Crafted from an old photo album and nibbled by mice in the family smokehouse on South Turkey Creek, where it had lain for years, the homemade cookbook that Erica Abrams
Crafted from an old photo album and nibbled by mice in the family smokehouse on South Turkey Creek, where it had lain for years, the homemade cookbook that Erica Abrams Locklear inherited 20 years after her grandmother’s death in 1996 surprised her. The professor of humanities at the University of North Carolina Asheville expected to find only recipes for dishes that used homegrown produce and reflected her family’s seven generations in the mountains. She didn’t expect elaborate creations like a Blossom-Time Cake, decorated with real flowers dipped in sparkling sugar — “to entertain your club” — and clippings that highlighted brand-name ingredients like Swans Down flour. That disconnect — between Locklear’s assumptions and the realities of her grandmother’s tastes and experiences — drives Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food & People.
From the personal story of her grandmother, a creative and curious woman who found time to create a cookbook even as she raised tobacco and three children, Locklear moves through narratives that have helped define — and redefine — the cuisine of the region in the public mind, from the post-Civil War period to the present. Authors of early writings about Appalachia often described what they were served as “coarse.” In the eyes of many non-natives visiting the region, if people are what they eat, then “mountain people were just as rough as the food they consumed,” Locklear writes. In her analysis, she looks at a 19th-century article in the New York magazine Harper’s that mocked mountain ignorance. She cites 20th-century fiction that explores the economic lure of tobacco farming and millwork versus government efforts to encourage homesteading. From old shame about traditional mountain foodways, recounted in earlier novels and memoirs, emerges a new pride, seen first in the works of more recent Appalachian authors and later on menus as the farm-to-table movement began celebrating ramps and sorghum, ingredients harvested in the mountains for generations.
“Cuisine once deemed coarse is now haute,” Locklear writes, but she also notes that perceptions of mountain people haven’t caught up. If we are truly what we eat, then Appalachians are as complex as the food of their rugged land.print it