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…”
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