Appalachia is where the white trash lives, or so the stereotype goes. Ask the average outsider what Appalachians eat, and they may deliver a similar answer: trash. McNuggets, maybe, or lots of bacon and gravy. Heart-attack food. People choose the stories that they want to believe, and the myth of the dumb, fat hillbilly is an old and popular one. “The term ‘white trash’ is class disparagement due to economics,” the author and East Kentucky native Chris Offutt wrote in a 2015 essay for the Oxford American. “I am trash because of where I’m from. I am trash because of where I shop. I am trash because of what I eat.” If people are trash, their food must be, too.
But the story of Appalachian food, like Appalachia itself, is a complicated one. Advocates say that both are entering a new, more optimistic era; that a resurgence in local farming, coupled with renewed interest in traditional Appalachian foodways, could help steer the region toward an environmentally and economically sustainable post-coal future. And unlike the historical attempts to develop Appalachia—imposed principally by external actors, both public and private—food and farming are located well within the region’s own history of political resistance.
“When the company thugs came in to throw an agitating or striking coal miner out of their house, they destroyed the gardens and confiscated or killed the animals that provide food,” notes Ronni Lundy, the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes. “You know, they got it—the ability to grow food is power in the hands of people they wanted to make powerless.”
And it remains a source of power, say the advocates behind Appalachia’s food renaissance.
“What makes us unique is that we do have a strong food culture here,” says Lora Smith, co-founder of the Appalachian Food Summit. “There are things that are produced in Appalachian crops that aren’t necessarily produced anywhere else.”
From shucky beans to pickled corn and kilt lettuce, Appalachian food reflects dual realities: poverty and ingenuity. Appalachia is a large region spanning 13 states, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission’s definition, and the amount of arable land varies widely among them. In the southern Appalachians, where the mountains widen out and soften into valleys and fields, larger-scale farming is possible. In the coal fields, however, arable land shrinks, restricting the inhabitants to small-scale farms and grazing livestock. Factor in a sharp winter, which the southern low country mostly lacks, and the specific character of Appalachian foodways begins to make sense. It’s heavy on beans and grains, and greens that can be foraged or grown in sustenance gardens. Pig products feature heavily, because pigs are relatively easy to raise in the mountains.