What to eat, see and do in Appalachia
- March 16, 2023
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What comes to mind when you hear “Appalachia”? I see ancient mountains and lush forests that form the backbone of our 13-state region; a mix of bustling cities and rural roars at the heart of which a globally connected economy has been pulsing since colonization. The salt, timber, coal and natural gas industries have provided for families and sometimes also left deep scars on the country and its people. Yes, the region is often marked by their struggles. But as someone who was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains, it’s odd to come across the same old-fashioned stereotypes (of hillbilly hiding in a culturally isolated place, or families.) in books, movies, and even the news who fight against addiction and poverty).
There are a number of boundaries, but at its widest point, Appalachia spans 13 states and 206,000 square miles (beige). However, many see the region defined by its center (yellow). Illustration by Michael Hill
The Appalachia I know is anything but isolated. Here too there is joy, beauty and lightness. Our great diversity is perhaps most evident in our food – a reflection of the diverse histories of the Native American, European, African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Latin American communities that continue to call these mountains home.
New challenges are ahead of us. In July 2022, a historic flood — the direct result of climate change — devastated eastern Kentucky in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. I spent my days distributing relief funds, coordinating water tanker deliveries, and visiting disaster relief centers. Lives were lost, tens of thousands of families were displaced. Hundreds of our neighbors would make it into winter alive in tents.
When my morale hit a particularly low point, friends took me to Asheville’s Neng Jr.’s—a restaurant that combines Filipino and North Carolina cuisine. In the intimate dining room, chef Silver Iocovozzi put my soaked heart back together. Each dish told a story rooted in family and memory.
We ate spicy talong inspired by Iocovozzi’s uncle, who roasted eggplant 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 again, grazing on backyard vines while the sun danced through a canopy of leaves. That’s what food does best: reminding us of who we are and where we’ve come from, while connecting us to others. This experience in Appalachia gave me hope.
What makes our food so unique lies in the people who love and fight for this complex place. That’s what you’ll see 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 to spring and everything that lies ahead of us. —Lora Smith, Community Advocate
Photo by Isa Zapata, food styling by Taneka Morris, prop styling by Dayna Seman
Writers Lisa Donovan, Rick Bragg and Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle share their key family memories surrounding the region’s food culture.