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Ready, Willis & Able – Heritage foods time is now

By Janice Willis-Barnett

I remember fall of the year in Willis Cove. How I loved the brightness of the sky. It had a different, deeper blue than a summer sky. I loved the hint of coolness in the air. Evenings, when I tagged along behind my father as he made his way to the milk gap to milk our cow, I checked the hazelnut bushes to see if they might be ready to gather.  Every evening, I asked my father if they were ripe enough. “No, not yet,” he would say. “See how green the hulls are.”

I loved gathering hazelnuts with my father. My hands and his hands would be stained for weeks, but I didn’t care. I would hoard my hazelnuts like a squirrel, cracking and eating a few each day. But there was another, even better reason for gathering hazelnuts. My mother would make us a hazelnut cake.

I see my mother now in the kitchen of the house where my great grandparents, William and Elizabeth Willis had lived. Great Granny Elizabeth had cooked on a hearth, but Mom had a wood burning cook stove that even had a little water tank for hot water. I can still see Mom with her beautiful red hair sitting at the kitchen table, leafing through the Watkins cookbook until she found the recipe for “plain” yellow cake and “plain” icing.  Mom chopped the hazelnuts that went in the dough as well as the icing. And she used butter and cream from our cow in both icing and dough.

As Mom and I worked in Great Granny Elizabeth’s old kitchen, we could look out the window down to where my beloved Granny Myrtle Willis lived and beyond her house see Laurel Ridge, in the distance, all lit up in yellows and reds. It was my favorite time of year because of all the bright colors. It is still my favorite time of year.

After Mom passed in 2012, I tried to find her old Watkins cookbook. I searched and searched but didn’t locate it. It was the first cookbook I ever used. It had so many good memories attached to it.

I believe the current revival of interest in Appalachian foodways is good for our souls as well as our bellies. And I must not be the only one who thinks this way. I heard Appalachian food writer, Roni Lundy, one of the leading voices in this revival, speak at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in nearby Burnsville this past September. Her presentation at beautiful and nostalgic Nuray Inn was jam-packed.

Here in Unicoi County, a lot of old-fashioned foods, such as pickled beans and corn, are sold during the Apple Festival. Heritage Days at Bowman Bogart cabin in Unicoi feature foodways from pioneer days. And the Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi has the potential to really put us on the heritage foodways map. It’s up to us, folks.