Is Appalachia the next big regional cuisine?

Travis Milton’s Collard Leather Britches and Sweet Potato ‘Casserole’ are based on his family’s recipes.
Travis Milton’s Collard Leather Britches and Sweet Potato ‘Casserole’ are based on his family’s recipes. For The Washington Post

“It’s way easier to get drugs than a good greasy bean,” Travis Milton said. And that causes the chef a lot of headaches.

For one, greasies are his favorite beans, whether you cook them old-school, stewing them within an inch of their lives, or use a more modern technique such as steaming to show off the sweet, fat kernels inside.

The elusiveness of greasies (named for their slick appearance, not their taste) is more than just a personal problem for Milton. Later this year he will open Shovel and Pick, an Appalachian restaurant, in Bristol, Tenn. To turn out elevated versions of the dishes he grew up with – mulefoot pork with candied beets, root vegetables tossed in butter-bean miso – Milton needs traditional ingredients, like greasy beans, that aren’t easy to come by.

This spring, Milton is sowing 10 acres with greasies and other heirloom beans, cowpeas, creasy greens (a type of field cress), Candy Roaster squash, goosefoot (an Appalachian cousin of quinoa), blackberries, huckleberries and more. What he doesn’t use at his restaurant he will share with other chefs who are promoting Appalachian cuisine. It’s part of Milton’s plan to use food to ignite economic development in the region and end, once and for all, the pervasive stereotype of Appalachians as a bunch of toothless hillbillies.

In fact, Appalachian food has at least as much claim on “cuisine” as California (which no one would dare challenge). The foods of central Appalachia, a region that stretches from southern Ohio and West Virginia to Tennessee and across a small swath of Western North Carolina, constitute America’s own cucina povera, as rich and unexplored as Tuscan food was in the 1980s. William Dissen, a native West Virginian and owner of the Market Place restaurant in Asheville, calls it the “backbone of Southern cooking.”It’s a scrappy, intelligent way of cooking that embraced preserving, canning, fermenting and using every part of the animal long before all that was trendy. There are leather britches, beans that are strung up whole to dry, then cooked with water and a smoky ham hock. There is vinegar pie, a mountain version of lemon chess pie, with vinegar in place of expensive citrus.

“There’s real beauty in these dishes,” said Milton. “They yield amazing flavors, the flavors of a subsistence culture. A humble pole bean tastes like a pot roast. You work with what you have because you have to eat.”

The idea is catching on. Last fall, scholars, chefs and activists hosted an Appalachian food summit in Abingdon, Va., to examine how the region’s food heritage can boost local economies. In February, the James Beard Foundation hosted its first-ever salon for Appalachian chefs. A few weeks later, the Blind Pig, an Asheville supper club, hosted Milton and five other chefs for a dinner called Appalachian Storytellers. Milton served smoked venison, drizzled with a sauce made of malted sassafras and black birch syrup, and smoked collard greens. The event hosted 140 people and sold out in a day.

Mountain melting pot

Ask most people what they think Appalachian food is, and their answer will probably be cornbread and pinto beans. Food that is cheap enough to fill a belly and bland enough to suit the Scots-Irish who settled the area. That, said Ronni Lundy, author of the forthcoming book “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” (Clarkson Potter, August 2016), betrays a gross misunderstanding about the region’s food, which is far more complex.

The Cherokee originally inhabited the area. Freed slaves congregated there because it was one of the few places they were permitted to live. The English and Germans arrived with the Scots-Irish in the early 1800s, and Hungarians and Italians came after the Civil War to work in the mines.

“Appalachia is more of a melting pot,” said Lundy. “That’s visible in our foodways.”

Appalachian cuisine is derived as much from the culture of the mountains as its ingredients. Perhaps here more than in any U.S. region, families saved seeds, preserving heirloom varieties that vanished in areas where commercial seeds were widely available. In 2011, researchers at Slow Food’s RAFT Alliance documented 1,412 distinctly named heirloom foods in the region, including more than 350 varieties of apples, 464 varieties of peas and 31 kinds of corn.

The short growing season in the mountains put a focus on preservation of all kinds: smoked meats, pickled vegetables, fruit turned into jams and jellies. Many families were poor, so little was wasted.

‘Taking the next step’

Milton grew up in Castlewood, a town of about 2,000 in southwest Virginia. His grandparents owned the Village Restaurant, which Milton describes as a greasy spoon that served burgers, red-eye gravy, country ham and shuck beans. At family dinners, there were all the dishes that Milton now evangelizes: venison, sour corn, “kilt” lettuce (wilted with bacon grease), leather britches and creasy greens.

At 24, he landed his first job as a sous-chef at Bottega, an Italian restaurant in Richmond. He hadn’t gone to culinary school, so he used his vacations to apprentice at America’s top restaurants.

It was during a stint at WD-50, an avant-garde restaurant in New York, that Milton had an epiphany. He was making PB&J “tablets” when he mumbled aloud that all he really wanted was a greasy bean.

“Why would you want a bean covered in grease?” another cook shot back. It was a turning a point.

“I realized that I wanted to cook everything that I had tried to distance myself from: the (foods of the) hillbilly, the hick, the redneck,” he said.

“Travis understands that you can’t extract the cuisine from the culture,” said John Fleer, the chef-owner of Rhubarb in Asheville and widely acknowledged as the one who ignited interest in mountain cuisine when he was at Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee. Fleer compares Milton to Sean Brock, who has become a powerful evangelist for Southern ingredients.

“Travis is taking the next step. He’s giving cultural context to the stories of food.”

A return to salt

Can food help ignite economic development in the twilight of coal? There are hopeful signs. Milton’s restaurant, which he hopes to open later this year, is one. There also are efforts to bring back authentic Appalachian products: heirloom apple orchards, which were razed for strip mining, to make cider; “Virginia-style” whiskey; and salt.

Yes, salt. Before coal, salt was the major industry in central Appalachia. In 1846, West Virginia was the largest salt-producing area in the country.

One producer was J.Q. Dickinson. Founded in 1817, it closed in 1945. Three years ago, seventh-generation members of the family, Nancy Bruns and her brother Lewis Payne, reopened the saltworks along the Kanawha River, southeast of Charleston, W.Va. They draw brine from the same spots and evaporate it naturally in a glass sunhouse. The result is a chunky, clean crystal that makes food pop.

In its first year, J.Q. Dickinson turned out just 400 pounds. This year, the company aims to make 14,000 pounds, still a fraction of the 8,000 pounds per day that was once produced.

The revival of local salt was the focus of a film shown last month at the Appalachian Storytellers dinner. The crowd was a mix of pedigreed Appalachians and culinary thrill-seekers – two necessary ingredients in Milton’s recipe to revive the region and its food.

Lisa Gamble, 35, had never heard of leather britches before the dinner.

“Now,” she said, “I want to eat them every day.”

Collard Leather Britches

6 servings

5 bunches collard greens (1 1/2 pounds)

2 tablespoons lard

3 packed cups dried apples

8 cups vegetable broth

2 cups water, or as needed

1 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt

1/2 to 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

Rinse each bunch of collards individually and thoroughly, drying them completely with paper towels. Use kitchen twine to re-tie each bundle, then string all the bundles together on a single line, leaving 2 to 3 inches of space between each bundle.

Hang them in a warm, dry place for 2 to 3 days, depending on the humidity. They’re done when the leaves are very brittle and dry.

Use kitchen scissors to cut the collards into pieces, holding them over a large bowl as you work (a lot will crumble in your hands, which is fine; just save all the crumbles). If the stems don’t seem completely dry, don’t use them.

Heat the lard in a medium stockpot over medium heat. Once it has liquefied, stir in the dried apples; cook for about 20 minutes or until they begin to caramelize slightly around the edges. Watch closely and stir often; they burn easily.

Add the dried collards and crumbles, stirring to incorporate, then pour in the broth. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add water as needed if the collards or apples start to look dry.

Stir in the lesser amounts of salt and pepper; wait a few minutes, then taste and add the remaining seasoning as needed.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with just enough of the collards’ cooking liquid to keep them moist.

Sweet Potato ‘Casserole’

8-12 servings

6 large sweet potatoes (about 5 1/2 pounds)

3/4 cup (6 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons plain goat cheese

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons malt syrup (see note)

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

Meringue (optional):

4 large egg whites

2 cups (9 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Poke the sweet potatoes in a few places with a fork or knife tip. Place them on a baking sheet; bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until tender.

Combine the sweetened condensed milk, goat cheese, cream, malt syrup, salt and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. stirring or whisking until heated through and well combined.

When the potatoes are just cool enough to handle, discard the skins and let the potato flesh fall into a large mixing bowl. Use a whisk or a hand-held electric mixer to beat on low speed to gradually beat in the saucepan mixture. (If the mixture is stringy, run it through a food mill.) The sweet potatoes should become light and fluffy. Cover, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate up to 3 days.

Meringue: Combine the egg whites and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on low, then on high until shiny, stiff peaks form.

Spoon a helping of the blended sweet potatoes on each plate with a spoonful of meringue beside it. Toast the surface of the meringue with a culinary torch if desired.

Note: Malt syrup is available in health-food stores.