A few years ago, Louisville chef Edward Lee became obsessed with making chow-chow — a pickled relish found in Appalachia that sometimes features green tomatoes, cabbage and peas. It’s a seemingly unexpected fixation for a Brooklyn-born chef of Korean descent, but Lee says it’s the result of something deeper.
“You know, I come here to Louisville over a dozen years ago, and I learn about Southern food and I learn about these traditions,” Lee says. “I start to unravel questions and layers of answers — and a lot of it draws me to Appalachia.”
Lee isn’t the only chef to feel this way.
While Appalachia is shifting away from a coal-fueled economy, another of its natural resources is finding the spotlight: its food. Earlier this year, the Washington Post published an article lauding “humble Appalachian” food as the next big thing in American regional cooking.
But some who live in the region say while this newfound attention could bolster the region’s financial fortunes, it could also play into the same “extraction economy” that has drained Appalachia for decades.
Of course, the impact of said extraction wouldn’t rival that of the coal industry. Nor could every displaced mine worker find a job in the culinary field, should it continue to grow.
But investigating the pros and cons of the focus on Appalachia’s foodways is a step more and more are finding necessary.
Ivy Brashear is a communications associate working on Appalachian transition within the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED). Her work focuses on advocating for a regional shift toward an economy that relies on local assets.
“So local foods definitely fit into that, but certainly it has to fit within just transition,” Brashear says. “It has to be sustainable and rely on local folks. The work can’t be outsourced.”
She continues: “What we’re seeing a little bit of is folks using the ‘Appalachian’ brand and using Appalachian food as a way to market their own food and use it for their own benefit without really benefiting the region at all.”
That’s where the Appalachian Food Summit comes in. The event was established in 2013 by founders Lora Smith, Travis Milton, Kendra Bailey Morris and Ronni Lundy. Smith says they conceived of the summit after realizing that Appalachia was becoming “trendy” again.
“There was some kind of feeling of urgency, especially from some of our founding members like Ronni Lundy, who has written about Appalachian foodways for decades, and has seen the cycle,” Smith says. “You know, Appalachia gets ‘rediscovered’ every couple of decades.”
The summit — which works with Grow Appalachia — draws writers, chefs, food scholars, farmers and food entrepreneurs.
“It’s focused on preserving and celebrating the vernacular cooking traditions that exist in the mountains, but it is also really forward-thinking in what will support a sustainable future,” Smith says.
Teaching Respect, Responsibility
Smith says giving those in Appalachia the tools to grow, harvest, prepare and promote their own food would lead to demand for a more dynamic regional workforce. And that, in turn, would provide jobs in the economically depressed area.
But that’s only if food professionals from within and outside the region borrow responsibly.
She points to chefs Travis Milton and Lee as examples.
Milton, who was the subject of the aforementioned Washington Post article, plans to open his Appalachian-themed restaurant, Shovel & Pick, later this year in Bristol, Tennessee.
“Appalachia has been such an area of extraction for so long with coal, with timbering, you name it — it’s been a matter of folks capitalizing on our resources and us seeing very little from it,” Milton says. “In this case it rings very, very true. The spotlight that’s being shone on Appalachian food is somewhat of a double-edged sword.”
Milton — who was raised in Appalachia but lives in Richmond, Virginia — says the only way for food to serve as an economic driver for the region is by ensuring that chefs who take from the area also giving something back.
“I thought about opening up my Appalachian-themed restaurant here in Richmond, but I kind of took a step back and really did some soul-searching, and realized that in doing so I would be a part of that problem.” Milton says.
At Shovel & Pick, Milton says that part of his plan is training staff from the region to be prepared to work in fine-dining, as well as using ingredients from local farmers.
“Me being outside the region, I would be putting that money into my pocket and the community would see no real, tangible benefit from it other than the word ‘Appalachia’ being used in an article about me, or something of that matter,” Milton says.
He also says a key step in moving Appalachian cuisine forward in a sustainable way is setting up the region as a culinary hub. He points to Charleston, South Carolina, for inspiration.
“I feel like the region can really use [Charleston] as a model for culinary tourism, for agri-business, a lot of different aspects of driving some form of a food-ways based economy, or at least partially-based foodways economy,” Milton says. “In going to Charleston, you get to taste what Charleston is.”
To aid in this effort, the Appalachian Regional Commission recently released Bon Appétit Appalachia!, the largest searchable online map of local food businesses and entrepreneurs operating in Appalachia. Bon Appétit Appalachia! lists more than 830 local farms, restaurants, bakeries, breweries, wineries and festivals operating in the 13 Appalachian states, and it continues to expand.
By copying the model of Charleston, Milton says both tourists and chefs who want to learn about Appalachian cooking techniques could visit the region — something Lee has done in his own cooking.
Lee has attended the Appalachian Food Summit and traveled independently through the region. And while he believes it’s important to let culinary traditions develop outside of a regional bubble, Lee also says there’s “a sense of respect and a sense of study that you have to approach it with.”
“For me, it’s always about being a student of the culture first before you try to adopt or do anything with it,” Lee says.
He also cites the importance of learning from the masters.
“Whether it’s people like Travis Milton or Lora Smith or Ronni Lundy, who I am very good friends with, these people — I respect them a lot and I use them as guides,” Lee says.
Time will tell if other food pros will view the region in the same way – and just who will end up benefiting from their interest.