Southern Appalachians and beyond (including, perhaps most intriguingly, one Joel Davis, “a mystery to the editors of this volume [who] is reported to be a journalist in East Tennessee”). And while some writers are Scotch-Irish, others are Native American, Italian and even “Affrilachian.”
Ironically, however, the culinary culture celebrated in these pages seems all but invisible today. Although the names may be the same, it’s clear that the native dishes glorified by these writers bear little resemblance to the ones on offer at your favorite local hash house. (I write this as a recovering greasy-spoon addict, but it was always the ambiance that drew me, more than the food itself.) Perhaps these foodways live on in the homes of longtime mountain families. But for many of the Johnny- and Jane-Come-Latelies who now call Asheville home, these traditions and tidbits will be as obscure and exotic as the food customs of the Aru Islands. When, for example, was the last time you attended a syrup boil? Came face to face with a pawpaw? Sampled squirrel brains?
Some of this, of course, is a function of material poverty, which tends to foster a culture of making do with what one has (or, as author Sally Schneider puts it, “If you don’t have it, you don’t need it”). But as Lundy, a native Kentuckian, compellingly spells out:
“For the last century and then some, the culture of America at large has been a culture of things. From its onset, the culture of the Southern mountains has been one of connection. Being intangible, the treasures of the latter are virtually invisible to the citizens of the former. Consequently, a life focused on fostering connection, as opposed to acquisition, might seem to the dominant culture, at best, quaint and anachronistic, at worst, ridiculous and perverse.”
But cultural barriers aside, there’s another level at work here that anyone with half a heart can readily understand: food as love. Or as Janisse Ray movingly relates:
“‘I can’t take your syrup,’ I say. ‘You’ve worked too hard for it.’ I again hold the bottle toward him.
“He shifts sideways. ‘You’re not taking it,’ he says. ‘I’m giving it to you.'”