The Appalachian Region covering West Virginia and parts of twelve other states is a culinary region like no other. Much of the traditional fare the area is known for comes straight from the ground itself, a necessity of the region’s rural life and part of the innovative spirit that so distinctly characterizes the Appalachia people.
While many Appalachian delights are heavily influenced by the various ethnicities that settled the area over the years, much of what the Appalachian people consumed came from what they had learned from the region’s Indian tribes. As their farther southern counterparts relied on a “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and bell pepper, in Appalachia they worked with what the Indian called the “Three Sisters” of agriculture—squash, corn, and beans.
Like much of the South, cooking was a way to bring the family and community together at the end of the day, passing the traditional ingredients, recipes, and methods down from one generation to the next. And any good Appalachian cook knows that fast food is what you pick from the ground—a proper meal takes time, patience, and a whole lot of love.
- Buckwheat CakesAll parts of the seed were used, but the groat was ground into a flour and is still popular in making buckwheat pancakesDespite the name, buckwheat isn’t a grain or even related to wheat, but it is actually more closely related to the rhubarb. It’s one of those crops that served more than just nutritional purposes, as every part of the seed could be used. The hulls were commonly used to stuff pillows, and the bran could be used to feed livestock. But it was the groat, the inner kernel, that was able to be ground into a flour that worked much like any grain flour, particularly wheat which gives it its name.A favorite recipe using the flour is buckwheat pancakes. So much that the Preston County Buckwheat Festival has been drawing in West Virginia pancake lovers since 1938. Buckwheat cakes are denser and darker than a traditional pancake with a slightly nutty taste, but are served as regular pancakes with a healthy slab of butter and drizzled with syrup or slathered with applesauce. And, of course, served with a side of homemade sausage patties.
- Ramps Ramps grow wild in Appalachia, and there’s no shortage of this green known as a “wild leek”Ramps aren’t a food most Southerners are familiar with, but in Appalachia they grow wild and aplenty.Also known as “wild leeks,” ramps are cousins to garlic. The first ramp patches pop up in early spring and offered vital nutrients that were often missed during winter months. Another versatile plant, ramps can be pickled, dried, and have often been added to soups. But possibly the favorite way to consume this leafy find is too cook ‘em up as a mess o’greens. Appalachian cooks typically fried up ramps with butter or whatever animal fat was available, with sliced potatoes added in.
- Apple Stack Cake Stacks cakes were often a community affair, with each family supplying a layer to be slathered with apple butter made from dried apples (photo courtesy of Alicia Bramlett)Stack cake is an Appalachian treat that is worth far more than the time taken to create it. Embracing the tradition of a tight-knit community, some say the cake was first made for a wedding. Where a large cake would have taken a lot of resources for one family to provide, friends and extended family came together, each making a single layer to add to the cake. Voila. The stack cake was born.Apples are in abundance throughout the Appalachian Mountains and commonly used in a variety of ways, and preserving them guarantees a year-long enjoyment of the fruit. In a stack cake, each layer—and there may be five or more—is spread with an apple butter or preserves made from dried apples. Despite its origins, the cake is rarely found at a wedding, but it is still a holiday tradition throughout the Appalachian region.
- Cushaw Squash Not the most popular of the winter squash, the cushaw was a common replacement for pumpkin in pies on the holiday table (photo courtesy of Ryan Somma)Next to its brothers, the acorn and the butternut, the Cushaw isn’t the most popular, or widely recognized, of the winter squash family. An heirloom variety, the cushaw is a hardy squash with a high tolerance for heat that does well in Southern Appalachia. It’s grown in small quantities today, so its popularity isn’t quite what it should be considering how easy it is to grow and its versatility in cooking.Appalachian cooks have used this green-striped squash in soups, baked with a dash of this-and-that, and made into cushaw butter to slather on a hot buttermilk biscuit. But perhaps the most fondly remembered use of the squash is in cushaw pie. Cushaw pie is much like a pumpkin pie, sans pumpkin. The squash is a nice substitute to the better known pumpkin, and those who can remember the taste of their grandmothers’ cushaw pie will be quick to tell you the cushaw is far superior.
- Paw Paws Possibly one of the most overlooked fruits, the pawpaw is a juicy fruit that grows in the humid temperate climate of the Appalachian regionThe paw paw thrives in the humid, temperate climate of the Appalachia forests. So it comes as no surprise that the paw paw has been called the official fruit of the Appalachians. And this unassuming green and black fruit is much-loved in the region.The best way to enjoy a paw paw is pull a ripe one from a tree, immediately peel it apart, and enjoy the almost tropical-tasting flesh inside (spitting out the seeds, of course). Unfortunately, good things don’t last forever and the paw paw is no exception. The shelf life of a paw paw is around two days. That’s it. But one does not simple waste the fruit. The pulp of the fruit can be frozen for later use in various recipes including cakes, custards, and even ice cream.
- Shuck beansShuck beans still are a tradition especially in parts of Kentucky, where green beans are strung on thread to be hung and driedAlso known as “leather britches” or “Appalachian Green Beans,” shuck beans are green beans (half runners or greasy work well) that have been picked and strung on thread until they dry. Once dried, the seeds inside will rattle in the shucks. The dried beans will last awhile, long enough to enjoy the beans throughout the winter months and ensure a mess of beans on the holiday spread.When the beans were pulled out to be cooked, they were first soaked overnight in a pot of water. The next day the beans were set to simmer with a ham hock or another piece of pork fat that was available. The drying of the beans changes the end result of the cooked product, creating a distinct flavor known well throughout the Appalachian range. Shuck beans are one of those time-honored traditions, and are still popular in parts of Kentucky, especially. Just another food passed down from previous generations, savoring the culture and traditions of the Appalachian people.
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