This is probably the question I have been asked the most since I arrived at the Harvest Table a little more than a year ago; and every time we ponder the answer, another question arises: What exactly is Appalachian Food? I hope to share what Appalachian food means to me and why we like to call what we cook “Neo-Appalachian.”
The first thing that comes to mind in every conversation about mountain cooking are memories of special dishes that were made by the whole family. Some memories give visions of Christmas morning with four generations cooking the Christmas ham the exact same way it has been cooked the same way as long as anyone can remember; others begin with the meals prepared with thoughtfulness to provide the nourishment needed to get through a long day on the farm. I believe these traditions are one part of what sets Appalachian food apart, but I don’t think they are the core of what makes Appalachian food as exciting as it is. I think of Appalachian food as a celebration of ingredients, not necessarily as a group of dishes or a specific preparation of an ingredient. In my opinion Appalachian food begins with the land. It feeds our animals, entertains our kids, is stunningly beautiful, and most importantly provides food in all forms to us. It is the memories of growing corn with your dad and running through the rows playing hide and seek with your brothers and sisters, raising that turkey for Thanksgiving every year, growing sorghum and getting the whole family together to press it and turn it into syrup, or any other fond memory one may have that makes the ingredients themselves special.
The final piece to what Appalachian food is to me goes back to the memories created with family and friends. The pumpkin pie that grandma always made, the broccoli and rice casserole that dad only makes once a year, that one really random dish that always seems to be at family gatherings because it is literally the only thing a family member knows how to cook (that no one will admit is secretly their favorite dish). None of these ingredients or dishes would be what they are if it wasn’t for the fond memories that are evoked when thinking about them.
In the day to day workings at the Harvest Table I have a unique perspective in the bounty the land provides and the memories and traditions food from our region has provided. I talk with different farmers every day. I hear about what crops didn’t do quite as well as it did in years past, plants that have never produced anything that all of a sudden started taking off, or even sometimes how a certain row of plants doesn’t look like they will do well and then I see the happiness when those same plants start producing fruits. It is the pride the farmers have in what they grow, whether it be the potatoes they have grown for generations or the ginger that was an experiment, even trying out a new diet with chickens or pigs, their pride is my inspiration. Seeing the look in a farmer’s eye telling me about an ingredient makes me want to make that ingredient just as special on a menu as it is to our farmers. Neo-Appalachian food starts with the desire to make an ingredient special and ends in the hope new memories of a new dish, vegetable you want to try and grow, or just a fun night out with friends and family are made. Neo-Appalachian, to me, is reinventing traditional dishes or even attempting to create new dishes that may not traditional at all to reflect the amazing variety of what we can grow here in our mountain, and also to attempt to show our farmer’s love for what they raise in every plate that we cook.
Bradley has been the Sous Chef at the Harvest Table for just over a year. His love for local and creative cooking shine in every dish. Feel free to stop in and ask him any questions!