I didn’t grow up a man of the mountains, but sometimes, reading Joe Dabney’s books, I wish I had. Thirty years ago in Mountain Spirits, Joe defined the modern understanding American moonshine as a respectable craft fallen on hard times. Whiskey making wasn’t just a practice that was dying off; it was a Southern way of life in peril of extinction. Where most were content to write only what they had read of whiskey making, Joe went into the field, talking to and making friends with moonshiners and revenuers, relating their stories with affable scholarship and deep respect, as he did in his subsequent The Corn Whiskey Recipe Book and More Mountain Spirits. His questions earned him a serious beating when he was mistaken for a police informant.
Then he went and outdid himself with Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine, a book so well-regarded that, in 1999, it beat out all other cookbooks for the James Beard Cookbook of the Year award. Its recipes, from spring tonics to groundhog meat (that’s “groundhog meat,” not “ground hog-meat”), are bound with stories of people who regularly and matter-of-factly wrest livings from the hardship and deprivation of southern Appalachian landscapes.
Throughout his work, Joe deftly weaves new oral histories with historical research and, in so doing, exposes a recognizably human face of Southern foodways that often flies under the radar of modern American life. As the SFA oral history initiative comes to bear on more topics in more communities, we look to work like Joe Dabney’s for inspiration and example.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great honor that, on behalf of the Southern Foodways Alliance, I present to Joseph Earl Dabney the 2005 Jack Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award.
– Matthew B. Rowley