A new appreciation for Appalachian "vidls"

Garnering top awards from the James Beard Foundation, Ronni Lundy’s book, “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes,” chronicles the food, history and culture of Southern Appalachia, stretching from West Virginia to Mississippi. Ms. Lundy is very specific about the mountainous region’s boundaries and the pronunciation of her book’s title.

Rules do apply

There are rules when it comes to assembling chili buns and slaw dogs. Buns are not toasted. Yellow mustard and chopped sweet onion are OK but no ketchup, pickles or kraut. Hot sauce is up to you.

• To make chili buns: Lightly paint the inside of a hot dog bun with yellow mustard. Pack three or four heaping teaspoons chili sauce into the bun, starting in the center and smoothing it in with the back of the spoon. Add more, moving out to either end, smoothing lightly as you go, until the bun is filled. (You’re not making a sloppy Joe; chili should be firm in the bun.) Top with chopped white onion. Pass hot sauce on the side. 

• To make slaw dogs: Heat hot dogs in boiling water for 5 minutes. Paint inside of hot dog buns with yellow mustard, sprinkle in chopped white onion. Drain dogs; pat dry. Place in buns. Add about 2 tablespoons chili sauce, then about 2 tablespoons slaw. Pass hot sauce on the side.

— From “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” by Ronni Lundy

“ ‘Victuals’ is properly pronounced ‘vidls,’ ” she writes. “Say it the way my people have for centuries.”

The book presents a loving and lip-smacking portrait of the region. Through words and recipes and place-setting photos, you’ll take a trip down crooked dirt roads and winding hillsides. While detailing the past and her family’s history, she points toward the future, meeting cooks, chefs and farmers who are maintaining traditions along with making new ones.

Some Appalachia preparations are kin to Southern foods, but there are specific, unique dishes. They’re shaped by topographical and climactic factors, specifically because there is winter and a shorter growing season. “The mountains cut down on the amount of time you have sun,” Ms. Lundy said in a telephone interview. Among vegetables, corn was and is a staple, as well as squash and green beans. All had to be preserved in some way for the winter.

An iconic dish is leather britches or shuck beans. These are fat pole beans that at season’s end are strung on threads, hung up and dried. In winter, they’re slow-simmered with a piece of seasoning meat, “like you would pinto beans,” she said. They’re believed to be from a German tradition, along with other preserved staples, such as “pickle” or sour beans and sour corn.

Pickle beans are not what we call “dilly beans,” she emphasized. “These were not relishes. These are green beans [also corn kernels] that are salted down like cabbage. You didn’t have these fermented foods in the Deep South. Fermenting requires cooler weather so foods don’t go bad.”

They were drained and heated in bacon grease. “You would eat that with cornbread, as your main dish. That got you though the wintertime.”

Of course, now there is refrigeration and supermarkets. But these and other traditional foods are still grown, prepared and revered. At a meal for members of the Southern Foodways Alliance some years back, Ms. Lundy shared a dish of olive drab shuck beans, reminding us how unique they were.

In a chapter on salt, she describes the restoration of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, W.Va. Once used as a meat-curing salt in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn., the brand, which now evaporates salt using solar power, seasons the food at famous restaurants such as the French Laundry in California and Husk in Charleston, S.C., and our own Smoke BBQ Taqueria.

Ms. Lundy calls salt “a defining ingredient” in Southern Mountains foodways. What she describes as the first extractive industry in the southern Appalachians produced “lip-puckering country ham and salt-cured pork. Jerky, kraut and pickles of all kinds.”

Raised in Corbin, Ky., Ms. Lundy moved with her family to Louisville when she was 12. She now lives in the mountains, in Burnsville, N.C. She considers this book a life’s work, her homage to this intersection between food and place — even if people have moved away from the homestead.

“It’s a fascinating thing that we do when we sit at the table, remembering through food. My mother’s idea of saying grace was to name who should have been there, living or dead, because she was serving their favorite food. Mom would go through the litany of people. A kind of prayer of remembrance,” she said.

For people who have left their homes in the “ ‘hillbilly diaspora,’ people who felt themselves expatriates, there becomes this complicated relationship of remembering the foods. Food can often evoke what was beautiful in your background.”

You still long for the foods of home, she said. “When you’re cast out of your place, food brings it back to you.”

Some recipes to spark memories are Mountain Green Beans and Taters, Skillet Fried Chicken with Milk Gravy, and this — Buttermilk Brown Sugar Pie. “It’s just unbelievably good,” said Ms. Lundy, who likes it with a little fresh buttermilk poured over for added tartness. “But it wouldn’t be a bad thing right now to sprinkle blueberries over it.”

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com or on Twitter @mmmrubin.

Chili Bun Chili, aka Chili Sauce

PG tested

“A chili bun is just that,”  Ms. Lundy writes. “Chili. On a bun. It has no dog. A slaw dog does, along with the chili, but it also has … that’s right, slaw.” The ground beef mixture here is smooth and spicy.

1 cup flat beer or water

1 pound lean ground beef

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon salt

6 saltine crackers, finely crushed

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 teaspoons New Mexico ground red chili or (1 to 2 teaspoons) cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Put beer and ground beef in an unheated medium saucepan. Use your fingers to gently rub the beef until it makes a slurry with the liquid. You don’t want chunks or lumps. (Some use a potato masher for the right texture.)

Stir in garlic, salt and cracker crumbs and bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Turn heat to medium-low and cook, stirring to prevent sticking, until the liquid has largely evaporated but the mixture is still very moist, 4-6 minutes. The chili should be a finely grained aggregate that holds its shape on the spoon.

Stir in tomato paste. Remove from heat; stir in ground chili, cumin and cinnamon. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes enough for 5 chili buns or 8 slaw dogs.

— Adapted from “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” by Ronni Lundy. (Clarkson Potter, 2016)

Slaw Dog Slaw

PG tested

Hot dogs with this chili and slaw are known as West Virginia Hot Dogs. They are not the usual chili dogs topped with chunky chili and beans.

3 cups finely chopped cabbage (by hand, not food processor)

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons whole buttermilk or milk

In medium bowl, season cabbage with salt and add pepper to taste (more is better). Thin mayonnaise with buttermilk and mix it well with cabbage.

Makes enough for 8 slaw dogs.

— Adapted from “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” by Ronni Lundy

Buttermilk Cucumber Salad (Johnny Autry)

Buttermilk Cucumber Salad

PG tested

Ronni Lundy said this recipe is one of her seasonal favorites. Use full-fat buttermilk, preferably from a local dairy.

2 cups thinly sliced cucumbers, peeled if not garden-fresh

1/2 cup thinly sliced sweet onion

1 cup whole buttermilk

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, mix cucumbers, onion, buttermilk, dill, vinegar, salt, sugar and black pepper. Cover, and refrigerate for as long as 20 to 30 minutes to marinate and chill completely.

Makes 4 servings.

— Adapted from “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” by Ronni Lundy


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