Arts and Culture

It all started with a simple question: Have you ever been made to feel ashamed of the foods you grew up eating?

Within an hour of posting it to an Appalachian Americans Facebook group, I already had 50 replies. By the next morning, there were 200.

Over the next few days, my phone kept vibrating with notifications of responses. Buzz. Fatback rolled in cornmeal. Buzz. Dandelion salad. Buzz. Stewed squirrel meat slathered in gravy.

Conversations began among commenters, many of whom were complete strangers but with a shared story: They moved away from their Appalachian hometowns and left some of their food traditions behind. Why? Because those traditions weren’t the foods people from cities eat. And by eating those dishes, they’d be inviting judgement about where they’re from.

Appalachian-born food writer Ronni Lundy has one of these stories. She was in her 20s working in a community garden in New Mexico when she overheard a conversation — in many ways about her, although not exactly — between her coworkers.

“I remember hearing one of the girls say to the other one, “Oh my god, do you know what they do to lettuce in the South? They pour bacon grease on it!” Lundy says, pausing to make a mock gagging sound. “And they were laughing, you know. I remember being in the other part of the garden, and first of all feeling this shame. You know, why do we do that?”

“And then thinking,” she goes on: “‘That’s one of the most delicious things we eat.’”

Forty years later, something in that old dynamic has shifted. Appalachian food has been “discovered” by critics and eaters alike as trendy regional cuisine prime for reinvention.

But advocates for the region, like Lundy, point out that many of the dishes now popping up on mainstream menus have been used in the past as a way to shame residents of Appalachia based on their perceived socioeconomic status or class.

It’s a complicated phenomenon not mentioned on the trend lists, one that shines a spotlight on how dominant, urban communities truly make the decisions about what (and when) certain regional foodways become nationally accepted.

‘Trash Foods’

Using urban standards to judge rural areas is nothing new.

According to University of Kentucky professor of rural sociology Julie Zimmerman, the divide between these communities has been slowly deepening since 1920, the first year Census data showed the U.S. population tipped a little bit more urban than rural.

“Rural areas are often treated as not just flyover country, but as being backwards, stuck in the past, not modern, not with it,” Zimmerman says. “Now, we tend to use urban expectations or urban experiences and then judge rural against those — even if they might not be relevant.”

She says many people from regions like Appalachia are incredibly proud of their heritage and traditions. But the homogenized, often negative portrayal of rurality can cause some who move to urban areas to “feel like they have to hide their rural roots.”

It’s a process of assimilation that could range from losing an accent — a decision Meredith McCarroll wrote about with regret in her piece “On and On: Appalachian Accent and Academic Power” — to giving up the foods of one’s childhood.

Lewis Hine – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

North Carolina. From the Library of Congress’ collection of Appalachian food photos.

Brooke Jenkins-Howard felt that pressure when it came to deer meat.

“I’m from Appalachia, and I’m very proud of where I’m from,” Jenkins-Howard says.

Having access to and cooking with game was normal where she grew up in Eastern Kentucky, she says. But when she moved to attend college in Lexington — which she says was considerably more urban than her hometown — students from other cities or even other parts of the state didn’t have the same experience.

“I remember that people were disgusted by the fact that, you know, we might have deer — or ‘venison’ if you want to be proper — as part of our diet,” Jenkins-Howard says. “They didn’t have that as part of their diet, and they were kind of snobby about it.”

Fifteen years after that, venison may not sound like a particularly divisive protein. It’s now carried at most butcher shops and places like Whole Foods, which even says on its blog that a “floral, deeply colored Tempranillo” is the perfect wine pairing for the meat.

But other game meats — like squirrel, an item many of those Facebook commenters mentioned — have yet to make their way onto most dinner plates. That might be because squirrel hasn’t received a “cultural upgrade,” a term used by Kentucky-born writer Chris Offutt in his essay “Trash Food.”

In it, he explores how foods like crawfish and catfish, which were once favored by African-Americans and poor Southern whites, found their way into fine dining establishments.

Justin Watt, Wikicommons

Crawfish.

“Crawfish and catfish stopped being ‘trash food’ when the people eating it in restaurants were the same ones who felt superior to the lower classes,” Offutt writes.

That’s when a cultural upgrade happens, he says: when “elite diners” take foods from rural, regional backgrounds and redefine them to fit urban expectations.

“Otherwise, they were voluntarily lowering their own social status — something nobody wants to do,” Offutt writes.

You can see how deer was repositioned as gourmet in this 1997 Washington Post piece, aptly titled “Deer Goes Mainstream. The meat is farm-raised instead of hunted, pairs well with a wild-mushroom ragout, and — perhaps most importantly — “has always had a place on the menus of serious restaurants.”

Squirrel, of course, hasn’t made the cut yet.

Telling the Whole Story of Appalachian Cuisine

Lundy says there’s opportunity for the newfound attention on Appalachian cuisine — regardless of who or what instigated it — to do good for the region.

“I mean, it would be great if everybody went, ‘Hey, Appalachian food is really hot or is really interesting, and let’s go find out everything we can about it to make it authentically, and let’s see if we can turn this into an economic booster for the region,’” she says. “Because we need it — very, very much.”

But, she says, telling the whole story of Appalachian food and how it relates to people and place needs to continue even after the national appetite for the cuisine diminishes.

“Those of us who care about the food, and care about the region, care about the people [need to] continue to try to tell the legitimate story,” Lundy says, “to point out what the foods say about the people and the culture.”

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.