The Origins of Appalachian Cuisine Explored in “Appalachia on the Table”

In Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People, Erica Abrams Locklear sets out to answer the question: “How did the dominant culinary narrative of [Appalachia] come into existence and what consequences has that narrative had for people in the mountains?” She begins with a story about her grandmother’s cookbook, immediately personalizing the work for readers by sharing that she was surprised by the cookbook’s existence and its contents, then she moves forward chronologically to address her questions with extensive evidence and examples.

Erica Abrams Locklear is a seventh-generation Western North Carolinian, a professor of English and the Thomas Howerton Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Her other work includes the book Negotiating a Perilous Empowerment: Appalachian Women’s Literacies

Her expertise is both personal and scholarly, but Appalachia on the Table does not explore actual foods consumed or lived experience of foodways in the mountains. Instead, Locklear focuses on “representations of foods consumed, implied moral judgments associated with those foods, and how those judgments shape reader perceptions.” These representations begin with local color writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In Chapter 1, Locklear relies on periodical publications, including fiction and travel writing, rather than referencing works that may be more well-known today. This choice allows for a more direct understanding of cultural impact because such periodical works were widely read. Her time frame for the beginning of her project is based on Henry Shapiro’s Appalachia on Our Mind, but she also draws on more recent Appalachian scholars and historians, including Emily Satterwhite and Katie Algeo.

Locklear is careful to incorporate a variety of perspectives and voices in her work. While she is clear that the dominant narrative as well as “long-held ideas about Appalachia and whiteness have had — and continue to have — a tremendous impact on what people have come to think of as ‘mountain food,’” she also notes the significance of figures like Selu, the Cherokee corn mother; Giuseppe Argiro, Italian inventor of the West Virginia pepperoni roll; and Melinda Russell, a free woman of color from eastern Tennessee who published the first complete African-American cookbook in 1866. Furthermore, writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis are said to have “used depictions of food to both highlight and critique tourism in the mountains,” and more recent work by Crystal Wilkinson is particularly successful at demonstrating Locklear’s points. In analyzing Wilkinson’s work, Locklear highlights the indigenous and African American foodways that are often neglected in discussions of mountain food.

In Chapter 2, Locklear shifts her focus to Progressive Era reformers, with a particular emphasis on the importance of a document’s purpose and audience. Locklear highlights the rhetorical moves made by the same reformers for different audiences to illustrate the ways that nuance emerges more often for smaller audiences already aligned with the reformers’ aims. In Chapter 3, “Writers Respond,” the focus returns to fictional works such as Grace Lumpkin’s To Make My Bread. Locklear writes that “these imagined scenarios convey a very real disconnect between government programs meant to improve and increase food availability ‘at home’ and what may have been possible in the mountains.” The first three chapters overlap to some extent, and they work together to highlight the ways that different writers were crafting the Appalachian food narrative at the same time.

Chapter 4 looks forward in time and prioritizes Appalachia writers as they present themselves. Locklear examines “how and why particular foods are shameful in one scenario and not in another.” For example, in Cratis Williams’ memoirs, “A dish usually reserved for Sunday dinner in Kentucky evokes embarrassment in an Ohio train station.” Despite the instances of shaming, it is clear that mountain writers were celebrating mountain food by the mid-twentieth century and that they continue to do so.

Finally, in Chapter 5, Locklear brings us up to the present with examples from Denise Giardina and Robert Gipe as well as references to present-day restaurants and menus. These last examples are quite recent and serve to illustrate the growing complexity of mountain foodways as traditional foods become trendy. In her conclusion, Locklear writes, “we must remember that the increasing national popularity of food historically associated with Appalachia does not automatically elevate public perception of mountain residents.”

Overall, Appalachia on the Table is an extremely readable exploration of how mountain food has been represented historically and how those representations interact with present day food trends in the region and beyond. Locklear’s work is scholarly and well-developed, but because of its chronological order and well-chosen examples, it is still accessible to those who might not otherwise engage with a scholarly book. People from the region, who may have also been surprised by a grandmother’s cookbook, will enjoy Locklear’s personal connections and thoughtful consideration of the region, and folks who have vacationed in Appalachia and enjoyed some of the foods Locklear references can now trace those foods back through the food’s cultural history.

Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People
By Erica Abrams Locklear
University of Georgia Press
Published April 15, 2023