It’s hard to ignore the press that Appalachian Cuisine has been given over the last few years. But far from being the hot new trendy cuisine, Appalachian cuisine is borne out of necessity. At the Appalachian Revolution seminar at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, we were treated to Chefs Travis Milton and William Dissen along with author Sherri Castle for an indepth discussion on the subject.

Appalachian Food Revolution Atlanta Food and Wine Travis Milton

The people of Appalachia ate (eat, in fact) the way they did for sustenance. Their practice of fermenting, wasn’t to give a funky sour umami note to food. It was because, with a relatively short growing season, food from the garden needed to be preserved – whether by salting, fermenting, canning, or burying it. “Appalachian people eat from the garden year round,” says Sherri Castle. But it is the result of the hard work of “putting up” when vegetables are in season. 

Appalachian Food Revolution Atlanta Food and Wine Travis Milton
Appalachian Food Revolution Atlanta Food and Wine Travis Milton

When the pioneers arrived to the isolated Appalachian region, it was quickly apparent that food resources would be problematic and to survive, they would need to make use of resources year round. Preservation techniques brought from Europe quickly were adapted and melded with techniques gained from the Native Americans who took settlers under their wings in many ways. One of the signature Appalachian dishes that Chef Travis Milton grew up with, shuck beans or leather britches, is a perfect example of utilizing both German and Cherokee techniques. Beans – Milton prefers greasy beans…snowball greasy beans to be exact – are strung like popcorn for Christmas trees and hung to dry. Drying starts a complex set of chemical reactions and ambient yeast attachment, when they are cooked for hours to rehydrate, the beans take on a complex meaty flavor akin to fat back or pot roast. “The food was born out of forced ingenuity. This was our steak… so humble yet transcending at the same time,” Milton adds. 

Castle says if someone asked her to put into one bite what she’s trying to convey, it’s sour corn. Fresh corn is cut from the cob and put in a salty brine to “get funky as hell” as Milton describes it. This corn is then either left on the counter or refrigerated when the desired level of sourness is reached. The Appalachian cook will reach for it when they need to give a dish a particular “whang”. It can be fried with some fat back or mixed with cornmeal to make hoecakes. 

William Dissen brings up the point that, while the media portray Appalachian food as fried chicken and bacon, meat is used sparingly because of scarcity. Some fat back may be added for seasoning or some scraps of meat. But typically the diet is very vegetable focused. Centered around what is in season or what was in season during the summer months and was preserved. A typical home meal might be cornbread, half-runner beans or peas, sour corn, and maybe a jello mold thrown in. 

Castle points out that Appalachia as portrayed in the media has become stereotyped and has been hard to break free of. Food media celebrates peasant food of world cultures, but ignores American peasant food. These two chefs are at the forefront of changing that perception. Milton has recently opened Milton’s in St. Paul Virginia. He had opportunities to take his Appalachian evangelism to larger cities, but chose to be in a town of 600 because, as he says, “if I opened a restaurant away from here, the people of Appalachia would still not benefit economically.” His second restaurant, Shovel & Pick, will be located in Bristol Virginia.  Dissen’s Haymaker restaurant opened in Charlotte, NC and is reinterpreting the foods of the region using local ingredients. 

Both chefs began their culinary journeys by running away from Appalachia and working in high-end restaurants. But each of them have now returned home and found what fortified cooking from the heart means to them. As Castle puts it, “when you feel comforted by your home and culture, you want to share it.” And we’re delighted they are sharing it with the world.

Atlanta Food and Wine 2018!

Big Green Egg Crawfish

Big Green Egg Crawfish

Springer Mountain Farm Booth:
Matt Gallaher of KnoxMason, Knoxville, TN
Paysan Bread

Springer Mountain Farm with Matt Gallaher, KnoxMason

Porter Road Butcher

Paulk Vineyards

Old Fourth Distillery

Nikky’s Coal Fired

Lydia Clompton

Sherry Tasting with Katie Button, Kellie Thorne, and Jocelyn Gregg

Sherry Tasting with Katie Button, Kellie Thorne, and Jocelyn Gregg

Sherry Tasting with Katie Button, Kellie Thorne, and Jocelyn Gregg
Jardi Chocolate

Singing (and drinking and eating) In the Rain!

Hawkers Asian Street Fare

Hattie Bs

Greg Baker Tampa Refinery

Creature Comforts Beer

Craft Beer Seminar

There was also a lot of fun to be had during the rest of the festival. We sat in on a Sherry pairing with chef Katie Button of Curaté and The Nightbell in Asheville as well as Kellie Thorne, bar manager at Empire State South and pastry chef Jocelyn Gregg of Jardí. They worked in sync to show us that Sherry isn’t just for dessert and cooking anymore. We sipped on a young dry Sherry paired with gazpacho and a much longer aged one paired with a selection of chocolates from Jardí. Chef Katie showed us all how easy it was to make gazpacho in about 10 minutes. Need a quick dinner? This recipe is for you! We’re now planning a Sherry tasting party of our own!

We spent a good few hours at the tasting tents and ‘mud’ was the word of the weekend. 

It. Was. Everywhere. 

We ran into Matt Gallaher, chef/owner of Knox Mason and Emilia, working his magic with Springer Mountain Farm chicken liver paté on toast from our friends at Paysan Bread. The beers from Creature Comforts Brewery always get our attention and so do Belle Meade bourbon slushies from Nelson’s Greenbrier Distilling. 

There was an especially delicious crispy softshell crab sandwich. The crab was small, perfectly cooked and tossed in a sweet and spicy Asian glaze. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken decided to appeal to the sweet tooth and serve up Banana Pudding. Oh, how we wish they had brought that mac and cheese!

Our favorite tasting tent dish of the weekend has to go to Fan and Johnny’s in Greenwood, MS. They put together an Latin inspired dish with beef and black rice served with sweet potato chips. Holy yum!

We had a great time exploring the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival this year. We got to see some familiar faces and make some new friends. Can’t wait to do it again next year! Would you join us?