Reflections on the 2016 Appalachian Food Summit

IMG_2966_biscuitsby Abigail Huggins

The third annual Appalachian Food Summit began with the breaking of cornbread in the spirit of SFA Founder, John Egerton. Last Friday evening, in Berea, Kentucky, over eighty people from and connected to Appalachia gathered around soup beans, cornbread, sorghum butter, biscuits with rabbit confit and collards, and Kentucky butter cake prepared by Edward Lee and Smoke and Soul Pop Up. The supper was free and open to the community, with donations going to West Virginia flood relief. Collectively, over $700 was raised to send to ongoing recovery efforts.

As a recipient of the 2015 John Egerton Prize, the Appalachian Food Summit used funds to host a meal where all were welcome to eat and fellowship and no one would be turned away. Lora Smith, board member and organizer, reflected, “We are grateful to the SFA for their investment in our community. We paid the honor of receiving the 2015 John Egerton Prize forward by creating the John Egerton Cornbread Convocation. The Convocation is now our opening night reception. Our intention is for the event to be inclusive, spirited and community building.”

Seed savers, farmers, gardeners, chefs, writers, scholars, advocates, and food enthusiasts sat around the table together, listening to stories about pickles, bean seeds, the gardens of Grow Appalachia, and curry chicken as an expression of love in the novel Trampoline. Bill Best, a renowned Appalachian seed saver, described Ronni Lundy’s newly published work, Victuals, as the “67th book of the bible,” a sacred text that weaves together narratives, photographs, and recipes from Lundy’s travels throughout the region.

On Saturday of the Food Summit, about one hundred attendees listened as speakers shared within the broad theme of “Appalachian Routes,” offering stories of migrations and homecomings through the vehicle of food. Revealing deeper narratives of culture, identity, and place, these stories collectively sung of a dynamic region, historically and presently diverse through movements of traditions, ideas, people, and things. Presenters challenged modern day local color writing, pondered rivers in the narrative of place, reminisced about pickled bologna, considered the origins and meanings of West Virginia pepperoni rolls, discussed the history of livestock herding along Drover’s Road, and called for #tacoliteracy as the Appalachian Latinx population grows. Later discussions explored beer brewing and hop growing in the region, illuminated stories of Syrian and Lebanese foodways in Eastern Kentucky and Laotian foodways in Western North Carolina, and reflected on intergenerational traditions and urban Appalachian diaspora.IMG_2954ToniRonniDuring the evening keynote address, Ronni Lundy and Toni Tipton-Martin, both SFA Founders, shared a conversation about intersections of race, gender, and place. Their stories centered around Malinda Russell, a talented chef, entrepreneur, and free woman of color who grew up in East Tennessee and published the third oldest known cookbook by an African American in 1866. Transcending white cookbook monopolies of her time and dispelling derogatory stereotypes of black Southern women, Russell was an inspiration for Tipton-Martin’s book The Jemima Code (featured in this episode of Gravy) and included in Lundy’s Victuals. In light of Russell’s story, Tipton-Martin called for us to “begin to untangle the myths that have separated us.” Lundy recognized foodways as an opportunity to shine light on stories often ignored in history, including those of women, African Americans, and Appalachians. She also emphasized the need to include Native foodways in these narratives of Appalachian and Southern food. In their writing and their living, both Tipton-Martin and Lundy have broadened history by illuminating untold stories and establishing common ground across struggles of oppression. All in attendance were better and richer for the chance to sit a spell with these two women.

IMG_2967_yumyumSaturday evening offered a generous feast, in the spirit of a church covered dish, complete with deviled eggs, beaten biscuits with ham, pimento cheese, bacon jam, homemade saltines, cheese grits, cornbread salad, pickled okra and corn, pink tipped beans, fried catfish and chicken, squash casserole, tomato pie, blackberry yum yum, peach upsidedown cake, burnt leather cake, and peanut butter crunch. Orchestrated by Ouita Michel, Travis Milton, Wayne Riley, and Ashley Capps, the meal fed around one hundred-sixty people. As folks mingled and chatted, the joyful noise of fellowship turned to silence for a sacred moment, to listen to bell hooks share poetry from Appalachian Elegy. Indeed, this was a holy space.

Food was the reason people gathered. But the gathering was much more than just food. It was about a sharing a sense of place: rooted and diverse, traditional and dynamic, beautiful and complicated. It was about a community of folks doing important work in in all the places they come from, through food and beyond food. It was a church supper that represented the best part of church. As folks left the food summit, returning to their respective corners of this wide region, the relationships and inspirations they planted here will undoubtedly germinate, grow, and nourish.

The Appalachian Food Summit is a movement of writers, chefs, academicians, social historians and interested individuals who work to study and preserve the foodways of Appalachia and leverage this rich heritage towards economic development in the region. Grow Appalachia and Berea College provide administration of AFS.