Appalachia: Creme de la Creme
Central casting office from Deliverance. Speaking in tongues. Moonshine. Dolly Parton. If you listen to the ethnocentric pop culture Mandarins you would think the Appalachian Trail is littered with this hill country iconography. It’s not. The trip we took through West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee was the crème de la crème of all our domestic shoots. Chic little restaurants in Asheville NC, killer barbecue stands on the rural highways in Tennessee, real country stores in the mountains of West Virginia where even the hams are cured on the premise. That’s the Trail that I saw.
OK, so we saw a lot of moonshine too, but that was about it. The cities and the towns along the Appalachian Trail charmed me in a way that I didn’t think possible for a born and bred NY-er. I ate fresh squirrel in West Virginia with the chef-owner of Ember, a cool dude named Brian Ball. We packed away chicken fried squirrel platters and plenty of other hill country treats but the best thing I ate the whole trip was a tomato and dumpling dish that was a recipe from his grandmother that he served as a side dish to our meal. He stews tomatoes and onions for his garden, then puts them up, and in the cool weather months brings a quart or so of this heavenly stuff to a boil, makes a quick dumpling mixture (think elegant Bisquik style stuff) and drops handfuls on top of the tomatoes, covers it and turns the heat down. 30 minutes later he dumps the whole thing into a bowl and serves it. It has to be tried to be believed.
Appalachia was settled by many different ethnic groups and there are still some places today where the people carry on the culture and traditions of their forefathers as they have for centuries. The tiny picturesque town of Helvetia, West Virginia, population 194, was founded by the Swiss and the ways of the old world are still a strong influence in the culture. I spent a night at The Hutte Restaurant operated by longtime local Eleanor F. Mailloux, where traditional Swiss food is still served and where all the local characters can be found dining and catching up on the local happenings. Eleanor says she is in her late 80′s but her nieces and grandsons say she is over 100. We even met an 80 year old who told us Eleanor was his teacher in junior high school…She has her roots deeply planted in the Helvetia community. She is the owner/operator of the Beekeeper Inn and at times was a teacher, Director of the Helvetia Folk Dancers, President of the Alpen Rose Garden Club, Secretary of the Helvetia Restoration Club, and member of the Centennial History Committee, her role in keeping the community alive is substantial. I can also tell you she makes an amazing dance partner. The cuisine at the Hutte House is heavily influenced by the local Swiss/German culture and nobody understands this better than Eleanor who had her great grand kids shoot a deer and cook it in a pit, country style. The deer is buried with hot coals and cooked overnight. Eaten with plenty of homemade cheese, home brewed beer, and lots of boiled onion pie.
In Shelby NC, I attended the Livermush Festival with Ted Alexander, the Mayor of Shelby as my dining companion. Freckle faced kids in the parade, bottles of locally brewed Sundrop on ice, fried wedges of livermush on white bread with grape jelly and mustard smeared on all over it. Amazing. But not as awesome as spending a day on a trout stream with the lads from the local fly fishing school and then taking our catch up the hill to Johnny Sue Meyer’s house for a real Cherokee feast with roasted bear, sumac tossed sautéed trout and chestnut bread. Listening to Johnny Sue’s cousin say a Cherokee prayer in her native tongue, well I guess it’s our native tongue actually, and enjoying traditional recipes that are as old as the Cherokee Nation was a special experience. These are the dying breed stories that we try to capture whenever we are on the road with our cameras.
I got to forage for wild mushrooms with Alan Muskat and then we were off to Tennessee where we ended our trip with a true mountain top cookout of possum and raccoon, serenaded by a local bluegrass group, at a 100 year old cabin in the hills. One guest was a storyteller by trade and another a weaver. Only in Tennessee. One of the guests at the dinner was a woman who was real ‘hill people’ as the uber locals are referred to. She had been rescued by a local university professor who heard of a woman loving with her children in a cave in the hills, a woman who had run away from her abusive husband to whom she had been ‘sold’ to satisfy her families debts many years earlier. This woman, who had experienced such tragedy in her life, was the kindest soul I had ever met. She coached me through my meal, doused corn bread in the pot liquor for me and cracked open the raccoon head so I could spread the brains on the hardtack they had cooked for our party. She gave me a wild chestnut that she had dried and polished to keen shine, telling me to keep the charm in my pocket to help me calm the worldly clamors that she felt were causing me great anxiety. I haven’t taken it out of my pocket since that day.
If you think you know the Appalachians, guess again.