By Lora Smith
The Inaugural Appalachian Food Summit held at the Hindman Settlement School on May 18th was a celebration of mountain food heritage that offered a glimpse at the unfolding future of local food in the region. According to author and chronicler of all things hillbilly food and music, Ronni Lundy, the gathering was originally conceived as a “meeting in the air,” a reference to the classic Carter Family song:
There is going to be a meeting in the air
In the sweet, sweet by and by
I am going to meet you, meet you over there
All our burdens and our anguish will be lifted
At that meeting in the air
The gathering successfully drew foodways scholars, writers, chefs, farmers and advocates from all six Central Appalachian states alongside visitors from outside the region.
The half-day program included an opening community carry-in meal that produced such delights as bourbon banana pudding, elderberry lemonade and a variety of homemade jams and pickles. The meal was followed by “rocking chair keynotes” from Eastern Kentucky seed saver Bill Best and Virginia filmmaker Jamie Ross. Best presented on the hundreds of heirloom seed varieties he’s saved during a lifetime of dedicated and meticulous work. Ross spoke about early Native American practices that influenced the region’s distinctive and diverse cuisines.
The Summit was topped off by an inspired regionally-sourced supper prepared by Southwest Virginia native and celebrated chef Travis Milton . The meal was sponsored by Appalachia Proud, the new Kentucky Proud brand that designates food products produced in 37 Eastern Kentucky counties. Kentucky producers were well represented on the menu by honey from Tammy Horn’s coalfield bees, produce from HF Farms in Floyd County, sorghum from Holbrook Brothers Sorghum, Climax Spring Water and Jay Denham’s cured ham from the Cure House.
Highlights of the feast included a kilt lettuce salad with homemade crab apple vinegar, sour corn, beaten sweet potato biscuits served with cured ham, honey butter and pepper jelly, fried catfish with a tomato gravy, potatoes with foraged ramps and bacon, and green tomato hand pies.
Like Travis’s homemade crabapple vinegar that traces its scoby “mother” to his great-grandmother’s kitchen, this was a special, and some even said “holy,” meal. The dinner, rooted in history, place and, maybe most importantly, served in a rural mountain context, transcended the normal farm to table fair by pointing to something much deeper.
The day was an affirmation of what Appalachian people have to offer national conversations about local food, sustainable agriculture, wildcrafting, craft distilling, small batch preservation and place-based cuisine. While many of these concepts are now viewed as hip, they are not new for farmers, gardeners, seed savers and cooks who come from a tradition of holler to table meals. In fact, the storied seeds and foodways that have endured for generations in Appalachia could offer solutions to global concerns and challenges ranging from GMOs to the climate crisis.
That’s not to say things are going to be easy.
Like the rest of the nation, regional advocates are tasked with the heavy load of rebuilding a broken food system and renewing a struggling economy. Urban consumers in places like Lexington have a role to play in these efforts. Supporting mountain farmers by buying produce and products that carry the Appalachia Proud label is a good start.
Participants left the Appalachian Food Summit knowing that mountain land is resilient, mountain people creative and that the region is ready to meet the hard challenges it faces. Stuffed and satisfied diners walked out into the warm night making their way to cars parked along the banks of Troublesome Creek. With hope and the smell of fried catfish lingering in the air, many carried to-go plates piled high with extra helpings and the promise of a future that might taste something like the sweet by and by.
Lora Smith is a native of Southeastern Kentucky where her family has been for seven generations. She writes about Southern food, drink and place for regional and national publications including Punch, The Daily Yonder, and the Southern Foodways Alliance.
This article appears on page 5 of the June 5 print edition of Ace. For more Kentucky food and restaurant news, click here to subscribe to the Ace digital e-dition, emailed to your inbox every Thursday morning.