Photography by Johnny Autry
Penguin Random House, 2016
Hardcover, 320 pages
2016 seems to be be the year of the redneck, at least when it comes to books. Or is it the hillbilly? White trash? Given the news, literary and otherwise, it looks like I'm up for another award. Given my background, which I semi-apologize to the boys when I remind them they're half-redneck, I might need to make room on my trophy shelf for another award to sit beside my more general TIME Person of the Year achievements in 1966, 1969, 2006, and 2011.
For an alternative to other redneck-related books released this past year, let me offer Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes by Ronni Lundy. I prefer this book over other recent offerings on related subjects. Lundy traveled around the southern half of the Appalachian Mountains (and nearby ranges), following hints and vague directions to discover people behind continuing southern mountain food traditions. Equal parts travelogue, recipes, area history, and Lundy's family history, the book charms you just like visiting family or friends in that area does. It's a beautiful glimpse into a regional area, but even more into a mindset and a way of life I have yet to find anywhere else. I'll go in reverse order of the different parts I listed.
Lundy was born in Corbin, Kentucky. Although she moved to Louisville when young, she visited relatives in the mountain region as she grew up. Stories of her family, though very different from mine, sound familiar. It's that feeling I get when reading Rick Bragg's family stories and I realize, "I know these people." While it's not exactly my history, it captures the mindset and background of people I grew up with. Maybe that nostalgia influenced my judgment of the book, and I mean that in a good way.
The part I labeled area history would be better described as area food history. You're not going to find a full, documented history of the area here. Rather, the book's chapters reflect different ingredients or components of the area's availability: corn, beans, salt, apples, preserves, etc. Using this construct, Lundy goes back decades and centuries, highlighting not just historical info but some of the people carrying on these traditions today, detailing the work by specific people, locals and transplants. Sometimes it's resurrecting a family property. Other times it's someone preparing an old recipe and/or method shared with them. What makes it special is their desire to save something and share it with others.
The recipes are a fun read, full of techniques and details which can help with other dishes. Although I grew up further south than the mountainous region, I recognized many of the dishes I saw in my childhood (at least those experienced outside of bland and/or processed meals at covered-dish suppers). Some of the ingredients aren't available to me now that I live in a different part of the country, but Lundy provides substitutions at points where it makes sense. For others...well, I'm out of luck since they are ingredient specific. Some of these I can fix as they are, but many I'll have to adapt for dietary concerns. We'll see how that goes. Some ingredient considerations in the recipes are common for me, such as saving bacon grease for future use, but others may take some adaptation or planning. Like most cookbook recipes, your mileage will vary, but I think Lundy provides enough information to play with changes and adaptations for many dishes. There's some talk of 'sustainability' and other current buzzwords, but at one point even Lundy asks such a question while admitting she's not sure what it means.
The travelogue part of the book may have been the most fun for me, especially seeing it's been a few years since I've been in the area. I tend to tune out culinary trends and it surprised me to learn about some recent developments regarding the Appalachian region. Driving over four thousand miles in the area, zigzagging on what passes as roads, with directions like "Look for the Dr. Seuss tree" to guide her, Lundy captures the look and flavor of the area quite well, past as well as present. I think my favorite moment in the book is when Travis Milton (wearing a Piggly Wiggly t-shirt in his photo), shows Lundy around the area that used to be his family's apple orchard. The area has been overrun by kudzu and Russian olive brush, yet he spies an ancient apple tree hiding in a thicket. "Holy...I can't believe...I mean...this is my great-grandad's apple. Right here." (ellipses in original) This captures the book perfectly.
For me, cookbooks make the most personal of books. If they fail to connect, they will stay distant from the reader, browser, or cook. Rarely do they become an "I'll look at that later when I have time" type of book. That may be one of the reasons cookbooks haven't always been mostly recipes but also include personal journeys, historical treks, or some other approach. Some times the different approaches work well, some times they don't. I think Lundy has found a great blend in this case.
A quick word about the photography by Johnny Autry...there is some basic food photography, but also plenty of pictures of the people and places mentioned. I don't know how to describe it, but it's not always a flattering "here it is at its best" shot. Because of that, though, more of the personality seems to come through in the pictures, adding nicely to the book.
Keeping in mind the limitations I describe, highly recommended.
If I somehow managed to be mentioned in a publication titled Gardens and Guns, I'd be thrilled. See the link for a nice excerpt on the history of salt in the area and some links to recipes.
Lundy's beautiful article http://www.oxfordamerican.org/item/953-a-recipe-for-memory demonstrates one way recipes were handed down.
Since I mention him by name, here's a fun article on Travis Milton and the role of music in his work (article from 2013). And here's a more recent article, as well as this one about him.