That said, I read Victuals as a personal book, one that both raised and answered questions. First, the book helps make sense of a few foods my Appalachian-born mother cooked that seemed exotic in not-Appalachian Wayne County*, less than 100 miles from Ronni's birthplace in Corbin, Kentucky. Mother's habit of making her exquisite biscuits very small? That's explained in the head note to "Bigger Isn't Better Buttermilk Biscuits." (Small biscuits cook faster and get into hungry hands more quickly.)
Mother made "Wilted Salad" each spring, marrying tender leaf lettuces, green onions, hot bacon grease and vinegar for a symbolic green-sour-salty salute to the new growing season. in Victuals, Ronni says this salad's Appalachian name is "Killed Lettuce," and then provides a recipe. Literally as I have been writing this post, the popular online cooking site Food52 promoted an adaptation of Ronni's "Killed Lettuce." That post first seemed oddly timed to me, given the salad's association with spring greens and gardens. Victuals came out at the end of August and it's fall right now, although certainly many groceries and markets carry all the ingredients for Killed Lettuce all year long at this point.
On second thought, though, the Food52 post and its mess of comments point to what I most respect about Ronni Lundy's work in Victuals: she brilliantly, carefully excavates the roots of Appalachian cuisine and corrects a few myths as she goes; at the same time she brings an inventive cook's sensibility to renewing workable core recipes. Wiggle room is allowed; variations on themes are welcomed. In fact, making delicious food that varies a bit according to what's on hand? That's crucial for mealtime happiness in any place where terrain, soils, climate and seasons define available foods. Theme and variation, improvisations—not strict adherence to a fixed liturgy of recipes as prescribed forms and formularies—make for good eating as well as good reading,
My mother revered her own Appalachian mother's ability to make delicious food out of what was available by using savvy flavor-boosting methods and smart preparations. Similarly, the cooks and chefs behind the recipes in Victuals treat food as a noble opportunity to tweak what's at hand to delight the senses of people gathered around the table.
The first recipe in the book offers a reinvention of chicken and dumplings ("Karl Worley's Roasted Chicken & Dumplings") that includes fresh herbs, a fresh lemon, and noteworthy amounts of heavy cream. Lemon, cream and fresh herbs in chicken-and-dumplings assured me this book avoids the doctrinaire.
Until the moment I looked at that recipe for not-my-grandmother's chicken and dumplings, I had actually been a bit scared of "Victuals." I feared it might present definitive recipes for foods that matter deeply but on which reasonable people can differ. Except few reasonable people can be found when Mama's recipe for jam cake or Uncle Joe's way of frying chicken have to be the ONLY way to heaven on earth. Something as ordinary as pan gravy can vary slightly and cause fussing from one family, valley, county or community to the next. Instead of drawing hard lines in soft earth, most of the recipes in Victuals forthrightly reflect variation based on personal and family preferences and make room for inventive cooks and chefs, including Ronni herself, to riff on Appalachian themes in the service of flavor. I applaud this approach as a reflection of how real cooking with regional ingredients actually works: people cook with what comes from nearby, and vary it based on what's at hand that might taste good.
I valued Victuals' help in getting to know more about familiar foods. On some pages I took refuge in feeling the comfort that comes from agreeing with a whole lot of people about a certain style of biscuits or a specific set of cornbread ingredients. Even more, though, I enjoyed all the new ingredients, dishes and stories in Victuals. Take sonker, for example: a luscious-sounding, juicier version of cobbler, and a word I first read in this book. Some foods with names I have heard, like tomato gravy, sallet and chow-chow, are new and exotic because I have never tasted them. And certainly Kentucky Kimchi and Icebox Green Strawberry Pickles stretch Appalachians' deep commitment to pickling and preserving far enough to approach new taste frontiers.
Some of the "new" flavors in the book have roots dating back centuries, if not millennia. It is exciting that the Victuals take on Appalachian food includes Kentucky native plants that helped sustain the people who lived on this land long before Europeans arrived. Kudos to Ronni Lundy for featuring foods like sochan (a spring green), sumac oil and redbud blossoms along with the remarkably popular ramps and the soup beans, greens, and shuck beans we expected.
I have made public confessions about how recently I began eating some splendid foraged foods, including mulberries and redbud blossoms. I did grow up treasuring foraged persimmons and mushrooms, especially morels. On the other hand, I first learned about ramps when I began noticing them in New York Times recipes, most likely in this present century.