One of my first fights with my husband was about green beans. “These are not beans,” he said, pointing disdainfully at a supermarket string bean. “They should be lumpy. They should have — beans inside!”
Brent is from West Virginia, and West Virginians, as they will be the first to tell you, know beans. I, apparently, did not.
Brent had a point (about both the beans and me). The green beans at the grocery store — almost always a variety called Blue Lake — are a pale shadow of proper green beans. They are bred to be tough, which makes it easier to use machines for harvesting. If Blue Lakes were allowed to develop a big bean inside (which, it’s important to note, is where all the protein is), they’d be too tough to eat. Today, I’ve rarely seen real green beans outside of Appalachia. It’s the last place in the country where people demand them.
Beans, along with classic American ingredients such as corn, sorghum and apples, are the focus of Ronni Lundy’s new cookbook, “Victuals” (Clarkson Potter, 2016). Though to call it a cookbook seems almost unfair. This is not just a collection of recipes or, as so many cookbooks these days are, a “branding opportunity” for an aspiring chef. In “Victuals” — which the book’s cover makes clear is pronounced “viddles” — 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. Communities, Lundy points out, that are and always have been more than the unsavory blend of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the War on Poverty and “Deliverance” that outsiders imagine. It is a book that will live as happily in your kitchen as on your bedside table.
“Victuals” takes readers on the road to explore modern Appalachia. Lundy goes to Malden, W.Va., to meet a new generation of saltmakers; to Whitesburg, Ky., where a young couple opened a cocktail bar designed to bring together the coal miners and young professionals who uneasily coexisted there; and Louisville, where a young chef is curing heritage-breed hogs for top-shelf charcuterie.
But Lundy also taps into her personal history. She was born in the tiny railroad town of Corbin, Ky., but moved a few years later to Louisville, where her father went to find work. Like many who migrated to the city, Lundy’s family continued to think of Corbin as “up home,” visiting during the summer and any other time they could manage it. In Corbin, Lundy reports, food was magical. In part, that was because she ate foods she couldn’t get in the city, like honey with the comb still inside that you could “chew like gum”; in part, it was because she was allowed to help, whether by stringing beans on the porch or harvesting squash from the garden.
The result is a rich and revealing portrait of a complex, heterogeneous region, one that clings to traditions while being redefined by a new generation of chefs, farmers and food artisans. The photos, by Johnny Autry, work equally hard not to trade in stereotypes, capturing real people and the natural beauty of the mountains without romanticizing them.
On the traditional side of things, Lundy provides recipes for authentic versions of weekday staples. The word “authentic” is fraught, of course. But I use it intentionally here. Her corn bread (without sugar, thank you very much), green beans stewed with potatoes and salt pork (though bacon does nicely) and salmon cakes (made from canned salmon, one of the few affordable ways to get fish in the mountains) are indistinguishable from the dishes that Brent’s grandma cooked for him and that we still eat at home.
The book also has introduced me to other simple dishes that are fast becoming weeknight go-tos for me because a) the recipes work and b) the ingredients are ones that I (and, I imagine, most cooks) either have on hand or can easily get. Her buttermilk cucumber salad, enlivened with a little sweet onion, dill and a splash of apple cider vinegar, is a refresh of the usual picnic coleslaw. “Killed lettuce,” salad greens dressed in hot bacon dressing, is the American version of the wilted spinach salad I had to go all the way to France to learn to make and love. Root and Sausage Pie is an easy-to-make Appalachian variation on the hearty classic shepherd’s pie, with breakfast sausage and corn bread standing in for ground meat and a mashed-potato crust.
Lundy also provides plenty of ideas for what to do with ramps — the stinky wild onion revered in Appalachia that is all the rage every spring — including pickled ramps and a spring ramp pot roast. (And that’s a good thing, because in my experience, city folk mostly buy ramps because we’re tired of winter, not because we actually know what to do with them.)
Chefs’ gussied-up interpretations of the classics are even more thrilling, because they prove that neither Appalachia nor its food is trapped in time. The Shack’s Sweet and Savory Banana Pudding, from Ian Boden of the Shack in Staunton, Va., is the single best update I’ve tried of what I already think of as an ideal dessert. The cake is made with buckwheat flour for earthiness and red-miso paste that adds a salty kick, then smothered in a satiny custard. (That said, it was also the only recipe that gave me trouble: The banana bread did not bake well at the recommended 300 degrees. The directions have been adjusted here.)
I also was a fan of the Buttermilk Corn Bread Soup contributed by John Fleer, the chef of Rhubarb in Asheville, N.C. (But then, full disclosure: I’m a fan of everything he does.) It’s distinctly unpretentious, and it also reminds me of the way my mother-in-law likes to crumble day-old corn bread into a glass of buttermilk and eat it with a spoon.
It was, in fact, Fleer who first helped me understand how to think about Appalachian food. It is, he told me, a cuisine like those of Gascony or the Basque country: a way of eating that is anchored in the mountains and a culture of self-sufficiency. In “Victuals,” Lundy has documented America’s own cucina povera, proving that it is a very rich tradition indeed.
Ronni Lundy will join our Free Range online chat with readers at noon Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.