Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A new book is breaking down stereotypes about Appalachian food — and people

When Erica Abrams Locklear discovered her Appalachian grandmother’s cookbook, she was shocked by what she found.

It was filled with recipes for “traditional” mountain foods like apple stack cake and chow-chow, sure, but she also saw foods like streusel and Baby Ruth cookies.

 The cover of Erica Abrams Locklear's book. It shows a woman's hands and a lap full of beans.
Photo by Tim Barnwell, cover design by Erin Kirk
Courtesy of Erica Abrams Locklear
The cover of Erica Abrams Locklear's book

“[My grandmother] had this wide variety of recipes with plenty of store-bought ingredients, plenty of imported ingredients, plenty of recipes that required equipment that I wouldn't have expected her to have in her kitchen,” Locklear said. “It really prompted a reexamination of everything that I thought I knew about her and about mountain food.”

Now, Locklear is breaking down those deeply entrenched stereotypes about Appalachian food.

In her new book Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People, she examines old literature — from travel writing to fiction — to figure out how mountain food came to be labeled as coarse and unsophisticated, and how those labels have affected the region’s people.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On discovering her grandmother’s cookbook

“When I really sat down and looked at those recipes, I was astounded. It revealed that my grandmother subscribed to a number of different kinds of publications. There were handwritten recipes, recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines, and recipes clipped from product boxes. But what really surprised me were the recipes themselves. There were a range of things I never expected to find in my grandmother's cookbook, things from streusel to Baby Ruth cookies to lots of things using store-bought or imported products. It really caused me to reexamine what I thought I knew about my grandmother, and what I thought I knew about mountain food and cooking in the mid-20th century.”

 A headshot of Erica Abrams Locklear. She has short brown hair and is wearing a black shirt and purple glasses.
Tim Barnwell
Courtesy of Erica Abrams Locklear
Erica Abrams Locklear, author of Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People

On early representations of Appalachian food

“Whereas Appalachian food is having quite the culinary moment right now, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s or early 1900s, depictions of mountain food generally described it as coarse. And the implication was that if the food was coarse, then so, too, were the people. There were these strong undercurrents of lack of civility, lack of sophistication, lack of culinary know-how.”

How perceptions of Appalachian food have changed over time

“There's been this infiltration in the restaurant scene of food traditionally associated with Appalachia that gives it to a broader audience. And there's been recognition in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Gordon Ramsay's National Geographic television show, for example. But one of the points that I make in my book is that Appalachian writers were celebrating Appalachian food long before it was trendy to do so. You've got writers like Harriette Simpson Arnow in the 1950s writing lovingly about food that would have still — on the national scene — been considered coarse or uncivilized, but now shows up on farm-to-table menus all around the country.”

On the future of Appalachian cuisine

“This cuisine that has been denigrated for so long is now finally being celebrated in really exciting ways. There are also lots of culinary innovations on the horizon that are interesting and that can celebrate people who have immigrated to Appalachia and are part of the Appalachian community or communities now. But as I write about in my book, I think we also need to be careful because there's a danger in celebrating food in ways that become centralizing, so that only certain ingredients count or only certain groups of people count as Appalachian. And that can be a very exclusionary, dangerous sort of phenomenon that I hope we can avoid.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.