Wiley Cash’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State.
This month’s book is Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People, by Erica Abrams Locklear.
In the summer of 2016, while western North Carolina native Erica Abrams Locklear was working on the manuscript that would become her latest book, her mother made a surprising discovery. While cleaning out her deceased mother’s house, she found an old handmade cookbook that contained recipes from 1936 to 1952.
But the real surprise was the recipes she found inside. She had long held her grandmother, a fifth-generation western North Carolinian, as the apotheosis of traditional mountain cooking. Yet these recipes included instructions on how to make “Baby Ruth cookies,” “Jiffy featherweight biscuits,” and “Kellogg’s Krispies Marshmallow Squares.”
Abrams Locklear began to question her own idea of Appalachian food. Had she given into romantic notions of old-time foodways while overlooking the role that modernity played in her grandmother’s kitchen? After all, this was a woman who kept her wood-burning stove alongside her electric oven throughout her life. But those presumptions of her grandmother’s cooking were “naïve, close minded, and downright wrong,” and her book is an attempt to wade through why many Americans—including people from Appalachia—have the same misconceptions.
Appalachia on the Table is not a cookbook, nor is it a study of food. Abrams Locklear’s mission is uncovering the history of our perceptions of Appalachia and its people through how we perceive its food. She does this by taking a deep dive into the literary works that have portrayed the region since the mid-19th century through the present. The result is not only an important contribution to cultural studies, it is an endlessly readable journey into culinary conversations.
Her reading of primary texts—novels, poems, short stories, and nonfiction—is exhaustive. It would be easy to joke that she reads these texts so you don’t have to, but readers might be left with quite the opposite impression. She writes about these texts so penetratingly that I imagine that, like me, many readers will want to read these works for themselves, especially those of contemporary writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Robert Gipe, and Michael McFee.
But it is the older works that still wield the most pervasive and stubborn effect on perceptions of Appalachian people and food. For the bulk of the book, Abrams Locklear considers the ways in which writers from outside of Appalachia have long used food to portray the region. In the late 19th century, local color writers were gracing the pages of America’s leading magazines from Atlantic Monthly to Harper’s. One of the hallmarks of the genre was the device of employing an outsider to remark on its exotic otherness, while using gross generalities and stereotypes.
More often than not, these portrayals, which Abrams Locklear argues were “dark and entirely dependent on deprivation in the mountains,” were meant to be humorous for readers from elsewhere. For example, the Massachusetts-born Charles Dudley Warner, who is perhaps best known as Mark Twain’s co-author for The Gilded Age, covered a trip from Abingdon, Virginia down through western North Carolina and back in a four-part travel piece for Atlantic Monthly. While he praised the gorgeous vistas, he bemoaned the local food: “There is no landscape in the world that is agreeable after two days of rusty bacon and slack biscuit.”
Conversely, Abrams Locklear points out that food was often fodder for Appalachian writers like West Virginia natives Rebecca Harding Davis and David Hunter Struther when lampooning outsiders’ preconceived notions. In one case—the Harding Davis story “Qualla”—a biased journalist criticizes mountain accents and food in western North Carolina and brags, “I have the faculty of generalizing, you see.”
While this writing was alternately meant to entertain and instruct a reading public, others had different goals—sometimes altruistic, sometimes nefarious, but almost always derogatory.
In the early 20th century, organizations like the American Missionary Association were vital in creating a national portrait of the region as a place “in need of moral, economic, and civic uplift,” opening churches and schools that offered instruction on everything from personal hygiene to cooking. Often, these organizations used Appalachian food as a signifier of the region’s deprivation, especially when fundraising. Abrams Locklear writes that “the more public the accounts of food in the mountains became, the less nuances they revealed.”
One of the best examples is Berea College president William Goodell Frost. The institution was founded in 1855 and was the first in Kentucky to serve both Black and white students, as well as women and men. Taking leadership in 1892, Frost immediately set about raising money to save the college from financial peril, often relying on national perceptions of Appalachians as clannish isolates in dire need of corrective intervention. Abrams Locklear argues that Frost’s speeches and writings suggest that “readers should admire the hardy pioneer determination of mountain people at the same time they pity their ignorance.”
Similar portrayals and rhetorical strategies were put to use when arguing against child labor laws in the southern mills. Many mills were populated with people who had fled the mountains to take part in the cash economy without sufficient capital, a transition that left them victims to health conditions like pellagra and rickets, afflictions due to deficient diets.
As Abrams Locklear points out, Appalachian food is now having a moment, thanks in part to chefs like John Fleer, owner of Asheville’s Rhubarb. Contemporary writers are also leading the way in restructuring perceptions of the region’s food.
That includes writers like Crystal Wilkinson, whose novel The Birds of Opulence closely ties storytelling with foodways, and Robert Gipe, whose novels present a postmodern convergence of traditional foodways with more commercial, processed products. Their Appalachia is one in flux, much like Abrams Locklear’s grandmother’s kitchen: the old sitting quietly beside the new, all of it bound together in a book and waiting to be found.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.