What the cookbook is: A genuine, unpretentious journey through Appalachia by way of its history, food, and people.
What the cookbook is not: A book only of traditional, old-fashioned recipes.
Who this book is best suited for: A home cook who enjoys reading about and trying food (some traditional, some not) from different American regions.
Three words to sum it up: A sincere homage.
The Review: Victuals
Having lived in the southern Appalachian mountains for five wonderful years, I have been asked to describe the mountains on several occasions. I’ve always gone back to the same description: where most people marvel, looking up in awe at rocky mountain crags out west, the Applachians to the east draw the eye down. Their enormity and awe-inspiring beauty lies in their hazy, collective valleys. These mountains are simple. They’re inviting. They’re verdant. They’re haunting. Like the history of the people who live there, time has uniquely sculpted them. I can go on, but Ronni Lundy does far better than I ever could in her part travelogue, part cookbook Victuals.
Right off the bat, we’re taken on a journey. The book cover is lined with a hand-drawn road map. After thumbing through pages of journalistic style photos by Johnny Autry, Lundy invites us to join her on her road trip over passes and down hollers, riding shotgun with the promise of Nabs in the glove compartment.
Though Lundy’s writing sways between anthropological and autobiographical, she manages to do it well. Every chapter opens with a vignette about a traditional Appalachian food history (chapters include apples, sorghum, corn, beans, and preserving among others) and it shines a spotlight on the generations of people, then and now, who work(ed) to keep regional traditions alive. I use the word ‘alive’ loosely here.
When speaking about Appalachian food culture’s viability in her introduction, Lundy points out, “By the time a group of us assembled…in 2008 for an eleven-day celebration and seminar on southern Appalchian foodways, I knew we weren’t talking about a dying anything.”
Lundy writes about the challenges Appalachian folks face, like living with the horrific effects of mountain top removal, and the triumphs, like grown children and grandchildren revitalizing and re-visioning multi-generational salt mines and U-pick orchards.
Throughout, there’s also a beautiful dance between traditional and non-traditional: stories of a gristmill powered by a waterwheel the good old fashioned way. And salt evaporated using solar panels rather than black kettles over fire. Recipes for greasy beans strung on a string. And banana pudding layered with miso banana bread. Whether old or new, Lundy reminds us that the very best pleasures take time.
Speaking of, I couldn’t resist testing The Shack’s Sweet and Savory Banana Pudding. At times, this recipe felt like it had moving parts because there were many different stages, time being a primary ingredient in all of them; it took 24 hours when all was said and done. There was the making and setting of the homemade vanilla pudding (4ish hours), the making and cooling of the miso banana bread (2ish hours), and the final setting of the pudding (overnight). Was it worth it? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was, I don’t say this often because I am a banana pudding connoisseur, in the top-5 best banana puddings I’ve ever eaten. It still had the familiar marriage of Nilla wafers softened slightly under sliced bananas and homemade vanilla pudding but with a umami surprise folded in for good (really good) measure. Never in a million years would I have thought to put miso paste in banana bread. Buckwheat flour, yes. Miso, no. The two really complement each other, especially paired with the sweet, rich custard.
One Last Thought
Because it’s not all ‘old fashioned’ recipes and since there is more prose than recipes, I can understand why an Appalachian food-purist might be a little critical of this cookbook style. But there in lies Lundy’s point. She writes to portray a culture outside of stereotypes and expectations, and Autry does the same in his photographs. There is something for everyone; the old-timer, the newlyweds, the city-folk, the people from “up home”…you get my drift.
P.S. As I was putting finishing touches on this review, Victuals was awarded the James Beard Book of the Year. For anyone unfamiliar, that’s a really high honor in food world. Congratulations, Ronnie!