Book Review: Darrin Nordahl Discovers a Culinary Treasure Trove In ‘Eating Appalachia’
Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors
by Darrin Nordahl
Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015
During a time when there is a great focus on farm-to-table cooking and locally grown ingredients, particularly heirloom varieties of vegetables like tomatoes and beans, Darrin Nordahl realized something of an irony: “American ingredients are scarcely present in American food.”
At first blush that seems ridiculous, of course. What about those tomatoes or corn (maize)? Yes, Nordahl, concedes, they are American, but not really North American by native habitat. “There is a different, emerging sense of of eating local, meaning eating food from one’s ecogregion,” Nordahl writes.
This “notion of tasting place through indigenous flavors” piqued his curiosity about truly native American ingredients with their uniquely American taste. This in turn led Nordahl far from his Californian home on a journey through Appalachia and the foods it offered.
Why Appalachia? Nordahl writes, “What makes Appalachia distinct from other landscapes of America is its sundry mix of broadleaf forests. Some of these contain relic species not found anywhere else in North America—thanks to the age of the Appalachian mountains (some 600 million years old) and their escape from glaciation.”
This makes Appalachia something of a culinary time capsule, a space where unique flora and fauna have thrived in relative protection. It was just that unique native offering that Nordahl explores in Eating Appalachia.
Ranging through four states, Nordahl targets local festivals that celebrate native Appalachian foods. Through each place, he speaks with local experts and shares recipes, both traditional and innovative.
In Kentucky, Nordahl visits Prestonsburg for the annual elk dinner at Jenny Wiley State Park. Elk was reintroduced into eastern Kentucky two decades ago, and the once native animal has thrived beyond expectations. However, it’s difficult to harvest game meat for commercial use under current regulations.
Nordahl is guided by park naturalist Trinity Shepherd who explains the process of elk repopulation, including the surprising assertion that “Without coal mining, you could not have elk in Eastern Kentucky.” As it turns out, the grassy landscapes left behind by reclaimed coal mines are crucial to the elk’s development.
I grew up eating many of the foods, Nordahl explores (although not elk). I remember there were pawpaw plants at my grandparents’ home, although these were rarely used. My grandfather was also an inveterate gatherer and cracker of nuts. Black walnuts were his speciality, but he always rejoiced in years when there was a plentiful harvest of hickory nuts.
I remember well drinking sassafras tea, which I loved, from a pot on the stovetop with a giant sassafras root in it. My father also brought squirrel home frequently, and loved to make squirrel and dumplings.
But as Nordahl points out, most Americans have never tasted foods like pawpaws and elk, or nuts like hickories or black walnuts. Some of the native plants resist domestication, and can only be acquired through knowledgeable—and exhausting—foraging. Others, like the pawpaw, are virtually impossible to transport to market in their raw state because of their fragility.
While this can be a frustration if seeking to access these tastes elsewhere, it is also a unique natural resource that Appalachia would be wise to encourage and foster. First, we Appalachian natives need to relearn what our own place offers us. The reality is, many Appalachians have been made to look down on much of their native cuisines because of stereotypes and associations with a hardscrabble life.
One of the great benefits of a book like Eating Appalachia is that it helps give legitimacy to the true value of what we’ve had all along. As an outsider to what to him is an unexplored treasure trove of native tastes, Nordahl himself brings the invaluable component of simple enthusiasm.
But beyond rediscovering our own patrimony of the table, sustainable culinary tourism is wide open to an economically depressed region. We are seeing the beginning of this, but it is far from being well-developed. And it’s challenging because the kind of restaurants that can draw tourists can also be difficult for locals to support economically.
In Eating Appalachia, Nordahl has written an outsider’s love letter to the native foods of Appalachia. The book is lively and conversational, and is an excellent beginning point for discovering—or rediscovering—America’s most unique culinary storehouse.