Growing up in the heart of Appalachia—specifically, the Kentucky coal-mining town of Hazard—my friend Travis Fugate had little variety in his cuisine. Pinto beans, unsweetened cornbread and fried cabbage were staples. At a young age, he knew he wanted more flavor, diversity and excitement in his meals.
He eventually found that elsewhere, but it turns out he didn’t need to leave Appalachia to do so. The region, which covers parts of 12 states between New York and Mississippi (plus all of West Virginia) isn’t just a major source of coal; it’s one of the most agriculturally abundant areas in the U.S. Everything from rhubarb to ramps grows there, and farming, canning and pickling are important aspects of the local food heritage.
The mountainous terrain that gave rise to so much bounty – and created a distinct culture and dialect – has also kept the region geographically isolated and in many ways, lagging behind nationally.
Appalachia continues to rank low in terms of income, employment, education and health. Traditional dishes reflect some of those challenges: Soup beans, made from dried legumes and a bit of pork for flavoring, is cheap to make; stack cake is said to have originated with friends and family contributing layers to build a wedding cake, which would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive.
Only in recent years have chefs begun to recognize and riff on this rich heritage. And a new initiative by the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency, aims to promote it.
The Bon Appétit Appalachia! map and website, launched this summer, spotlight hundreds of the region’s most distinctive food destinations, from farmers’ markets to craft breweries to cafes that serve locally sourced berries and beets. On the list are spots like the SustainFloyd Farmers Market in the funky town of Floyd, Va., off the Blue Ridge Parkway; and a small, legal moonshine operation in Gilbert, a hardscrabble blip of a town in the coalfields of West Virginia…