When you hear “Appalachia,” what comes to mind? I see ancient mountains and lush forests that provide the backbone of our 13-state region; an amalgam of bustling cities and rural hollers, with a globally connected economy pulsing at its center since colonization. Salt, timber, coal, and natural gas industries have provided for families while at times also leaving deep wounds on both the land and people. Yes, the region is often characterized by its struggles. But as someone born and raised in Appalachia, it’s strange to encounter the same stale stereotypes over and over again in books, movies, and even the news (of hillbillies holed up in a culturally isolated place or families battling addiction and poverty).
The Appalachia I know is far from isolated. There is joy, beauty, and ease here too. Our vast diversity is perhaps most clearly expressed in our food—a reflection of the varied histories of Native American, European, African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and Latinx communities that continue to make a home in these mountains.
New challenges are upon us. In July 2022 a historic flood—the direct result of climate change—devastated eastern Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. I spent my days distributing cash aid, coordinating water tanker deliveries, and visiting disaster relief centers. Lives had been lost, tens of thousands of families left displaced. Hundreds of our neighbors were going to enter winter living in tents.
When my morale hit a particularly low point, friends took me to Neng Jr.’s in Asheville—a restaurant that melds Filipinx and North Carolinian cooking. In the intimate dining room, chef Silver Iocovozzi pieced my waterlogged heart back together. Every dish told a story, rooted in family and memory.
We ate spicy talong, inspired by Iocovozzi’s uncle, who used to roast eggplants over coals on a beach in the Philippines. We finished our meal with a creamy Concord grape ice cream. One bite and I was 10 years old again, grazing on backyard grapevines with the sun dancing through a leafy canopy. This is what food can do at its best: remind us of who we are and where we come from, while connecting us to others. To have that experience in Appalachia left me feeling hopeful.
What makes our food so distinct can be found in the people who love and fight for this complex place. That is what you’ll glimpse in these recipes, guides, and essays. The way we share, preserve, and adapt our culinary traditions is what sustains us. Every year, on the other side of a challenging winter, new hopes and ideas await. So here’s to spring and all that lies ahead. —Lora Smith, community advocate
Writers Lisa Donovan, Rick Bragg, and Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle share their most meaningful family memories surrounding the region’s food culture.