Ronni Lundy's "Victuals" Sharpens and Sweetens Our Understanding of Appalachia and Its Foodways
For weeks I avoided the rhapsodic reviews for Corbin native Ronni Lundy's category-defining new book, Victuals (public library) because I wanted to get the book from Ronni herself. I also wanted to read it fresh, without other readers framing my experience. Morris Book Shop hosted Ronni a few weeks ago and my restraint paid off: I received Victuals from Ronni's own authoritative hands. This post is an appreciation, not a review; I'll link to a few of those reviews at the end.
I had my first long, sweet, satisfying face-to-face conversation with Ronni Lundy three years ago. We talked about sorghum; she was doing the research for Sorghum's Savor, published in 2015. Yes, Victuals came out just 17 months later, on August 30, 2016.
This woman works. She produces, and not just books, although she has written and edited crucial books and periodicals for more than 20 years. By co-founding both the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999 and the Appalachian Food Summit in 2013, and by continuing to work within both entities, Ronni invests in the long-term future. These bodies amount to powerful cultural tools dedicated to helping us understand our own history and food habits and choices, while also sustaining the recently emerging wider interest in Appalachian and southern contributions to our national table and identity.
Victuals amounts to a respectful, loving ethnography, explaining context and culture through stories of intriguing people as well as evocative photos by Johnny Autry. The recipes punctuate the narrative and illuminate key points relating to cuisine, as Vocabulary.com defines it:
A type of food that is cooked in a specific way based on a culture's ingredients, region, and traditions.
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.
I appreciate the context, history, clarification, debunking and setting the record straight that fill the narrative portions making up most of Victuals. The second chapter, "Salt of the Earth," outs salt as both the historical object of the region's initial "mining" industry and the tasty key to regional favorite flavors like cured pork and pickles. Ronni notes that West Virginia's Kanawha River Valley featured 52 salt furnaces in 1815, and two rival family-owned salt mines operated in Clay County, Kentucky until the 20th century.
The story of salt in Appalachia took a human and environmental toll that leaves a bitter taste, but Ronni also includes a sweet coda. In 2013, seventh generation descendants of the founders of J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works began producing salt again in the Kanawha River Valley, using solar-powered evaporation and guided by a commitment to sustainability. This "new," ageless salt is beautiful and a joy to use.
The warm reception for Ronni Lundy's Victuals is one of several signs that Appalachia and its people are attracting strong interest in the larger world. At the same time, Victuals plays an important role by presenting ancient Appalachia afresh. Here are good stories of strong, resilient people caring for the earth and each other and sustaining themselves through the strengths and assets that constitute the region's heritage.
The sweetest expression of this commitment to Appalachian place, people and culture comes from fine jam maker Walter Harrill, whose family has lived in the Blue Ridge mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, for seven generations:
". . . the truth of it is, we look 'out there,' at the rest of the world, and then we kind of shake our heads and say, 'Well, I just hate it for them.'"
Here are excerpts from a few Victuals reviews:
The Washington Post: ‘Victuals,’ reviewed: A love letter to Appalachia, with recipes, by Jane Black.
Lundy has written a love letter to the foods, culture and fortitude of Appalachian people. In it, we learn to make dishes such as a pot of “mountain green beans and taters,” but we also get a deeper understanding of the role those dishes continue to play in some of America’s oldest communities.
. . . an elegantly photographed and lovingly narrated appreciation of Appalachian cuisine and the people who grow and prepare it.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Kentucky native documents food and stories of Appalachia in new cookbook, by Wendell Brock
She sings of real corn bread and leather britches, chili buns and pickled bologna. She essays on apple butter, killed lettuce, chicken and dumplings, and sorghum syrup. She tells the tale of the people and places of the Southern Appalachians, her homefolk, how they lived off the land, put up food, played fiddles and banjos, and, despite being told that they were poor and backward, were too smart and proud to buy into the lie.
With “Victuals,” Ronni Lundy — salt-of-the-earth Kentucky native, former newspaper reporter, pop-music critic, Southern Foodways Alliance founder and longtime chronicler of the “hillbilly diaspora” — has produced one of the most important and authentic books on Southern culture of her generation.
Asheville Citizen-Times: Asheville author looks to preserve Appalachia with 'Victuals,' by Mackensy Lunsford
Four thousand miles Lundy drove for her new book, gathering tales, recipes and anecdotes. It's a journey that comes alive in color far more vivid than those images you'll often see, the kind that paint Appalachia as a backwater monoculture.
You know the type. You've seen it in "Deliverance." Or in artsy black-and-white expose photos of Appalachia as primarily populated with Scotch-Irish isolationists and their descendants, eking out a living in the coal mines, fields or what-have-you.
Recipes and photos reprinted from Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Copyright ©2016 by Ronni Lundy. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. (Photo: Photo by Johnny Autry.)
"That ignores the histories of black and ethnic communities, the Native American influence and the fact that there's a large amount of European influence in the region," Lundy said. "We're not all Scotch-Irish and those of us who are, are not all angry and isolated."
Some are German like Rosa, a woman Lundy describes meeting in "Victuals." Rosa grew up eating Getrocknete Bohnen, literally "dried beans," which Lundy postulates could have been the forebear of the shuck bean. Shuck beans are also known as leather britches, or beans dried in their pods and then slowly rehydrated during the cooking process.
You can find a recipe for the dish in "Victuals." It has only three ingredients: shuck beans, seasoning meat and salt. But the method for making them is lyrically written, like Lundy herself is perched on a stool in your kitchen, peering over your shoulder as you cook.
* Footnote from waaaay back in paragraph 5: See prolific anthropologist-folklorist Lynwood Montell's Upper Cumberland Country and other sources that place Wayne County in the Upper Cumberland region, which has its own ways of doing things.