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When people talk about experts on Appalachian food, most immediately mention Ronni Lundy. A native of Corbin, in southeastern Kentucky, Lundy is perhaps the best-known champion of Appalachian foodways. Southern Living has named her as one of the true preservers of Southern food culture and she is one of the founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which publishes the wonderful magazine Gravy. She is the former reviewer and music critic for The Courier-Journal and served as editor for Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South (2005), as well as being published in many national magazines such as Food and Wine, Esquire, and many others. Lundy’s book Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens (1991) was recognized by Gourmet magazine as one of six essential books on Southern cooking. She followed it with 1999’s Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from a Southern Garden, which drew more from her mountain upbringing. Now she has a new book, Sorghum’s Savor, which not only gives us the history of sorghum but also includes a wealth of recipes. We were lucky to have a chance to talk to her about this new endeavor and why she thinks sorghum is “the Emmylou Harris of sugars.”
Appalachian Heritage: From the very first line in Sorghum’s Savor you’re pointing to the fact that your family was “mountain folks”. Our food identity is so strong in this region. Why do you think Appalachians have such pride about their foodways?
Ronni Lundy: Before I get into the philosophical, spiritual, identity politics of things, let me just say something first that often gets overlooked: We love our food so fiercely because it tastes so incredibly good. Because of the curing, drying, fermenting and/or garden freshness combined with cooking traditions of low, slow braising, quick crusting of breads, and seasoning with succulent pork, traditional Appalachian foods really do bring the “umami” to the fore. And I know that word is misused and overused in food writing these days, but it is specifically and deeply applicable to the southern mountain palate.
Emotionally? I keep hearing Ola Belle Reed singing “I’ve endured…” and that seems to apply to the foodways themselves. The numbers of people who continue to dry apples or shuck beans or put up pickles and preserve has of course diminished, but not nearly died out and this sort of artisanal craft continuing is unusual in a regional food that has not, until very recently, had a larger popular audience outside the region. That means not only are these traditional foods still the taste of the mountains for many, but they also represent that we, as individuals and a culture that have been in many ways over a long time “besieged,” have endured as well. So there’s a sense of communion with our heritage but also a moment of pride in the present in continuing to savor these things.
AH: When you’re with other food writers or critics from around the country do you ever sense that Appalachian food is being looked down upon?
RL: Up until about a year ago my answer would have been a qualified “yes.” First, until very recently very few people outside the region in any profession have had any idea what actual Appalachian people actually eat. It has been instead the punchline of a joke (“I’m gonna fry me up some possum brains,” declares Granny Clampett and stamps her boot, and begins to clog…) or a way for the outside world to signify that because the people in the mountains eat trash, they are trash and can therefore be judged, exploited and/or denigrated. That’s not just been among food writers, but has been the general public’s perception of Appalachians and Appalachian food in my lifetime and, if you follow the writing about the region, all the way back to the arrival of the first colonials. Because I hang largely with writers who focus on southern foodways, my closest colleagues have been much more curious about what the real foods of Appalachia are, and what that might mean about the people and place. The Southern Foodways Alliance, in fact, made that the focus of one of its earliest symposia (2002 or 2003) and of the third volume in its anthology of food writing, Cornbread Nation 3; The Food of the Mountain South. That said, the larger perception in the food community has been mostly dismissive or deeply misinformed. I find I enter a lot of discussions about mountain food with folks from “off” with the word, “Actually…”
Southern Appalachian food shared this “ghetto” with southern food in general up until about a decade ago when, in no small part through the efforts of the SFA, southern food at large began to be looked at, talked about and celebrated as a far more complex, nutritious and delicious cuisine that just fried chicken and tomatoes, plus barbecue. That same sort of curiosity is now being turned to Appalachian food, with good and bad results. The good is folks have discovered ramps are great eating, not a totem in a story of exclusion (“They won’t let their children go to school if they’ve been eating ramps…”). The bad news is they’re being badly harvested and over harvested in damaging ways. Just one example, but a specific that is indicative of the general. The very recent trendiness of Appalachian food means it’s being exploited, often erroneously, by some restaurateurs who don’t know what they are cooking or talking about–and, as always, there’s a level of Pappyface that comes into play with that so some may offer up the food at the same time still denigrating the people. Like I say, it’s complicated.
AH: While sorghum has always been a staple of Southern homes it seems that it’s recently become very fashionable. One even sees sorghum used in fancy cocktails now. Why do you think there has been such resurgence in the interest of sorghum?
RL: Because it tastes great and is remarkably versatile in a number of culinary applications. It has a buttery resonance that other sweeteners–even honey and maple syrup–lack so it harmonizes with almost anything. That’s why I call it the Emmylou Harris of sugars.
AH: Exciting things are happening with the Appalachian Food Summit, of which you’ve been a founding member. Can you tell us about that?
RL: Going back to your question above about how Appalachian food may be perceived in the food community at large, and the part of my answer that referenced it being misappropriated: The Appalachian Food Summit is a group of writers, farmers, chefs, scholars, producers and just plain eaters who care about the foods and foodways of the mountain south. We came together in a Facebook conversation and the “group” has burgeoned because there is first an interest in the actual food of the mountain south and second, a movement in the region to look for small scale food economies that are sustainable that will allow the people of the region to stay and thrive in the region. Those two impetuses combined mean that this group can first claim the discourse about what Appalachian food is and what it says about the people and the region instead of having stories–and their hidden agendas–foisted on us. Second, it means that we can communicate across the region to support one another in creating these viable economies: sorghum syrup production is one such conversation, food tourism is another, the rolling canning truck that Kentucky has just put on the road is another. We exist as a place where people can share this information and support one another’s efforts across the region. We’re not quite sure just yet how this is going to all play out. This group did not begin because someone thought it should and set things in motion, but it was instead the result of a social media conversation about cornbread among many interested people that grew in an amazing direction. Stay tuned. There will be more…
AH: You’re also well-known as a music writer. How does an interest in food and music go hand-in-hand?
RL: Before I was anything but a closet writer, I was in love with music and I loved to cook. In the early 1970s, I fell particularly in love with bluegrass, both traditional and the progressive movement. Food was how I came to know a number of my contemporaries who were musicians in the progressive scene–by taking food to festivals to share or having them come for meals and conversation. It’s how I learned what I know about the roots and branches of that music. It’s also how I got Bill Monroe to actually talk to me: I took him a stack cake. It was my credential for getting down to the nitty gritty in conversation with Dwight Yoakam before he was a star: I didn’t question if a boy from Columbus, Ohio, who said he’d eaten squirel was lying, instead I asked how his granny cooked it because even though I’d grown up in Louisville, I’d had my share of fried squirrel, too.
I wrote about both subjects (initially more about music, ultimately more about food) because they allowed me ways to talk about things that are largely unseen and often unnamable. To my mind, music is the art most directly allied to the creative force–no translation needed, something in it is speaking soul to soul, no matter the medium used for the sound. Food is the art form that allows the creator to connect most directly to your audience’s desire and feed it, literally and figuratively. Approaching both with that somewhere in the back of the mind, there’s always the possibility that a conversation about either will open into deeper and richer territory. Plus you can almost always find a food or music connection with another human being, which makes a place for storytelling to begin.
AH: You’ve been one of the main people who have carried on the tradition of shuck beans. Why is this such an essential mountain food for you?
RL: Let me say it for the third time: Because it tastes so good. (See, there’s a theme here.)
Really. It’s just such a lip-smacking, sustaining, magical food. And then, the levels of magic and pondering it opens to: Whose idea was it to string fresh green beans on thread and let them dry? All other bean cultures (which is pretty near any cuisine in the world) shell the beans to dry them. Why do we do it this way? What does that ritual tell us about community and connection? Stringing and threading the beans was something the women of the family did together; both respite and connection in a hard working life. Is that part of why we continued to do it long after any physical need to provide our own beans for the winter was gone? Resourcefulness: Love those folks who figured out to dry them on the shelf in the back of the car. Magic in the pot: How the shells becomes silky while the beans are buttery protein.
Personal magic: When I spent my first Christmas ever away from home, on Christmas morning there was a postal package on the stoop of the tiny house I rented in Santa Fe. Don’t ask me how it arrived on a holiday. Maybe it had been delivered to the wrong place the day before and someone figured it out and dropped it off, but it was magic, and it contained, among other things, a bag of shuck beans my cousins had dried and sent to me. I cooked them on New Year’s for people I’d met who’d been kind to me, a stranger in New Mexico. The man who later became my husband of some twenty-something years and the father of our daughter and my still good friend, stood at the pot, scooping them up and asking me questions about them, about my family, about my “home.” The shuck beans said all the things for which I lacked words.
AH: If you were asked to prepare the quintessential Appalachian meal, what would it be?
RL: Soup beans and cornbread, a slice of raw onion on the side, a tall glass of cold sweet milk. Pickles if you want ’em, but beans and bread will be enough for me.