Appalachia: Dear Santa

JEFF FTIZGERALD (this article was first published December 22, 2012)


Canadian Santa, 1875. From Wikipedia.

Dear Santa,

I have been a very good boy this year, if you don’t count much of October and several days in July. Thank you for the goodies you brought me last year, and for fulfilling nearly every request on my list. I understand that certain things are beyond your control, and as far as actress Kat Dennings is concerned, I realize there’s a fine line between “gifting” and “kidnapping.”

My requests are relatively easy this year, St. Nick. Not like last year, when I asked for your help in returning Southern cuisine to its rightful place at the forefront of the American culinary discussion. Thanks for your assistance in raising the profile of Southern food without Cracker Barrel-izing it, and keeping the collard green kimchi-making hipsters to a minimum. I doubt you’ve got another Sean Brock in your bag, but I think I can sleep peacefully this year knowing that most Yankees now realize that whatever barbecue is, it is not the act of grilling hamburgers in the backyard.

Now, to this year’s wish list:

I would like some raw milk cultured buttermilk, and some country butter. I know this one may be a bit thorny, and I don’t want to get into all the political controversy swirling around it. I have no position on the supposed health benefits of raw milk, it has to do entirely with taste. I remember getting dairy products from the farm as a kid, my concept of what buttermilk and butter should taste like was formed eating products made by people we knew personally from the milk of cows that had names. Even forty years ago, though, it was increasingly more difficult to come by. Even then, you had to have a connection, you had to know somebody. But my father would have traded an equivalent weight in gold, if he’d had it to give, for a gallon of farm buttermilk. I will always believe that he went to his grave never having fully forgiven my sister for pouring out a jug of precious buttermilk thinking it had gone bad because she mistook it for what my grandmother called “sweet milk” and poured some on her cereal.

Following a thought, I would also like the book Buttermilk, by Debbie Moose. Buttermilk is not exclusively Southern, but it does enjoy a status here that it does not have anywhere else. It has been my experience that the easiest way to ferret out a Yankee is with buttermilk. It is, to them, as holy water to a vampire.

I would like a clay tagine. Perfect for slow-braised, wonderfully spicy Moroccan dishes, the shape creates a natural convection and holds in moisture. I can only imagine how good a traditional Lowcountry perloo or Country Captain would turn out cooked in one.

Besides turning into a destination location for craft beers, my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia is also producing some excellent artisan foods. And I mean really artisan, made by craftspeople with specific skills, not the current definition of artisan used by chain restaurants that generally means “mass produced in a factory somewhere and then reheated by a 22 year-old ‘cook’ who probably couldn’t fry an egg if his life depended on it.” So, for my stocking stuffers, could you please bring me:

  • A selection of cheeses from Meadow Creek Dairy, in Galax. From their wonderfully pungent Grayson to their nutty, alpine Mountaineer, they beat the hell out of those little foil wrapped mystery cheeses that come with the obligatory holiday sampler.
  • A selection of salumi from Olli Salumeria in Mechanicsville. Italian-styled cured meats, from salumi to prosciutto to pristine hunks of lardo.
  • Enough Rappahannock River Oysters to make the traditional Christmas Eve oyster stew.
  • As wonderful as Olli’s prosciutto is, I remain a Virginian to my very bones and there is simply no substitute for beautiful slices of Smithfield Ham on a just-baked biscuit for a Christmas morning repast.
Photo by Jonathunderm via Wikimedia Commons.

I know you’ve got a lot to do on Christmas Eve night, but while you’re flying all over the world, would you mind to bring me a meal from Fergus Henderson’s St. John in London? Henderson, who brought the sort of nose-to-tail eating that I grew up on back to the fore, is a culinary hero of mine. I have an immense amount of admiration for the way he approaches life and food, and the fact that he managed to get people to pay two prices for stuff they used to throw away. I remember as a kid, even in the South, being viewed as odd because my hillbilly family ate pig’s feet, souse, chicken gizzards and pork brains.

And finally, St. Nick, I’d like a set of the Foxfire books. Begun as a high school project to document the folkways of the Southern Appalachian region that, even in the late sixties, was already disappearing, it is a treasure trove of knowledge and a vital link to the vast portions of my own heritage that went to the grave with my grandparents’ generation before I was old enough to realize what was being lost. But if you find the entire set too cumbersome, you may just bring me The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery. I can content myself with that as I slowly amass the collection on my Kindle.

Thanks in advance, Santa. And, like every year, I’ll leave you a glass of buttermilk with a piece of cornbread crumbled up in it.


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