Review: Appalachian Cooking: A Feast for the Taste Buds – and the Eyes

John Tullock’s take on mountain cooking is loaded with tradition, spiced with fresh ideas, and devoid of ostentation.

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Appalachian Cooking: New and Traditional Recipes
By John Tullock
The Countryman Press. 2018. (Available March 20)

I have lived my whole life in the South, and I come from a long line of Southerners – my mama was raised in Alabama and my dad in North Carolina. Consequently, I have a soft spot in my heart for the traditional dishes of this region: skillet cornbread and turnip greens, soup beans and sweet corn, deviled eggs and blackberry cobbler. So I can’t for the life of me figure out why I never learned how to cook those dishes. Maybe it was because my mom worked a full-time job and preferred the convenience of canned and frozen vegetables (I can’t blame her, really) and my father only cooked unsightly things like scrambled-eggs-and-brains and corned-beef hash (forget it). Or it might have nothing to do with them, and I was just born with a predominant “can’t we just have popcorn for dinner again” gene. Whatever the reason, I figured at 59-years-old, when it came to traditional cooking, I was a lost cause.

The new book, Appalachian Cooking: New and Traditional Recipes, by John Tullock from Knoxville, Tennessee, makes me think there might be hope for me yet. Honestly, I picked up the book because I liked the way it looked, not because I was interested in cooking anything. There’s something appealing about Alyssa Roberts Comstock’s colorful drawings of tomatoes and asparagus and garlic on the front and throughout the pages, as well as the simple lay-out of the book and friendly fonts. So I started flipping through it.

A detail from the book.

“Wait a minute …” I thought. “This book explains how to fry green tomatoes and bake cat-head biscuits and cook-up black-eyed peas. Is that allowed?” I guess I thought if you weren’t in the My Granny Was a Fabulous Cook Club, you never got another chance. But here it was in black and white, and red and green and yellow. I dug in a little further and found not only recipes, but little descriptions about the history of the dishes and details about certain ingredients. (For instance, did you know the ramp is America’s only native onion, and that there’s an annual Ramp Festival in Flag Pond, Tennessee?)

I knew I was going to like this book when I came upon this sentence in the author’s introduction: “I’ve intentionally avoided recipes that require special equipment. … While I have included recipes that are suitable for a special occasion, this book is aimed at home cooks, not professional chefs. You won’t find much here in the way of precious presentation or over-the-top combinations of ingredients.”

Thank you, John Tullock.

I guess it was that sentence that inspired me to actually try some of the recipes instead of just wishing someone would make them for me. It’s mid-winter so I tried out the spoonbread and the hoppin’ john stuffed peppers, and was pretty impressed. I’m looking forward to summer, when I can try out more of the fresh vegetable dishes like succotash and corn chowder. I’m not a big meat eater, so I was pleased to see some vegetarian substitutions to the staple bacon-grease ingredient in a lot of Appalachian cooking, for those who want that. But there’s plenty for the meat-eater in this book: chicken and dumplings, country ham with redeye gravy, and hot-dipped catfish, to name a few.

I don’t want to give the impression that this book is only for food novices like myself. There are new spins on some old recipes (“Killed Lettuce Salad” for instance) and some dishes that have been around the region for a while but aren’t in the usual lexicon (like “Tamales”). There’s also a short history of the region and its foods in the introduction, information on canning and other ways of “putting by” (don’t know if I’ll ever make it to that level), and resources on local food vendors.

I believe people new to Appalachian cooking, as well as more seasoned cooks, will enjoy the beautifully laid-out recipes in this book and the easy discussions on what is ultimately an art form. For those of us just ready to dip our toes in the water and those already doing the backstroke, this will likely end up being one of those cookbooks covered in bacon grease (or olive oil) and big droplets of barbecue sauce – and those are the ones, of course, we love the best.

Liz McGeachy lives in Norris, Tennessee, and wrote this review because the editor said she could not keep John Tullock’s book unless she did so.

 

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