Carry Me Back: Lamenting Foods Missing in Appalachia


JEFF FITZGERALD

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While researching an upcoming piece on one of my great passions, barbecue, it occurred to me that Appalachia–or at least, my small corner of it–has no native barbecue tradition. While we now have skeevy little barbecue joints, like any other self-respecting region in the South, they aren’t decades old and layered with the residue of smoke from 10,000 hogs. We don’t have time-honored establishments where the guy behind the counter will gladly hand a robber his till, but would haul out a sawed-off shotgun if you tried to take his sauce recipe.

Our best barbecue joints are all newer than the bottle of Texas Pete on the tables at most respectable deeper South barbecue restaurants. They do not adhere to any particular style, beyond the nod to the canonical Carolina styles and an almost ubiquitous Kansas City rib. They have the same menu of sides, never straying far from the old reliable macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Most decided to open a restaurant after faring fairly well on the competition barbecue circuit, which is somewhat akin to deciding you can play in the NBA because you’re really good at that mini basketball game at Dave and Busters.

So barbecue, though Southern in origin, is not woven into the tapestry of mountain culture and yet we have taken to it like beans to cornbread. We have embraced Chinese and Mexican foods, albeit heavily Americanized versions of it, and our love for red sauce Italian is so deep that I’ve already written an article about it. But what about those culinary innovations from across this great land of ours that would be most likely to find a willing audience among my hillbilly brethren?

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BBQ Pork Sandwich. Photo by Buck, via Wikimedia Commons

The first and most obvious candidate would be the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, or BPT, common to Iowa and some other points in the indistinguishably flat Midwest. A tenderized piece of pork pounded out to the size of a medium pizza, breaded, deep-fried, and placed on a comically undersized bun. It is then topped with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise (probably not Duke’s, but we can fix that) and served with something else fried (e.g., onion rings, fries). How we failed to invent this sandwich in the South is beyond me, it fulfills all our basic criteria: it contains pork, which in the South is its own food group; it is pleasingly fried; and there is way too damned much of it. We in the mountains view quantity as just as important as quality, though I’m certain the BPT delivers on both counts. I feel confident in saying that a BPT on the menu of any self-respecting dive would be a top seller from the moment the first ol’ boy opened the wrapper, looked upon it like a kid on Christmas morning, and held it up for all to behold like that scene in the Lion King.

Poutine

Another foreign foodstuff, that I cannot understand why it has not become a mainstay in the South, is poutine. The Canadian combination of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds is, at first glance, a natural for the Dixie diet. Already drawn to the bosoms of those in the North, there is no reason why this brilliant amalgam of heart-stopping goodness should be kept from those of us who are built to run on such heavy fuel. The individual components–potatoes, cheese, and gravy–are all revered on their own. And it has a vaguely naughty-sounding name, which only adds to its allure. How we have not embraced this particular combination is a deeper mystery, to me, than Whoopi Goldberg’s film career. By rights, poutine should occupy a hallowed place in the pantheon of Southern artery-cloggers right next to biscuits and gravy and deep-fried Snickers  bars.

While Mexican and Tex-Mex food are no longer strangers within the confines of the ancient Alleghanies, there are regional variations that have yet to winnow their way into the cockles of the hillbilly heart. The Navajo Taco, for one. Ostensibly, it is the makings of an acceptable Anglo-cized taco laid atop a puffy layer of Indian frybread. Bread…that is fried. This, in a land where our motto is “You fry it, we’ll try it.” Were the combo platter Mexican joints that have expanded across the Southeast to add this to their menus, Taco Bell would disappear like bullet bras and bouffant hairdos.

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Frybread taco. Photo by John Pozniak, via Wikimedia Commons.

The idea of stuffing cheese inside a hamburger patty may seem as obvious as putting Jack Daniel’s into a Coca-Cola, but it took our neighbors in Minneapolis to elevate this elementary concept to high art in the form of the Juicy Lucy . Whether you believe that this hillbilly-friendly invention began in Matt’s Bar or the 5-8 Club in the hallowed birthplace of His Royal Badness, Prince, is immaterial. The fact that someone beyond our borders managed to create something so perfectly Southern is the matter at hand. A hamburger, stuffed with cheese, topped with bacon, mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and more damned cheese is that little extra somethin’ somethin’ that fills a Southern man’s heart like the thought of Kentucky native and Academy Award® winning actress Jennifer Lawrence in yoga pants with a bucket of chicken in one hand and a pitcher of beer in the other.

Of course, there are a myriad of culinary creations from beyond the borders of Dixie–as unlikely as that sounds–which would be as welcome here as are pork rinds and Moon Pies. We are lovers of the fried and the fattening, those things that turn the USDA food pyramid (or whatever the hell they’re trying to pawn it off as these days) on its tip. Wherever there is meat and grease, the Rebel heart is there. For all that we have lent to the rest of the country, it is a small thing to ask for the reindeer sausage they’re dishing out in Alaska or the lobster rolls they are making, without the enlightened benefit of Duke’s mayonnaise, along the northeastern seaboard. After all, it is the spirit of unity that makes us all one nation, even if some of them still can’t figure out what real mayonnaise is and insist on boiling the hell out of things that any right-thinking person knows should be fried.

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5 thoughts on “Carry Me Back: Lamenting Foods Missing in Appalachia

  1. I think this depends on your definition of Appalachia. In one of my college classes, Appalachia was defined as a huge swath of the eastern US, including the ENTIRE state of KY. If you follow that definition (which I am not sure I do), you could consider Moonlight BBQ in Owensboro, KY. It is award winning and very well known… But not my favorite. I prefer that mustard based SC BBQ.

      • I am really sad to see the Schuler’s is WAY out of the way for the places I visit regularly in SC. I will keep it on the list of “places to try before i die” though. Thanks for the tip.

    • I tend to use the definition of “Appalachia” as the mountainous region only, being a separate and distinct cultural entity–to my mind–from the valleys and flatlands (disclosure: I currently reside in the Roanoke Valley). I have planned a more authoritative exploration of why mountain culture lacks a strong barbecue heritage, so I’ll save that for the article. But I’m with you on the Midland SC mustard-based sauce. A goodly percentage of my own irrational store of barbecue sauce is composed of mustard-based sauces. I recently found an exceptionally decent one in the most unlikely of places; Target has a mustard-based bottled sauce marketed under their Archer Farms label that is surprisingly good.

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