Like a fool, I sat with my back to the pie luck. As folks gathered at the Hindman Settlement School in the stunning hills of Southeastern Kentucky for the first Appalachian Food Summit, the spread multiplied. There were sausage balls and apple butter. Then there was circle jello salad with a handwritten story placed next to it. A few more spins in my chair, and I saw mock apple pie and persimmon curd with mulberry preserves, peach crisp in a cast iron skillet, elderberry lemonade, and something called love cake. Men and women moved along the table side-by-side, some introducing themselves to each other for the first time, and some reconnecting while filling their plates and sharing stories of their Appalachian roots. This was exactly the purpose of the summit. As Ronni Lundy repeated throughout the day, “We’re here to break bread and talk about what are we doing, not where are we?” The gathering wasn’t pretending to provide answers. It was listening to what Appalachia has to say for itself about its people, food, and place without those who bend its stories into stereotypical narratives stemming from a fear of poverty and the unknown.
There were farmers, teachers, folklorists, writers, food purveyors, bean collectors, beekeepers, people with deep roots in Appalachia sharing their work and resources with one another. Bill Best of Berea, Kentucky read letters people sent him and shared stories of beans he then passed around the room. Filmmaker Jamie Ross spoke about her work and reminded us that “Inventiveness is the mother of Southern Appalachian culture. . .what you did when you didn’t have anything.” At the end of the day we sat down to what many referred to as a “holy” (I am part of this camp) meal prepared by Travis Milton of Richmond, Virginia, whose ancestors tie deeply into Wise County, Virginia, as does his cooking. As people shuffled out into the night, there was space to simmer and strengthen, space for the people of Appalachia to fill.
The pages of the current issue of Gravy are filled with Appalachia. Some of our oral history work, like the Carter Family Fold project and some of the stories from the recent Cured South project speak to the people and food of Appalachia. There is still so much work to be done. The summit made me take my own personal inventory. I cannot claim Appalachia and won’t pretend for a second that it’s mine. But I was reminded that as an oral historian I need to protect it. My very job is to preserve the stories told by the people who embody and thrive within it. A place and a people should not be defined by how others tell their stories for them, but how they speak their own truths. Sometimes when I listened to someone speak of their people, their county, their affinity or contempt of soup beans, I watched as hands were pressed to chests. This is the beauty of the oral tradition found inherently within the Appalachian Food Summit: I heard stories directly from a deep, unbroken place where people hold their hearts while they speak honestly of both hardship and love of a land.
Listen to Brett Ratliff, program director of the Hindman Settlement School, fiddling and singing “The Farmer is the Man” at the Appalachian Food Summit: