If you read this blog or visit Big Jones regularly, you’ve likely noticed that the focus of our cooking is gravitating ever-so-slightly to the mountains. There are many reasons for this, chief among them that I repeatedly felt I was selling Southern cooking short by leaving out one of its great regional cuisines, that being the cooking of Appalachia. Research into my own family’s roots as well as reading in advance of an upcoming book project have intensified my interest in the hearty yet elegant seasonal cooking of the mountain people.
At risk of selling the great diversity of Appalachian cooking short, I thought there were three dishes I needed to do for a tribute to Appalachia as part of our Family Meal series. Granted, we’re just at the beginning of our journey into the heart and soul of Appalachian cooking, and I expect to take every opportunity to get deeper into the history and traditions of one of America’s most misunderstood regions.
Three (four, really) dishes guide a meaningful first look into Appalachian cooking, and in future dinners we’ll explore things a bit more deeply. Those dishes are soup beans, potlikker (invariably served with cornbread and historically most true, corn pone,) chicken and dumplings, and dried apple stack cake.
Much reading on the history and lore of Appalachia has led me to the 19th century as a most interesting time to eat there, when much of the region prospered in its own unique way, when small farms and small towns dotted the landscape and the cooking was hyper-seasonal and hyper-local. It being Spring here, I’ve tried to capture a glimpse of eating there in the late 19th century (one of the distinctions of that time was the availability of saleratus, an early baking powder.) True, the country ham is nowhere to be seen but it’s coming in future dinners, I promise.
In his landmark book Southern Food: At home, on the road, in history, John Egerton lamented that (this was in the 80′s) fewer and fewer cooks and restaurants were willing to go to the trouble of cooking real Southern food the old way. True, it’s a lot of work and the arts nearly disappeared. But they didn’t. Largely thanks to the impact that book has had, chefs and home cooks across the South (the entire country, really) are taking the old arts back up and we have the opportunity now to eat like we did then -simply, beautifully from the land, in season. It’s a lot of work, but we think it’s worth it and think you’ll agree.
As far as the subtitle goes, I personally am proud of my roots deep in the rolling wooded hills of Southern Indiana, and many times throughout my life have self-described alternately as “hillbilly” or “hilljack.” Appalachia and its people are some of the most misunderstood and misrepresented folks in the popular culture and mass media and I personally will take ownership of those words and tell you that the mountain folk developed and maintained a very elegant, ecologically sustainable way of life until it was destroyed for many by the coal and timber industries. Nonetheless, if you look at the region and its traditions with an open mind, particularly its culinary heritage, you’d recognize this is one of America’s most distinct and compelling regions. I look forward to doing my part to change what America think of us hillbillies.
As with all of our Family Meals and our menu as a whole, everything, everything, here is hand-made from small local or regional farms and foragers. If you have specific questions, we’re always happy to talk about our sources with you.
This Family Meal runs from April 6 through Mother’s Day, ending May 12. Please come by and enjoy some good old fashioned mountain cooking!
A Foggy Mountain Getaway
Kentucky Soup Beans
White beans cooked with fatback, ham shanks, and lots of onion, served with chow-chow, spring onion bottoms, and creasy greens
Fried Corn Pone with Potlikker
An essential accompaniment to soup beans—rustic cornmeal cakes served with collard greens in their savory cooking broth
Chicken and Dumplings
Prepared in the traditional Appalachian style—simply stewed chicken with thick and hearty egg dumplings, garnished with spring onion tops
Sweet & Sour Baked Beets
Local red beets baked with sourwood honey, vinegar, and a touch of mustard, dressed with a dash of clabbered cream
Dried Apple Stack Cake
The Appalachian celebration cake – layer upon layer of home made yellow cake stacked with stewed apples and a generous drizzling of sorghum syrup, topped with whipped cream
Available daily 5-9 p.m. $25 per person, total table participation requested. Children under age twelve, $1 per year.