There are two common misconceptions when it comes to Appalachia. Firstly, to avoid a faux pas when discussing this region, it’s pronounced App-uh-latch-uh, not App-a-lay-cha. Second, the cuisine is not, as you may have heard, all roadkill and squirrel stews.
The Southern states are stereotyped in unflattering and unfair ways when it comes to matters of education and culture, but at least traditional Southern food has escaped the clutches of oversimplification and risen to the height of haute.
Yet Appalachian food hasn’t shared its neighbor’s spotlight. Sustainable farming practices have been the stuff of trends over the past few decades, from organically-raised meat to locally sourced ingredients.
These same characteristics are inherent to Appalachian cooking, yet it’s regarded as subpar by international standards, treated as the butt of a joke rather than a relatively undiscovered cuisine that deserves a closer look.
The Appalachian region is ill-defined, technically comprising 420 counties spanning 13 states along the Appalachian Mountain Range between New York and Georgia.
West Virginia, being the only wholly Appalachian state, is the perfect case study for examining Appalachian cuisine. It’s on the receiving end of cultural stereotyping, caricaturization, and is at the center of both the coal debates and our nation’s opioid crisis.
At the same time, John Denver famously referred to the state as "almost heaven," a moniker which the official tourism board has adopted. But food is the path to West Virginia’s heart, which is why it’s quietly but earnestly making its way into the culinary spotlight.
"Appalachian cuisine comes from living off the land...In many ways, it's not that different from any other regional cuisine, in that people use what's available..."
- PJ Stevenson, marketing director for Adventures on the Gorge
Sure, that might mean proteins not typically featured on menus throughout the rest of the country: squirrels, rabbits and venison, to name a few. This says nothing of their quality, rather their inclusion challenges the idea that food needs to be factory farmed in order to be exceptional.
Stevenson says other typical Appalachian delicacies go beyond this to include, "...trout, morels, chicken of the woods (mushroom), ramps, elderberries, paw paws, persimmons, wild garlic, wild ginger and herbs." Not exactly boiled roadkill, is it?
Appalachian cuisine honors the region’s history of farming and foraging, as well as the art of storytelling, and for these reasons, it serves as a beautiful vehicle for sharing a sense of place.