Cooks and Books: Lunch with Ronni Lundy
The Fearrington Granary
210 Market Street, Pittsboro
Venerated food writer Ronni Lundy has spent a lifetime immersed in the magic of Appalachia. But as she notes in her latest book, Victuals (pronounced “vittles”), “maybe no area of our country is more misunderstood than Appalachia, a place whose people have long been thought of as poor, backward, and unknowable.”
In Victuals, Lundy undoes all that nonsense with grace. By sharing the stories of her Appalachian people, the Kentucky native connects a diverse foodways tradition to the past by rooting it in a collective nostalgia that looks to the future.
Lundy’s hearty words imbue the book with a rich storytelling tradition, intentionally feeding us more than we can consume in one sitting with gorgeous photography by Johnny Autry and a quirky food map illustrated by tattoo artist Ash Swain. Lundy now lives in Burnsville, a small town in the North Carolina mountains. She presents Victuals with an Appalachian three-course meal (with wine and a signed book) at Fearrington Granary this Thursday. Ahead of her event, she spoke with the INDY.
INDY: How long have you been toying—or toiling—with this idea of a book on Appalachian foodways?
RONNI LUNDY: As a child I became aware that my life in the city wasn’t the same as my life in Corbin [Kentucky]. This learning and understanding of the region has been a lifelong process. My desire to express it began in my early teens, when I began to understand that people who weren’t from the region didn’t understand when I was talking about stringing beans, or telling the story of my uncle Charlie [and the salt mines, p. 75]. They translated this through either parody or gothic nightmare. So it became increasingly important for me to tell the stories as I experienced them, and that began my profession when I was in my thirties.
Did writing your first book, Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken
(1991), help you realize the importance of sharing these stories?
What I realized was that, by looking at food, you can see this much larger picture of Appalachia. If you look at the food we know how to forage, to know what’s edible. If we look at the difficulty of growing in shortened growing seasons. Or in the mountains, you have steep inclines. You can’t just plant a garden; you usually have two or three focused on different foods, depending on where they are on your property. When you understand the profound and deep intelligence it took just to feed ourselves, you’re blowing a whole bunch of stereotypes out of the water: the stereotypes of laziness, the lack of diversity in the food.
In Appalachia, if you went down the road and asked someone what they were growing, oftentimes they would hand you some seeds to take back to your place, grow out, and keep. There was a continuing conversation in the Appalachian South. What I wanted to capture with Victuals was that conversation, that looking back and forth to the history and to the present, and also looking forward to the future.
You’re obviously invested in this work because you are part of that culture. But you’re also helping people connect these dots.
There are people in these books who other people are already contacting to say, “I saw you in this book and I saw what you know and I’m interested in learning more about that.” Bill Best [farmer and renowned seed saver featured in the chapter on beans, p. 137] says this thing about how this is not a culture of acquisition or a consumer culture. Mountain culture has always been invested in connections. People want to know if you’re connected to the region, or if you’re willing to be connected to the region. That holds great value. In this book, I wanted to create connections and I also wanted to create conversations coming from outside of the region.
How do you feel about Southern cooking having its moment?
And Appalachian cooking supposedly having its moment! It has been a wonderful thing to watch since the1990s when John Egerton’s Southern Food had established itself. The conversation was starting to turn toward food culture and away from “Here are six dishes you can make the next time you invite your lady friends over.” We started moving into a conversation about foodways amongst ourselves. By the 2000s, we started awakening the rest of the world to the fact that Southern food is not just fried chicken biscuits, country ham, and a pecan pie. Before the 1990s, people didn’t talk about the Southern garden. And the reason for that is you cannot translate for someone in Massachusetts or North Dakota what fresh lady cream peas taste like. They can’t grow them, they’re not going to find them in their grocery. And even what was translatable had to be gussied up. It had to have herbs and spice. Then it had to be hot chicken. My recipe tester was so skeptical of my fried chicken recipe. And then she made it. And then she made several skillets of it and invited people to eat it.
There’s so much distress in the way Appalachia is documented. What I noticed about your book, though, is that through the candidness comes this underlying idea of patience. Like when Walter Herrill is detailing his family’s history with preservation. Or when Lora Smith waits, even a little too long, for the red berries to pluck and then to pickle them, waiting a few more days to use them.
I’ve been telling a story about the produce stand up the road from me, where I look for snowballs, which are beans. This summer I started in June, asking if there would be snowballs this year. The woman just kept telling me to wait. We live in such an immediate society—there are a lot of stories in Appalachian folklore about an outsider wanting something right now. I think that patience really is a characteristic. Maybe patience is a sign of a good gardener, and a good farmer, and certainly a good forager. You can’t push nature if you want to create something sustainable.
I wrote the book proposal six years before it found its editor and publisher. Nobody was getting it. One editor who I was having a good conversation with suddenly asked to drop “Appalachian” from the subtitle because of the associations with poverty. And then [award-winning food journalist and Clarkson Potter book editor] Francis Lam came along and totally got it. He understood what it was going to take to make it happen. There’s a story of patience in there, too.
It’s almost perfect timing that it’s out in 2016.
Totally! Now people want to talk about this. We’re not just talking about Appalachian food. Coal country has become a flash point in politics.
How does food turn to politics?
One of the big conversations is who owns Southern food—black people or white people? It’s not an either-or kind of question. In order to understand that, you have to look at our political past, and you have to look at what’s happening in kitchens. How many black chefs are there? How many black people are making money off their foodways right now compared to white people? That is a social conversation.
It’s also ignoring the bigger conversation that women created this food and they are totally unrepresented. Their food and stories get attributed to men. What no one is saying is that Brunswick stew was created by a Native American woman who you will never know! What was written about our history was largely written by men who concentrated on the meat on the table. And everything else was ignored. But everything else was what was keeping that family alive. In Southern food, we’re willing to discuss the politics of race, but we still keep the politics of gender behind the stove.
Just further reinforcing the importance of Victuals and foodways being about so much more than what’s on our plate.
Because it’s universal for understanding what lives were actually like for the people who were not in the history books and who are not acknowledged and recognized on the political scene. Even now, it’s hard to talk about the lives of the poor politically. We can talk about hunger, and maybe we can shift that conversation. With this book, I wanted people to look at their assumptions of class. It’s not just about culture, it’s about the lives of people who in various ways could be considered poor, and they don’t experience their lives as poor.