Could Appalachia’s food traditions help reinvigorate the region’s health and economy? Chef Travis Milton invites readers to pull up a chair and join the conversation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In mid-May chef Travis Milton prepared a locally sourced meal for about 70 participants in the first Appalachian Food Summit at Hindman Settlement School in Eastern Kentucky. Lora Smith reports in Ace Weekly that the highlights of Milton’s feast were “a kilt lettuce salad with homemade crab apple vinegar, sour corn, beaten sweet potato biscuits served with cured ham, honey butter and pepper jelly, fried catfish with a tomato gravy, potatoes with foraged ramps and bacon, and green tomato hand pies.”
The Appalachian Food Summit embraced the notion that rural regions like Appalachia have a lot to offer folks who are interested in tasty, nutritious and sustainably produced fare.
If you’ve never been in a chef’s office, it is a very organized yet chaotic place. There are shelves filled with cookbooks, wire racks of notebooks with to-do lists, invoices, checkbooks, schedules of current projects and tons and tons of clipboards.
My office is an insanely tiny room that offers little break from the organized chaos happening only steps away on the cook’s line. Amidst all of this craziness hangs a lone picture, one that brings a little bit of peace and quiet reflection into my world, a picture of my great grandparents’ barn in Wise County, Virginia.
Since the May 18th Appalachian Food Summit in Hindman, Kentucky, I’ve found myself staring at this simple photo a lot more often.
I grew up in Castlewood, Virginia, where my father’s people are from. Over the years I split a lot of my time between Castlewood and Wise, Virginia, where my mother’s from. I currently live in Richmond, Virginia, and I’m the chef at Comfort Restaurant, where my focus is showcasing the Appalachian foods from my Southwestern Virginia upbringing and heritage. Today, I live six hours away from the place that shaped who I am as a person and as a chef.
To get to Hindman, Kentucky, from Richmond, I had to pass through both Castlewood and Wise. I was fortunate enough to have my very good friend and fellow Appalachian by way of West Virginia along, cookbook writer Kendra Bailey Morris. As we made the trip toward Kentucky I decided to take a little detour to show her my great grandparents’ farm in Castlewood. The house where I spent my summer days stringing beans and snapping peas has been gone for about 10 years, as well as the cattle barn and spring house. They were purchased by a rock quarry company, and today, the property retains very little resemblance to the place that resides in both my heart and mind.
As we walked the line of the road toward what was left of the property I saw spring poke weed growing throughout the smaller pasture where we kept the young calves when it came weaning time. To my left was what was left of four aging old red buildings, along with a tobacco barn, chicken coop, a canning/dairy building and a small utility building. When I was younger, these buildings had already become less and less indicative of their original purposes. The old chicken coop housed a couple of broken down tractors along with an old Volkswagen truck. The tobacco barn still had tobacco in it, especially in the summer time, but the rest of the year it offered shelter to square bails of hay and a 1963 Chevy truck. The dairy and canning building slowly morphed into a haven for feral farm cats, but the utility building was still just that, a place of random and possibly useful objects.
I entered the utility building. Stepping over some high grass, I gingerly pushed the old, now slightly hinged door open. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was almost exactly as I remembered it.
The floor was scattered with old lawn mower parts, calf feeding nipples and an old sink that my great grandfather had placed inside. I was confounded. I had no idea if I should feel happy, sad, angry or simply plain somber, so I just stood there staring at it all. I expected my great grandfather to appear out of nowhere and walk up behind me, chuckling with a funny remark as he often did. It was in that moment that I was transported back in time. Walking into that utility building reinforced some thoughts and feelings I’ve had for quite some time now. While we face the present and try to plot a course for our future, the beginning of the answers lies in our past. I am very proud of where and what I come from, and I want us to all be able to take pride in where we are going.
This brings me back to the Hindman Appalachian Food Summit. It was a beautiful gathering of passionate people, bonding over food and breaking bread together. I think we all came in with questions about what we are doing and how we can help each other and our communities. I was blessed to sit in on some wonderful conversations and interact with a diverse group of folks, and it was a privilege to cook for them.
This is only an introduction of my thoughts and feeling about the state of Appalachia’s future, but if there is anything I’d like to convey it’s this – I came to Hindman with a lot of questions with very few answers, and after all of the conversations, I’m left with even more questions. But that’s not a bad thing because it reinforces the notion that we as Appalachians are at a crucial turning point. Now is the time to create a dialogue about what’s next that is as diverse as our culture and people. I look forward to the day when we can begin to answer some of these questions. Until then, I will revel in how amazing the people of my beloved Appalachia truly are and do my part.
Let’s 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 our time and our future, so pull up a chair, because everyone is welcome at this table.