Appalachian cooking is a return-to-roots approach in sourcing, including heirloom varieties of everything from beans to pork. And consumer visibility for the cuisine from the Southern Appalachian region especially has expanded outside the area and throughout the entire country. Building on a foundation of respecting and preserving ingredients, chefs are increasingly getting creative in melding classic flavors with new and international approaches.
Travis Milton, chef and owner of Milton’s at the Western Front in St. Paul, Virginia, and the forthcoming restaurants Shovel and Pick and Simply Grand in Bristol, Virginia, shares how growing up in Appalachia has influenced his culinary approach.
Appalachia as a part of the South is completely different than the rest of the region in that we’re the ones who experience seasonality more than anyone else. We have shorter growing seasons and we have a much harder terrain to grow things. Because of that, the cuisine has always been a cuisine of ingenuity and creativity because you had to get creative; you had to preserve things; you had to work with what you had all the time.
My great-grandfather owned a restaurant where my mom worked, so I was exposed to two sides of food throughout my entire life: the old techniques that I think a lot of people weren’t exposed to at younger ages, while at the same time working in a restaurant. I experienced these heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.
For example, with leather britches, or shuck beans, there’s the process of drying them out. All kinds of chemical reactions are going on; ambient yeast attaches to it as it dries, and you end up with this bean that tastes like roast pork. It takes on a whole life of its own. At Simply Grand, you’ll be able to get a bowl of pure, beautifully cooked shuck beans, but at Shovel and Pick, I’ll make shuck-bean miso or develop koji. I’ll build on influences from other cultures, typically on the same latitude, but still applying these to vegetables and things with a more modern take.
I’ve been lucky to get a lot of farmers on board who are willing to grow these things and who are already growing them. One of the biggest hurdles in my mind, if I want to do this properly, is somebody has to be able to have a greasy bean in December as well as in July, the height of the season. So it’s required me to start growing these things now, to start canning and preserving so I can build up mass quantities of things to make sure everyone can experience them the way we would have normally.