It was sometime during that slow, gray period right before Valentine’s Day 2020 — back when we all still imagined the coming year might be something less awful than the devastating global dumpster fire it soon proved to be — that I first read about Knoxville, Tenn.’s steamed hoagies.
The introduction came via Chelsey Mae Johnson’s exquisite ode to Knoxville’s favorite sandwich, “They Still Like That Soft Bread,” in The Bitter Southerner. In the story, Johnson reminisces about her personal relationship with steamed hoagies, then digs into the food’s history and legacy through research and conversations with Knoxville locals. While reading her skillful, loving prose, my interest was piqued by the concept of simple, ubiquitous dishes that serve as the foundation of a region’s culinary vernacular.
I found myself wondering: Does Asheville have its own version of the steamed hoagie?
Boozy milkshakes and hippie salads
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Auburndale, Fla., a small town smack in the center of the state, dotted with lakes lurked by alligators and hemmed by swamps, cow pastures and orange groves. There were several dishes I loved as a child that I later realized were the fundamental elements of Central Florida’s unique food language. The list is a flavor map of the area’s culture: freshly squeezed orange juice, citrus swirl (vanilla ice cream swirled with frozen orange juice), fried alligator tail (best when eaten to live bluegrass music at the beloved Allen’s Cafe in Auburndale), strawberry shortcake (ideally purchased and consumed at the annual Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City), Cuban sandwiches and Greek salads with potato salad on top.
During summers, my parents would often tote my younger sister and me in a camper or RV to Western North Carolina for a week or two of cooler-than-Florida temperatures and mountain views. And decades later, I eventually put down permanent roots in Asheville after years of gradually inching my way here. By 2020, I’d been writing professionally about Asheville’s food scene and farms for close to a decade. But despite a fairly long-term and intimate relationship with the area, after reading Johnson’s story, I still couldn’t put my finger on what Asheville’s answer to Knoxville’s steamed hoagie might be.
Then one day this summer, very unexpectedly but much to my excitement, an email from my editor at Mountain Xpress appeared in my inbox asking me to pursue this very topic. So, I started asking questions.
My first stop was Nan Chase. Not only is she a food historian and author of the book Lost Restaurants of Asheville, but she’s also a former investigative journalist. I knew she wouldn’t give up until she had some answers. Now a resident of the small town of Fries, Va., Chase knows more than most about Asheville’s history and the evolution of its food scene, but the question had her scratching her head at first, too.
“When I first started thinking about it, I couldn’t come up with anything,” Chase admits. Diving into Lost Restaurants to research possibilities, she wandered a tasty trail of erstwhile Asheville delicacies, starting with the advent of the popular boozy milkshakes at longtime West Asheville hangout Burgermeister’s, which operated from 1995 to 2013. After some thought, though, she decided “that was an Asheville classic, but it didn’t quite rise to the level of the steamed hoagies.”
From there, she considered the more general category of ice cream desserts, historically widespread in Asheville due to decades of available high-quality milk products from the imported Jersey cows at Biltmore Dairy Farms (which was sold to Pet Inc. in 1985). Chase also went in the opposite direction, looking at hearty salads popularized by Asheville’s original hippie restaurant, Stone Soup (open from 1977-94).
But she decided neither of those really qualified as iconic Asheville foods, either. “I realized that for Asheville, throughout its history, the one constant thing has been the churning of what’s new, what’s delicious, what’s hip,” Chase explains. “Then I took a step backward and asked: What was it all based on? And I ended up at Cherokee foods.”
Beans and greens
Known to the Cherokee as the three sisters, beans, corn and squash (as well as pumpkins) were not only a mainstay of local indigenous diets but eventually made their way onto the daily tables of Western North Carolina’s white settlers as they learned native foodways. Ultimately — along with greens, fish and foraged foods such as wild mushrooms, ramps and herbs — the three sisters developed into “the bedrock food of Asheville and Western North Carolina,” says Chase. “Those sorts of things form the backbone of Western North Carolina mountain cuisine. And they can be taken to great heights, but they are the very simple building blocks that existed before white settlers came in.”
Chase notes that these ingredients — particularly beans and corn in the form of cornmeal and cornbread — have been ubiquitous not only at family tables in WNC over the centuries but as menu staples at everything from the humblest down-home diners to the snootiest upscale establishments. And in the 2000s, with the whirlwind advancement of the local restaurant scene, culinary innovators have enthusiastically and continuously riffed on those edible origins, creating a culinary style that’s uniquely Asheville.
At this point, I realized it was time to speak with a chef, and preferably one with a connection to Asheville’s culinary past. So, I tracked down Clarence Robinson, aka The Flavor King, operator of Cooking with Comedy food truck and the future executive chef of Areta’s Soul Food, a café planned for the historic space at SoundSpace@Rabbit’s music rehearsal studio.
In addition to being a hilarious, mad kitchen genius, Robinson has deep Asheville roots and a family link to a priceless piece of local food history. Many of his recipes come from the repertoire of his great-aunt Areta Peterson, a revered home cook for whom Areta’s Soul Food is named. And his father was friends with the owner of Rabbit’s Café, the eatery at the Black-owned Rabbit’s Motel, which operated from the 1940s until the early 2000s in Asheville’s historically Black Southside neighborhood. Robinson recalls hanging around Rabbit’s as a child back in the 1980s watching through the screen door as the cook, Lou Ella Byrd, prepared dishes for customers.
When I got in touch with him about my quest, he, too, was initially puzzled by my question. But after pondering for a few moments, he landed in familiar territory. “You know, Asheville is so versatile, there’s not just one kind of cuisine around here; everything is always switching up, so it’s hard to really pinpoint one thing,” Robinson says. “But I’d say it’s that same old Southern cuisine they’ve been cooking around here — you know, greens and barbecue and all that.”
According to Chase’s Lost Restaurants of Asheville, Rabbit’s was known for its Southern soul food dishes, including slow-cooked collard greens, pinto beans, squash casserole, candied yams and pork chops that one diner in the 1990s declared were as “thick as Bibles.” Robinson’s Cooking with Comedy menu upholds the culinary legacy of Rabbit’s, offering plenty of classic Southern comfort dishes like fried chicken, oxtails, barbecued ribs, cabbage, green beans and sweet potatoes. But the chef — like so many others in Asheville — also puts his own modern spin on those elemental flavors.
“With pinto beans and stuff like that, Asheville’s sticking to the script. And people still want that oxtail, too — I cook a lot of them. I think greens are a big thing, with a lot of people trying to go vegan,” he says. “I’m cooking greens a different way myself. I’ve been doing collard green quesadillas and collard greens and salmon wraps. I utilize collard greens a lot.”
Musing about greens and beans, I figured I should probably touch base with a farmer, so I headed out to the WNC Farmers Market on Brevard Road.
Greasies and turkey craws
My day was just starting when I pulled into the WNC Farmers Market parking lot on a bright September morning. I’d just dropped my daughter off at school, and the sun was gradually making its way into the blue sky above the buildings and mountains. But farmer Carolyn Edmundson of Edmundson Produce Farm in Mills River had already been hard at work for many hours.
I found Edmundson perched on a forklift in her farm’s vendor stall surrounded by enormous mesh sacks of sweet corn hopping with tiny sparrows looking for an easy breakfast. She’d been on the job since 1 a.m. selling her fresh corn, beans, cucumbers and other items — every day, buyers from roadside produce stands, small grocery stores and restaurants all over the Eastern U.S. and beyond travel to the WNC Farmers Market and start lining up as early as 2 a.m. to purchase produce. But she was still happy to chat with me.
Edmundson, who grew up in the small community of Zirconia in Henderson County, has been growing vegetables in Mills River with her husband, Randy, for 35 years. They started with just an acre of sweet corn and now grow 115 acres of non-GMO vegetables, including several varieties of squash, pickling cucumbers, and their specialty — beans. Due to ever-increasing demand from restaurateurs and grocers, they currently devote a full 40 acres of their operation to beans, including the conventionally popular half-runners and stringless Blue Lake, plus greasies and October beans, Louisiana purple pods, Roma beans and a few others. Next season, they plan to add even more varieties.
An accomplished cook who, for many years, operated a successful retail bakery for her farm, Edmundson also has a certified kitchen where she cans and pickles her farm’s produce to sell by the case. And during slow periods in her market stall, she shells, strings and breaks beans that she later takes home to can for her own family’s pantry.
She says she believes that beans, in both their homespun and more elevated modern restaurant iterations, could be considered a quintessential WNC dish. “We ate a lot of greasies when I was growing up,” she remembers, specifying that it was a shorter variety than the ones she currently grows. “We grow the long greasies, which are easier for picking.”
Restaurants, she says, love to buy her greasy beans — a WNC native variety so named for its shiny green pods. But chefs also like other WNC homegrown varieties, too. As an example, Edmundson shows me a basket of October beans, named for the time of year they are usually harvested in WNC. They are unexpectedly beautiful, the pods a delicate, pearly white-green stippled with streaks of magenta and ruby pink. The beans inside the pods are white with pink markings and very fat compared with other types of beans I’m familiar with.
“Now, we shell those out,” Edmundson explains. “They’re pink and white in the shell, and when you cook them, they turn brown. They’re delicious.” When cooked, she adds, the beans expand to an even larger size, making for very hearty eating. “If you can them, you only put the jar half full then fill it the rest of the way with water, because they swell up and fill the jar.”
She then leads me to some long green pods and shelled speckled brown beans drying in a cardboard box, a native WNC variety named turkey craw. “Turkey craw’s the one that everybody’s asking for next year,” says Edmundson. “It’s an heirloom, and the tale of where it came from is that somebody’s great-granddaddy killed a turkey, and when he was cleaning it, it had these beans in its craw.”
Although these local beans are an essential WNC food and demand has skyrocketed for them with the growth of Asheville’s restaurant scene, Edmundson points out that there are other vegetables, like squash, that should be considered part of the answer to my steamed hoagie question. “Sweet corn, beans and pickling cucumbers are our No. 1 hits,” she says.
As Chase noted, some of those hits — the beans, corn and squash — have been underpinning the food culture of the WNC mountains since the land was stewarded by its original inhabitants, the Cherokee. Others, like cucumbers, edged in with white immigrants and eventually made themselves right at home. Mix all those ingredients with Asheville’s inclination toward constant experimentation and change, and I guess I’ve uncovered an answer to my steamed hoagie question, albeit one that’s as quirky, colorful and history-steeped as the city itself.