Everything Tastes Better When You Share It: Travis Milton, the Daily Yonder, and Preserving the Best of Appalachian Foodways

I am an advocate of local and seasonal food and an avid practitioner of traditional foodways—both Appalachian and otherwise. I already know how to make sauerkraut in a crock, for instance, and now I am adding kimchi to my repertoire. Living in East Tennessee has been good for me in many ways, and food has been a central element of my enjoyment of the region. I have had wonderful teachers and coaches, so now I love growing food, cooking it, preserving it, and especially sharing it with others. There’s an abundance of local food available near me, whether it’s from my backyard or the farmers market, and I’m an advocate of both methods of procuring the freshest, tastiest, healthiest food possible.  That’s why the Daily Yonder’s blog post on chef Travis Milton and his enumeration of the virtues of Appalachian foodways really interested me[1]. In his comments, Milton, who originally hails from the Appalachian town of Wise, VA, advises readers to “resurrect the walls of our canning sheds, our spring houses, and our long lost homesteads so our families, our history, and our memories are not forgotten.” This is my corroboration of his directive, adding a few of my own reasons why we should revive the backyard garden tradition and work to increase our demand for (and consequently the supply of) local food.

Strawberry-rhubarb pie, made with fruit from our back yard. And yes--that crust is homemade.

Strawberry-rhubarb pie, made with fruit from our back yard. And yes–that crust is homemade.

I was born in Richmond, VA (where Milton now works as a chef at Comfort, a trendy downtown restaurant).  I lived in the Richmond area for the first 18 years of my life. After college in Williamsburg and a few years in Virginia Beach, marriage took me to the East Tennessee mountains. There, I was steeped in the culture and traditions of Appalachia for twenty years. A few years ago, I returned to the Richmond area temporarily to recover from a divorce and to finish writing my dissertation, then to teach. That’s when I began to refer to myself as a Tenneginian, because both places feel like equal parts of who I am. I took all of my now-ingrained Appalachian seasonal habits to Richmond with me, which at first amused and then delighted friends and neighbors. They watched with curiosity as I began growing cucumbers and lettuce in a tiny backyard garden and bargained with vendors at the farmers market for enough produce to make pickles, jams, and relishes. They were impressed when I managed to can things in my pocket-sized duplex kitchen, where I had only three feet of counter space and the microwave had to sit on top of the fridge. When guests showed up or neighbors stopped by during a canning session, I recruited help chopping, shredding, and filling jars. If you’ve been to Appalachia, you know that this, too, is part of the tradition. Everybody works—and everybody gets a share.

Because I had limited space, I stored my canning equipment in the backyard garden shed and kept my canned goods under the guest room bed. Once I had a store of jams, jellies, pickles, and preserves, I followed the mountain tradition of sharing them. When folks caught on, they’d ask me, in a hopeful tone, “Whatcha got under the guest room bed?” They knew that I would likely offer them something to take home as a treat. And they also caught on to other rules of the game: return the empty jars, and you receive special treatment (and extra goodies) from the crazy pickle lady. Let her pick your cherries or your pears, and you’ll receive in return a share of the preserves or some of the fruit, canned in light syrup.

Redbud Jelly, 2012

Redbud Jelly, 2012

There were other ways to share. I took salads to office parties, made with beets and greens that came from my two 4×8 raised beds. I took homemade jams and pickles to my friends as birthday and hostess gifts. I spent one particularly lovely evening with my childhood friend Margaret, who showed up at my place with a bottle of Pimm’s that someone had given her. We invented a rather fine cocktail using various fizzy drinks from Ellwood Thompson’s market (see below) and a jar of my brandied peaches (fished out from under the guest room bed, of course). Before I left Richmond to return to the mountains, I taught one of my friends to pickle and can. He is still going strong. Several of my formerly uninitiated friends now have the same kinds of raised beds in their backyards that I used when I was there. I wasn’t in Appalachia, but Appalachia was still very much in me—and I was determined to share the best of it.

I loved being in Richmond. I frequented the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and I had access to interesting shops and movies and concerts and things to do. It was wonderful to be back in town for a time with so many interesting and entertaining family members and old friends. And there was great food available, too. For groceries, there was Ellwood Thompson’s (www.ellwoodthompsons.com), a locally-owned market where signs in the produce section told customers how many miles away something was grown and whether it was organic. For meats and specialty items, my absolute favorite place was Belmont Butchery (www.belmontbutchery.com).Tanya Cauthen, owner and butcher, became a favorite friend. She has a great sense of humor and is very down to earth, and we had many a conversation about the finer points of butchering beef. I still make it a point to go by Belmont Butchery when I’m in town, and I still take treats to Tanya and her husband Henry when I go—jars of jam, bags of ramps—anything I think she’ll get a kick out of having because it’s scarce in Richmond. Another great source of seasonal and local food was the wonderful farmer’s market in Forest Hill Park. Saturday mornings would often find me at my friend Amy’s house. We’d have a cup of great coffee, then she and her partner Art and I were off to the market to see what wonderful locally grown foods were to be had. If we didn’t fill up on doughnuts from the Mennonites’ food truck, Art would fix breakfast as Amy and I put away the bounty.

I even went to Comfort once, though I don’t know if Milton was the chef there then. Margaret (of the Pimm’s and brandied peaches) took me there for dinner on my birthday just before I moved back to East Tennessee. The food was great. In fact, there were several wonderful restaurants in town that focused on seasonal and local foods, and I sampled a few of them when I could afford to go out to dinner. Sometimes, I miss the other amenities that Richmond offered, but I eat as well here at home in Tennessee as I did in any Richmond restaurant (if you’ll kindly pardon my saying so, Mr. Milton). I was lucky enough to fall in love with a handsome banjo picker who’s also a good cook with a green thumb. When he asked me to marry him, I left the big city and came home to Appalachia, where local food is still a strong tradition among the middle and lower classes, not just something that’s mostly sold in trendy restaurants or at the farmers markets. Here in the Sulphur Springs community, raising your own food is still very much a way of life. That’s why the eating is so very, very fine. And cheap, too.

Our backyard garden, June 2012

Our backyard garden, June 2012

Brett and I live in a subdivision. But every summer, we raise a large garden and “put things up” against the winter. Just before I moved back here, Brett built large, sturdy shelves that would hold our year’s supply of canned goods and empty jars. Now, putting things up is easier and more organized. That expanse of shelves is quite impressive, especially in August and September when a multitude of shiny jars showcase their colorful contents. When we plan meals, we shop in our own garage first for groceries, checking to see what’s on the shelves. And then we check the freezers. In one of them, there’s grass-fed beef, raised and butchered–by us–on Brett’s family’s farm in Lebanon, VA. Fruits and veggies from our summer garden fill the other. We have our own homemade “frozen dinners,” including cabbage rolls, ratatouille, and stuffed peppers made with our own produce and beef. In another corner of the garage, we keep boxes of the potatoes we’ve raised. Kennebecs are our favorites, but we grow red potatoes, too. And we are still eating sweet potatoes that we grew last summer and harvested and cured for storage last fall. I can feed visitors on very short notice, and there’s always something delicious to serve. As Brett often says with a grin when we sit down to eat supper: “Rich people don’t eat this good.”

Green beans, ready to go into the pressure canner: June, 2013

Green beans, ready to go into the pressure canner: June, 2013

Our little subdivision is filled with backyard gardens. So are many neighborhoods in Johnson City, Bristol, and Kingsport. And folks in the country definitely still have gardens and corn patches. Brett’s father not only raises beef on his small Southwest Virginia farm, but he keeps bees and grows a huge garden every year. He produces enough to supply his large extended family, and then, in Appalachian style, gives away much of what he has worked so hard to produce. In fact, my father-in-law is a tradition-bearer who takes great joy in teaching others how to grow and save food. He plants his corn with a wooden tool that his grandfather made years ago. He grows an heirloom variety, Boone County White, because he “likes the taste of it.” He harvests, shucks, and stores in the corn crib all winter. During a visit to his house last week, we helped him “nub” the rest of the dried ears of corn[2], then put them through the hand sheller (I cranked first, then Brett kindly took over). When we had all the kernels off of the cobs, we took three buckets full of gold to the shed where my father-in-law keeps his antique electric mill. We ground that corn into meal on the site where it was grown and harvested, then measured it out into bags that will go in the freezer until someone makes kilt lettuce or soup beans or some other meal that just cries for cornbread. That cornmeal is its own kind of special.  And we have several large bags of that in our freezer, too, because Neil shares.

Neil's antique grain mill, taken apart for cleaning and oiling

Neil’s antique grain mill, taken apart for cleaning and oiling

Sharing things creates community. Sharing fosters neighborliness and generosity and sets a good example for our children. It reminds us that we are interdependent, and that we need to take care of each other. That’s why we need to focus on making fresh, local food available to low-income people and those on fixed incomes. We need to help families reinvigorate and spread  this tradition in our communities through programs that empower people to take care of themselves.[3] We need to work hard to ensure that there are community gardens in urban areas where novices can learn to grow their own food. Most importantly, we need to work hard to make seasonal and local food available beyond outlets that are accessible and affordable only to the relatively affluent. As a wise friend once told me, “Everything tastes better when you share it.”

So, take heart, Travis Milton. The tradition you admire is alive and well in Appalachia. In fact, it never really died out here, and it’s reviving in style all around us. I did my best to bring a bit of it to RVA. Now it’s up to you to represent. Keep up the good work. Better yet, let’s work together so that, eventually, this kind of bounty is both available to and affordable for everyone.

 

 

[2] This entails removing the bad kernels from an ear of corn before shelling it. To do it, you rub an empty cob across the sections of rotted kernels, being careful to leave the good ones. If there’s only one bad kernel, then you have to pull out your pocketknife and practice a little more precision.

[3] Grow Appalachia (http://www.berea.edu/grow-appalachia) is a great example.

2 Comments

  1. Kathleen Wilson

    Katie, I read your blog with mouth-watering interest. My grandson loves rhubarb pie but I am having a difficult time finding rhubarb this year. Guess I will have to come to your house to raid the refrig and the freezer. Happy growing and eating.

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