Montani Semper Liberi - Mountaineers are always free - This is the state motto from where I grew up - West Virginia - It's also a motto for us mountain folk in Appalachia. "Almost Heaven", Coal Country - 4 wheelers, guns, and an appreciation for the land are a way of life. In the oldest mountains on the planet, we live in proximity to part of the most populated, urban real estate on the planet, yet we live and appreciate a country lifestyle - farming & family at the center of it all.
During the birth of our young country, the mountains and hills of Appalachia were the first frontier that early Americans came to as they began to venture West. Native American culture, wild foods, hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging were how we sustained ourselves as early Americans in our rugged landscape. But as we began to learn the land and learn from our Native American brothers and sisters, we found that these Appalachian hills were full of life. Our mountains team with wild game and fish, our streams run strong and clean, and our valleys are rich with fertile soil. Our forefathers had found a beautiful utopia to call home, tucked into the hills and valleys of Appalachia.
Part of our heritage is our sense of community, as well as our sense of "get the hell off my land". Food is at the center of all we do - it's part of our community as much as it is a part of our home. As our country began to grow and the railways and interstates began to open up access to the West, our country began to evolve and industrialize, yet Appalachia remained hidden away by our topography. It wasn't until the late 1970s that interstate access to our region began to open up our cities and towns to the rest of the East coast. I remember my Father telling stories about how his trips from Pittsburgh, PA to Charleston, WV would take 7 hours for what is now a 3 1/2 hour trip. And it's this exact reason that Appalachian has such a unique food culture. For generations we were hidden from the rest of the country, and as our nation industrialized we stayed true to our pioneer roots. Living an agrarian lifestyle of farming, coal mining, or working for one of the few manufacturing corporations - was our way of life - a hard life.
But we are a strong folk - we don't let the world get us down. Our connection to the land has taught us to learn to use the best of what we have. So, we grow gardens and we can and preserve and "put up" vegetables and sauces for the Winter. We have learned the forest floor and have found a plethora of wild mushrooms, shoots, and greens to nourish us and keep us healthy, we hunt for wild game and raise livestock. We've learned to use everything, and throw nothing away.
That's why our food culture is one of the most unique in the country. People like Allen Benton are creating artisan products by curing country hams that could be put up next to any Italian prosciutto or Spanish iberico ham. He's using the heritage curing techniques of his grandparents and nothing has ever changed. Sally Eason is another example - she is producing the best rainbow trout in the country at Sunburst Trout farm. She's taken the techniques of trout raceways from her grandfather and is passing them on to future generations to keep the tradition alive. The tobacco farms of our grandparents and great grandparents are evolving into small-scale farms that produce mind-blowing organic produce, heirloom vegetables, and heritage breed livestock. Our access to the best ingredients may just be right down the road. We've gone back to our roots and along the way we've brought Appalachia back to the forefront of cuisine.
Can you taste it?
Chefs from around the country are coming to visit and hearing about our ramps, our country ham, our small farms. Towns like Asheville, NC, are becoming more than a stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway - we are becoming a culinary destination. Our little mountain town has more restaurants and amazing chefs per capita than anywhere else I know of. It's time to start mentioning Asheville with the likes of New Orleans and Charleston when you talk about food.
As Appalachia begins to modernize so does our food. We're seeing access beyond our region to our great ingredients within our foodshed. Chefs are beginning to take heritage cooking techniques like cast iron cooking and wood fire cooking to new heights by implementing techniques such as sous vide and fermentation to layer flavors. Although our food remains at its roots - simple, defined, and straight forward - but it's beginning to find its way.
Food trends change at the blink of an eye, but what are the foods and cuisines we continue to come back to as eaters? Ethnic Foods - classic Italian, simple Mexican, Indian street food, good old Southern Cuisine. It's this reason that our food right here in Asheville, and in our beautiful region, is rising to the top. Food created out of necessity is food we can all relate to.
I remember how amazing my grandmother's food was. They were meager mountain folks, but everyday she put on a show in her garden and kitchen to create buttermilk biscuits, pan fried country ham, red eye gravy, & greens that could be served from any restaurant kitchen. She cooked from her heart, and that's what makes us unique. Our pride of place, of community, of our people, of our food.
Will Appalachian Food be the next big thing? I think it already is. Like good mountain folk, we don't' like to give away a secret. We're just careful to not let the word get out to fast.
When people ask about what is American Food? Most respond - "it's Southern Food, country cooking".
But Appalachia is the backbone of the South. It's the heart of and soul of the South.
We are a true American Cuisine. A crossroads of mountain communities.
A mountain foodway.
It's an exciting time for our food - watch us grow.
Follow William S. Dissen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chefbillyd