052 – Courtney Balestier, Writer

courtney-balestierWriting Work. Are West Virginia pepperoni rolls “just” bread and pepperoni? Or is it something more? Food as symbol of Appalachian identity, culture, and pride. Meet Courtney Balestier who used the word “just” as the starting point and focus of her talk at this year’s Appalachian Food Summit in Berea, Kentucky where this conversation was recorded. Where most people see just a few ingredients, a simple food easy to dismiss, Courtney sees something ingenious and quite meaningful.

Courtney is a James Beard-nominated fantastic new voice in food writing and her thoughts on the devoted followers of the pepperoni roll is a big reason why. Not only did it originate in West Virginia, it’s the state food. But unless you grew up there you may not have heard of it. Once you’ve tasted one? Expect regular cravings.

Like other regional favorites there are heated discussions as to what constitutes the proper roll. Cheese or no cheese? Sticks or medallions? No matter your preference, everyone agrees the bread must come from a handful of small bakeries in West Virginia and nowhere else. What happened when Sheetz tried to source outside the region? Why was the roll created in the first place? We talk about that as well as the interesting source behind Courtney’s piece, published in Vice Munchies last year. Hear her presentation in its entirety during next week’s BONUS episode, “Sounds of the Summit” to benefit the 2017 Appalachian Food Summit.

Courtney discovered food writing kind of by accident. After getting her Master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from NYU she worked for Everyday with Rachel Ray, freelanced for magazines both in food and music, then came to a crossroads. Music or food? Which one drove her passions? Ultimately food because so many issues can be addressed using it as a starting point. Including Appalachian identity, a focus close to her heart.

“You don’t know your identity until you leave a place.”
– Toni Tipton Martin, author of The Jemima Code

Courtney didn’t care about Appalachian cuisine until she graduated from WVU. Although not born in West Virginia, she went to school there and feels an affinity with the region. What is her Appalachian identity? Where does she fit in? One way is through food. Everybody eats after all. I can relate. As a woman from Richmond, with relatives in the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachia, I’m not from there either. But I am. My roots are shallow but my connection to this region is as deep as the gorges I drove through on the way to the summit.

But am I allowed at the table? Or do folks with deep roots have more say in what happens in this region? Are enthusiastic transplants equally welcome? For a long time Appalachia has been a region of extraction, where folks take resources for use somewhere else. With this being the norm for so long, can folks with deep roots welcome newcomers who want to help? We talk about the advantages and disadvantages of this as well as the ramifications behind Appalachia becoming the culinary world’s newest darling. What happens when folks attempt to interpret Appalachian cuisine in new ways through books like Ronni Lundy’s, Victuals? Are these recipes historical artifacts to be preserved or jumping off points for new creations?

Courtney has been published in all the giants: Oxford American, The New Yorker, Lucky Peach, Punch, just to name a few. Her piece “Let Us Now Retire the Whiskey Woman” was nominated for a James Beard award last year and acts as a jumping off point for a terrific discussion on the “Cool Girl” gender stereotype in the world of food. Meet the “Whiskey Woman,” a stereotype that came into its own with Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl. The spirits industry followed soon after with commercials starring Mila Kunis and Christina Hendricks embodying a superficial carefree-no-worries-but-can-drink-you-under-the-table woman popping up all over. Why is this bullshit? What’s the difference between a Whiskey Woman and a woman who just prefers bourbon? We’ll “woman-splain” in this episode. 😉

We also delve a bit into gender studies related to the world of food writing. Is it more celebrated now because more men are tackling it? Women have always excelled in this genre, but more often men win the awards. Why is that? And why isn’t food writing more popular? What has been her food writing journey and what tips does she have for new writers? That’s here too.

The Appalachian Food Summit is a perfect forum to present these kinds of stories. Stories that preserve history. Stories that teach and dispel long-held myths around regions of our country and its beloved foods. And it doesn’t matter where you’re from, all are welcome to the table. Find your way in. It’s one reason this cause is so dear to me. Hear Courtney’s full talk next week, Thursday, November 3rd, during my special episode, “Sounds of the Summit”. It’s a compilation of talks, stories, and music recorded live at this year’s summit in Berea, Kentucky in September. It only costs $1 and all proceeds go towards making next year’s summit the best ever. I hope you’ll join me. Cheers.

SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:

This episode is sponsored by MarieBette Café and Bakery.

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