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Ready, Willis and Able – Appalachian food grows in popularity

By Janice Willis-Barnett

Many of us grew up eating greasy beans, creasy greens, and “kilt” lettuce. Some of us still eat these foods and other mountain foods such as gritted bread and pickled beans and corn. But we usually eat them at home or at Granny’s instead of in a restaurant. But guess what? Our Appalachian Mountain food is becoming a growing trend in some restaurants. Even publications as well known as the Washington Post are talking about it. And they are treating our mountain food with great respect.

A fellow named Travis Milton, originally from Wise, Virginia, is the chef behind a lot of the recent publicity surrounding Appalachian cuisine. He is featured in a Washington Post article by Jane Black, published this past March. The article talks about Travis’ hopes to open a restaurant in nearby Bristol later this year.  And yes, he plans to specialize in somewhat jacked-up versions of the foods so many of us grew up eating either at home or at Granny’s. For example, Travis may call a dish that some of us would call “taters in butter-bean gravy” something like “butter-bean miso.” But my guess is that a lot of Bristol Speedway race fans and other folks will be sopping it up no matter what Travis calls it.

Travis is advising us to “resurrect the walls of our canning sheds, our spring houses, and our long lost homesteads so our families, our history, and our memories are not forgotten.” It seems that lots of folks would agree. A great deal of effort and enthusiasm is being put into showcasing our Appalachian heritage. There is even an Appalachian Food Storybank website. Their stated goal is “preserving stories and accounts of Southern food traditions.” The Storybank also seeks to provide a way for folks to record their food history and stories for their children and generations to come.

In Unicoi County, we already honor our food history and culture with an Apple Festival in Erwin, Ramp Festival in Flag Pond, and Strawberry Festival in Unicoi. Farmhouse Gallery and Gardens in Unicoi also features local foods at their spring Fiddlers and Fiddleheads Festival and in the fall, their Buffalo Valley Folk Festival.  Erwin residents, Kristin Anders and Jamie Rice, owners of the old A. R. Brown building now called the Bramble, are using locally grown products in hosting their farm-to-table events.  In Unicoi, we are looking forward to a community kitchen where county residents will be able to can and preserve local produce to meet governmental regulatory standards and sell it if they choose.

Many in our county are working to support efforts to preserve and celebrate our local food traditions. Erwin Record publisher Keith Whitson is allowing me to devote my monthly column to this effort. And I appreciate it. So readers, if you have local food stories you would like to share, please contact me at 423-928-166l. I look forward to hearing from you.