Appalachia is a borderland: Lessons from the third annual Appalachian Food Summit

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Each Appalachian Food Summit ends with a celebratory meal prepared by several Appalachian chefs. This is a photo of this year’s meal.

Food is the great equalizer.

That wasn’t the official theme of this year’s Appalachian Food Summit, but it should be what most attendees walked away understanding when the last crumb of peach upside down cake was eaten.

Presenters throughout the day-long program talked of Appalachia as a “borderland:” a place where many different cultures and types of people have converged for centuries – and where this convergence was often personified in the food Appalachian’s have eaten for just as long. The region has been a pass-through route for as long as people have lived in the hills: Native Americans used it as a hunting ground, early settlers forged a path to the West through it, hogs were shepherded over Drover’s Roads, immigrants from northern port cities were brought here and turned into coal miners. Each successive culture was carried into the hills on the backs and in the hearts of people from faraway places, and as it was carried, so too were pieces of it left behind.

An Italian immigrant coal miner develops the pepperoni roll as an easy, one-handed meal for miners, and today, it’s named the state food of West Virginia. Syrian immigrants settle in eastern Kentucky and build entrepreneurial empires while also sharing their hummus recipes with their mountain neighbors. Latino immigrants find inroads into modern-day Appalachian culture through their traditional foodways, and open taquerias in valleys across the region.

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Toni Tipton-Martin (L) and Ronni Lundy (R)

Appalachia is a place of the convergence of cultures, and we are still learning about the ways in which this is true. At the afternoon keynote, author Toni Tipton-Martin spoke with author Ronni Lundy about deconstructing the myth of black women cooks in the South. In fact, black women were often classically trained chefs, who were so trained because their masters or house-bosses wanted them to cook fine foods. Their contributions to Southern and mountain cooking have largely been lost or glossed over, and Tipton-Martin is trying to remedy that though her writing, but also through study of her extensive antique African-American cookbook collection.

The bulk of the day’s program was dedicated to comings and goings in the region, and what those migrations and movements have meant for Appalachian foodways, but also for sense of culture and self.

There were the Drover’s Roads, upon which people herded and shepherded their hogs for sale at far-way markets. But there were also stories of how Appalachians carry their foodways with them when they’ve had to move away to Northern cities for work. There’s also the resurgence of traditional foodways, like beer-making – and the rapidly increasing Latino population in Appalachia, which ballooned 132 percent in Kentucky from 2000-2010.

An entire regional history of migration and economic transitions can be told through our foodways. It’s only fitting that we are now rediscovering ourselves through food – that greatest of equalizers – out of which we are attempting to mold one brick of our more solid economic foundation for the future.

The Appalachian Food Summit reminds us of just how complex, complicated and amazing our history and our present are, and it does so while disguising and personifying those messages through food. A presenters talks about apples on train cars, or #TacoLiteracy, or pepperoni rolls, and suddenly we realize that food isn’t just about sustenance in the physiological sense; it’s about soul sustenance. It’s about how we connect to others around the table, or on the lawn for church dinner, or over locally-crafted beer. It’s also about how we build relationships from those connections that will grow into projects that will grow into economic renewal.