That’s how I feel after a weekend at the 3rd annual Appalachian Food Summit. Well fed. In mind, body, and soul. I almost called this piece “Community Revival” because it was that too. A congregation of like-minded folks coming together to learn lessons of history but also what we can do to keep this region vibrant and thriving. But when I get quiet, when I dwell on four days of music, stories, food, and fellowship with a generous sprinkling of hard truths added, what I mostly feel is fed. Fed full.
Let’s set the scene. Total strangers gather at The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center in Berea, Kentucky over soup beans and cornbread, beaten biscuits and butter cake. Talking in the buffet line, smiling in anticipation of good eats to come. A famous chef ladles the beans into every bowl, but this isn’t a red carpet of celebrity. Other than a few pictures people are focused on getting enough sorghum butter for their cornbread or stealing a second slice of cake. Here everyone is just a person hungry for good victuals (pronounced “vidls” of course), conversation, stories, and fellowship. There are claps on backs between old friends who haven’t seen one another in a year. Tentative proceeding quickly to friendly talk between the locals and the passionate folks who have met here to promote, discuss, learn, and grow the vibrancy that is Appalachia.
The event is crowded, so much so coffee tables quickly become places to dine and floors become makeshift placemats. I hop on a stool next to the Dolly Parton pinball machine. Its flashing lights and her grinning dimples become my dining companion as I inhale the biscuit dressed with rabbit confit and pickled collards then gulp the pork rind with pimento cheese dip in one fell swoop. Despite being not even remotely hungry ten minutes ago, I’m suddenly starving. Licking my fingers and wondering would it be too greedy of me to eat two more. Of everything. Dolly’s smiling eyes assure me it isn’t.
Welcome to the inaugural John Egerton Cornbread Convocation, a free event and the kickoff to this year’s summit, named for a man who believed in the power of shared food creating shared community. Free so anyone can find a place at the table. Food because he believed, and rightly so, that food is always common ground for growth and discussion no matter what your background. Donations are taken to help West Virginia flood victims but even if all you have to give is a warm smile, all are welcome.
After the eats there are lessons on heirloom seed saving from Bill Best and Berea College faculty, expert elders passing on knowledge to the young ones so these traditions aren’t lost. Full bellies and happy smiles fill the room with warm energy that feels like a soft breeze on a dew-covered Kentucky rolling hill. Dolly smiles her approval, hands on hips. She looks as if she might break into a jig. Or maybe I’ve just had too much butter cake.
Then artist and author Robert Gipe gets up to read a portion of his book, Trampoline. But first, he offers up stories of his early life as a pickle packer in a factory and it’s like an offering, a precious gift, payment for this simple, glorious food. His voice is deep, with a lovely Southern lilt that’s dark and welcoming and toasted all at the same time. Like sorghum in your coffee. We roar with guffaws at an anecdote about a factory mishap. I well up with tears when he reads a passage about an aunt serving chicken and rice to a favorite niece, wiping the dust from inside a bowl procured from the fancy dish cabinet as if the act of placing it in the good china will elevate this dish and make it worthy. From his intonation and the poetry of his words I know it could be served in the dog bowl and taste better than any Michelin-starred restaurant. It makes me want some and I mentally add chicken and rice to my death row meal bucket list of items to try before I kick my own bucket off God’s green earth.
I close my eyes and allow Gipe’s words to wash over me like that breeze I mentioned earlier. It’s only a simple passage of two people talking over food and yet I feel it healing me from the inside out. The food, the sharing of knowledge, and Gipe’s words drive themselves into my bloodstream like a doctor’s needle full of medicine traveling the roads and byways of my blood vessels curing every ailment it passes over.
Every minute in the company of these folks drives away the malaise, the apathy, the quiet desperation I feel for most of my other 364 days. I’m like a woman sick and starving. Being here feeds me. It fills some sort of emptiness I didn’t really know I had until I breathed all this in and felt the darkness leave.
I kick myself for even doubting I could attend, for dreading the long drive along the mountain byways, traveling across the tops of ridge lines and through the gorges of Virginia and West Virginia before hitting the rolling, gently sloping hills of Kentucky. Fly in? It’s not the same. Something about the act of driving recalls the building anticipation I always felt heading to Nana’s house. To Muddy’s farm. Because you just knew there would be good things. Sure it’s long and arduous, particularly for an almost 50-year-old woman with a bad neck and a crippling fear of accidents. It’s like waiting for Christmas or going to the doctor. You endure it to get to the good part. And the summit is full of so many good parts. Driving 64E through Lexington, Virginia, hitting the mountain passes and gorges around Covington? Seeing the fog settle over the mountains and valleys like smoky lace as you glide across the high interstate passes? You don’t get that flying. Nor do you get the gradual familiarity that settles upon you with every passing mile of being from a place despite never having lived there.
Which is what I feel when I stop in Covington where my Nana was born. Where she met Pop-Pop at seventeen while visiting her aunt who ran a boarding house. It was The Great Depression and Lonnie was driving into every mountain holler to buy “old gold” for resale. Family heirlooms sold to keep the family fed. She accompanied him on one such trip two weeks after they met. When Erma refused to stay overnight under the same roof because they weren’t married Lonnie woke up the local judge, who married them in his living room while still in his undershirt and suspenders.
But I digress. I’m not sure what Appalachia that guy wrote about in his bestselling elegy, but the one I’m getting to know is vibrant and happy and alive and full of learned, passionate people. People like Ronni Lundy, whose new book, Victuals, espouses this belief that Appalachia is not an historical artifact but a vibrant, thriving, vital region whose history has been one of extraction for far too long. Appalachian culture is one of inclusion, steadfast resourcefulness, and intelligent, creative folks working toward solutions. Where everyone has a seat at the table. Not the long-standing myths of ignorance and isolation and slovenly ways and apathy and untrustworthy tricksters and ruffians.
It’s why we are here. To dispel these myths once and for all. To further the causes of economic development and viability. To raise up. To lift up. To revive and be a place of revival. Of community. Ronni and the organizers of the summit urge us all to take the cans of beans on each table with us. To have similar convocations in our own communities back home. Because as we all know there are many communities out there in need of fellowship over food. In need of art and stories and music and knowledge sharing. In need of revival.
Throughout the weekend equally passionate folks share their own knowledge. Community builders working fervently in their own towns and cities. People like Toni Tipton-Martin, whose award-winning book, The Jemima Code, dispels myths about the long-standing African-American “Mammy” figure. People like Daniel Stroud, who against advice, started a craft brewery in a state with 42 dry counties. His monthly “Buy Your Priest a Beer” day attempts to bridge the gap. Folks like Courtney Balestier and Mark Essig, who teach us the origins of the West Virginia Pepperoni Roll and The Drover’s Road, respectively. People like Steven Alvarez whose Taco Literacy program at The University of Kentucky teaches students issues of immigration and identity using the humble taco as both metaphor and touchstone.
The Berea College Gospel Choir lifts up all with glorious music of revival and joy. Silas House waxes poetic on pickled baloney. Bobby Starnes shares her antique butter churn saved from a fire generations ago. Cobbled together by her great-great grandfather using two strips of wood. She speaks of holding her grandchildren’s hands as they learn to make butter and as a result, generations cross in an instant. An object both artifact and teaching tool. A lesson in how simple items can be valuable reminders of where we’ve been. People like chefs Travis Milton, Ouita Michel, Ashley Capps, and Wayne Riley who work tirelessly to feed over 100 people comforting Appalachian dishes like Bloody Butcher Cornbread Salad, Saltwater Catfish, Fried Chicken, Savory Tomato Pie, and of course, Dressed Eggs.
The fervent passion of these folks lifts me up, heals me, and gives me the courage to work harder. To do more back home in my own community. So much so when a semi-truck explodes on my return trip changing my 6-hour drive to 10, I don’t even care. The food, the knowledge, the song and story combine with the fellowship to buoy me up and over. The sounds and images stay with me and I cannot wait to share them with anyone who cares to listen.
I discover in my absence Charlottesville had its own community food summit, Human/Ties. But when I look at the panelists my heart sinks. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm attended which is terrific. But the panel was rounded out by hosts from NPR and chef Alice Waters. Folks from the National Endowment for the Humanities “performed” by chopping vegetables onstage. A very different sort of community gathering from the one I just left. Now don’t get me wrong. Alice and I see eye-to-eye on many things. Her food is delicious and her passion for fresh local ingredients is both legendary and something I can get behind. But besides Joel, where was our local talent on that stage? Where was the community? How does food as performance help to bring a community together? Doesn’t talking “at” folks and performing “for” them create barriers that don’t exist when you share “with” and cook “with” people you’re visiting? I know Chef Waters visited our City Schoolyard Garden. Great. But the panel discussion was about eating and farming ethically. They couldn’t find local advocates to share their stories? I can think of five without even making an effort. Which for my brain says a lot.
I understand Charlottesville isn’t Appalachia. We have our own identity, issues, and needs. But good food is universal. Folks doing the work of food exist in every community. I just wish they’d tried a bit harder to include everyone in the conversation, not just truck in major celebrities to make their point.
I also couldn’t help remembering the first time I met Chef Waters while volunteering at a private donor event in the slave kitchen at Monticello a few years ago. Only the most prominent donors were invited to meet and greet Saint Alice, then enjoy a salad prepared by her as well as ham biscuits cooked authentically over an open fire by chefs Scott Peacock and Leni Sorensen, a renowned food historian. I watched as Alice selected only the most perfect pea tendrils and snippets of herbs for her salad, discarding most of them. Placing edible flower petals delicately over the top just so. Tossing it gently with her tongs because the antique Monticello implements she wanted to use were forbidden. Then glancing over the biscuits and throwing out the imperfect ones. Which were most of them.
Meanwhile several dozen tourists milled about outside in the sweltering summer heat and I wondered how many would be thrilled to eat misshapen biscuit cooked as they has been prepared by Jefferson slave James Hemings back in the 1700’s. I sure as hell did. I inhaled several when no one was looking and pocketed a few more for The Hubby to try. To me they all looked beautiful. And the taste? Incredible no matter some burnt edges.
And it didn’t stop there. After the light meal these elite donors stepped onto the lawn to watch Alice milk a cow that looked as if it had come from central casting. Blonde with lashes longer than a Kardashian’s. A perfect cow. The Borden’s mascot come to life. There was some commotion because Saint Alice wanted to use an ancient copper bucket hanging on the kitchen wall but the resident historian told her no, the lactic acid would interact with the copper. She reluctantly settled for a modern one.
As I watched her entertain these rich guests I felt like I was in a parallel universe where simple chores were only an act of performance. And only for the wealthy. Leni leaned to whisper in my ear, “Isn’t this just too fucking precious for words?” and I had to stifle my guffaws so as not to be banished for my insubordination. But it was. It sure was. Precious. As. Hell. It only got worse when I heard a donor ask Alice, “What kind of cows I should get for my estate? Not to milk, just to have. Cows to look at.”
Milking a cow isn’t precious. It’s work. Nathan Vergin of Silky Cow Dairy got up that morning, probably before dawn, to milk his herd before coaxing this blonde beauty onto a truck so rich folks could watch a famous chef practice an ancient form of food work they would never think to do themselves. Making food is work and not performance. I did not go to Human/Ties so can’t accurately critique the event, but when I heard folks from another city were chopping vegetables on stage for people’s entertainment, it brought me right back to that day at Monticello.
I’m grateful to the Appalachian Food Summit for showing me what a community event can be. Simple. For all. With little preparation beforehand. With imperfect food that is worked and made only for the enjoyment of eating and sharing. And all that comes with that.
As I prepare to attend this Sunday’s Charlottesville Pie Fest I’m thankful not all food is performance in Charlottesville. There are community gatherings and revivals happening here every day. Like the Cornbread Convocation at Berea, this pie fest will be messy and imperfect. Some pies will be misshapen, others might not turn out quite right. Some folks, including me, will be sharing their very first efforts. Not everyone will be winners but I’d bet money that everyone has a splendid time. Why? Because pie. No one cares if a crust is a tad burned on the edges or the fruit runs. Well maybe the judges do. The rest of us will just eat it right up and ask for more.
This gathering will be communal, not performance. You will be able to see the work, the real effort in people’s faces and smiles when they walk through the door of Crozet Mudhouse. Unlike rewarding big donors with a visit from a food saint on high, we will pass the jar to help the less fortunate among us. I’m not saying one event is better than the other. Well maybe I am. What I’m saying is gatherings like the pie fest and the cornbread convocation feel more real. I feel like I’m a part of something greater than myself instead of feeling like just the help. It’s the difference between a smile from a stranger when you pass them a second piece of cornbread and a dirty eyeball from a donor because you inadvertently placed the tip of your thumb on the salad plate. The difference between twee baby vegetables and pea tendrils and real food that makes you feel fed. The difference between the pretty Instagrammed plate and something more intangible, a feeling of being fed you can only acquire when many hearts and hands work together as a community.
As I read over this piece I’m both lifted and disheartened. I’m buoyed by the memories, but worry I’ve just created the exact opposite of that best-selling elegy which shall remain nameless. It meanders like the roads I traveled to get to Kentucky. My description of the summit is chock full of sentiment and aw-shucks, feel-good, hillbilly homespun cliché and language. At times it reads like a Hallmark card. Which tells me two things. One, I need to attend more summits so I can learn to see past the obvious and get to the deeper meaning of what the vibrancy of this region means. Why it feels so much more real to me than food performance. And two, I, like so many others I encountered, am so obviously STARVED for this kind of simple eating and gathering among people. Aren’t we all?
I attended the pie fest yesterday. With my very first effort, a Sweet Potato Speculoos I cobbled together using Patti LaBelle’s recipe and the recipe from my favorite pie blogger, Emily Hilliard of Nothing in the House. She created it because her friend, Ronni Lundy (yes, THAT Ronni Lundy) likes to put cookie butter on her sweet potatoes. To my shock and surprise, I won. All credit goes to those ladies and the folks of the food summit. Because I’m convinced all that good feeling transferred itself into the hands that made that pie. Hands full of gratitude. Hands fully fed.
Three videos from the summit are below. Click on them all to feel fed yourself…
John Bullock’s Egg Nog.By Jenée Libby
Brownies.By Jenée Libby
Josh Ozersky Rest in Peace.By Jenée Libby
Time’s Sacrifice.By Jenée Libby
Feed the Body.By Jenée Libby
Big Love Bake Sale.By Jenée Libby
Cathy Fields, The Skull & Bones, and Big Stone Gap Corn Pudding.By Jenée Libby
Sound and Vision.By Jenée Libby
Beach Stupor.By Jenée Libby
Thank You, Leonard Cohen.By Jenée Libby