Another great article from longreads.com’s Best of 2017, this one in the food writing category. From The Nation, Can Local Food Help Appalachia Build a Post-Coal Future? by Sarah Jones.
The longreads lists are chosen by writers and editors and this one was chosen by Vice writer Mayukh Sen who says:
[Ms. Jones’] voice is clear, engaging, and tempered with compassion…It’s a marvelous piece and a reminder that some of the most exciting, relevant food writing will live outside food publications unless they step up their game.
The subject of the article itself, Appalachia, isn’t familiar to me. In fact, I had to turn to wikipedia to find out what, or rather, where, it is. I have vague recollections of Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern going there and killing, butchering, then eating an entire pig. The most memorable bit was how they poured boiling water on the skin to get rid of hairs. No holds barred there. There were headcheese and tail and the obligatory offal. The whole idea is they hunt their own food and nothing goes to waste. A certain amount is due to necessity, and the region’s stereotype of being inhabited by white trash.
Ask the average outsider what Appalachians eat, and they may deliver a similar answer: trash. McNuggets, maybe, or lots of bacon and gravy. Heart-attack food. People choose the stories that they want to believe, and the myth of the dumb, fat hillbilly is an old and popular one.
But that’s only half the picture.
The region is huge, with diverse weather and landscapes, so the variety of food produced is also huge. Where the land is flat, more typical mass-produced food is found. In the less arable mountain areas, reliance on beans, grains, foraged greens increase. Pigs are easy to raise so pork is the primary meat. Key factors are adaptability and ingenuity. Of course poverty comes into the equation too, with coal being the major industry. As coal-mining declines, jobs that become available are mostly in the fast food and retail service sector; in some places, fast food is all you can eat. These jobs have long hours and are low paying, the effect is that people have less time to grow or cook their own food. And so they start to rely on fast food.
And the circle continues. Until people decide enough is enough.
There are modern efforts to improve the health of Appalachians, with many fresh initiatives such as the farmacy project that gives participants vouchers to use at farmers’ markets; converting abandoned mines into farms or vineyards; establishing a thriving food scene to attract visitors.
Food is the story of the people who invented it, and for Appalachia, it’s a definitive rebuttal to tired stereotypes.
And that to me is a good thing. I really liked reading the article because of how well it was written. For some reason I decided to read the first part out loud, and it was surprisingly easy. Sometimes when reading out loud, the words trip over each other and they don’t flow. These words did.