The story below is an excerpt from our November/December 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Steven Hopp is co-author of the bestselling book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” which is scheduled to be released in a 10-year anniversary edition this spring. That book is the inspiration for The Harvest Table restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia, which over its eight years has become not only a renowned dining destination but also a national leader and inspiration in the farm-to-table movement. Hopp teaches Environmental Studies classes at Emory & Henry College and lives on a farm with his wife and with a herd of Icelandic sheep and Dexter cattle.
We’re being robbed. A hundred years ago a visitor to our mountains could find more than 1,000 varieties of apples, most of them originating in this region. Now only a few of these are available commercially, and the others hang on by a thread in backyards and farms. The same goes for other Appalachian food varieties too, like sweet potatoes, field peas, beans, southern grapes, and heritage corns that were saved for decades by farming families all over Appalachia. Around 50 years ago corporations started taking over our food system. Profits trumped flavor. Salt and fat trumped cuisine. Shelf life trumped nutrition. And all of us felt the call to grab a box of rehydrated, microwaveable, corn syrup-sweetened convenience. Most of these food-like substances are made from the same two ingredients: commodity corn and soybeans, or confined animals fattened on the same.
Appalachia was probably lucky not to have huge flat fields for growing corn, soybeans and wheat, so our hills and valleys are largely still unspoiled by those practices. Instead, we have every growing condition you can picture: shaded or sunny, well-drained or damp, north- or south-facing slopes. The historical result has been one of the most diverse food regions in our country. That’s an authentic food heritage for Appalachia, but we’re losing it.
When you visit our mountain region you’re not coming here to see the commonplace, but something authentic: the perfect waterfall, handmade crafts, a mountain vista, bluegrass music, a historic site. I’d suggest you add heritage Appalachian foods to your quest for the true heart of our region. That means going a little out of your comfort zone to look for local products. I know the chain grocery stores and national fast-food restaurants have an appealing familiarity, but adventure and flavor will be your rewards if you try out locally owned, independent stores and locally produced goods. Here are some suggestions:
1) Most little towns host a farmers’ market, usually on Saturday morning, but often on other days. Ask people when and where the market is, and make it a point to attend. There isn’t a better way to find the soul of a community than seeing what its farmers have to offer, and that’s where you’ll find our heritage foods.
2) Find restaurants that source their fare locally. The number of these restaurants is growing rapidly, and many are joining the farm-to-table network. If a restaurant does have local items on the menu, thank them, and if they don’t, ask if they would consider it.
When more people ask for heritage foods, more farmers will be inclined to grow them. That’s what we need to do to get back the treasures we’ve lost.