Dinner in Appalachia: Finding Common Ground In Trump Country
Editor's note: Tunde Wey is a Nigerian chef. Lora Smith is a native of eastern Kentucky and co-founder of the Appalachian Food Summit.
TUNDE: I travel around the country, staging pop-up dinners where Nigerian comfort food and discomfiting conversations about race in America are on the menu. When I told my friends in Louisville, Ky., that I was headed eastward into Appalachia to cook, I got many an incredulous, "Really?! Are you sure that's a good idea? Don't get shot ..." — usually followed by a collegial elbow jab and a self-conscious chuckle.
White, urban Kentuckians told me to be wary, that my blackness and foreignness were a combustible identity cocktail in that rural place. These warnings would have been innocuous if they hadn't been pervasive — and universally smothered with uncomfortable laughter. They were just joking. Except they weren't.
There was an ominous dissonance in this warning when it came from my close friend — like me, a black Nigerian. He's imposing, appreciably muscled and tall. His skin color is close to freshly laid tar. His voice is deep so he closets it, adopting a "softer" vocal affectation around white folks and at his job. That he was the most alarmed by my looming trip to the hinterlands of Kentucky wasn't surprising. There's a warranted anxiety among African-Americans, and internalized by certain immigrant groups of color, connected to white authority. "Better watch your black a**!" he said as I was headed out the door for Egypt, Ky. – and, it would seem, certain death. Then he laughed without mirth.
The image of Appalachia I had was born from abandoned books and unflattering, colorless documentary footage of ignorant hillbillies in dungarees. But, I am susceptible to programming, and all these warnings were starting to cloud my admittedly condescending mental image of Appalachia with more than a hint of menace.
My trip to Egypt, Ky., had been hastily planned via text with Lora, a youthful, soft-spoken, white "hillbilly hipster" with thickish glass frames and a small, black tattoo on her hand. We'd met a few weeks earlier at a gathering of Southern food chefs and thinkers. Lora the hemp farmer, the feminist, the writer, the mother and wife, the fan of a Tribe Called Quest — the Appalachian. I had been in Louisville to cook a dinner with Chef Edward Lee and decided to append a trip to Big Switch, the four-acre working farm that Lora and her husband, Joe, manage as a serious hobby. As I am wont to do, I offered to cook for "her people," these allegedly fearsome Appalachians.
LORA: I identify as Appalachian and Southern. I grew up in Corbin, Ky., a small town in the Appalachian foothills shaped by mining and the railroad. When I tell people I'm from Appalachia and begin to describe it, I start by considering where they think I'm from — a place of poverty and stagnation. I wanted Tunde to see the Appalachia I know, a place that is far different and more complex than the media's representation of poor rural whites, fractured landscapes and isolationism. In the days leading up to his visit, I asked Tunde why he wanted to come to Appalachia. He told me he just wanted to cook for people and get out and walk my streets, to see what Eastern Kentucky is like. I hated to break it to him – there are no sidewalks where I live, only a narrow and curvy two-lane road, and the gravel that leads up to our farm gate.
The idea of a guest coming to visit and spending his time cooking for your family and community seemed plain wrong. So, I decided to make it a potluck supper and asked friends to bring dishes that represented their families.
We started cooking together the next morning. I sometimes served as Tunde's sous chef, while also working on my own dishes. During a mid-morning break, we collected heirloom tomatoes and peppers from the farm for a few dishes. I dropped a Bradford watermelon on the way back to the barn. What we didn't scoop out and eat with our hands in the field, we turned into an aqua fresca that was later spiked with local moonshine for pre-supper cocktails. Smells of hot pepper spices, rosemary, smoked turkey, garlic and bubbling fish heads filled our farm house.
Wanting to make sure Tunde saw more of Appalachia than our kitchen, we took a lunch break and drove down the road to neighboring Clay County to buy chili buns, an East Kentucky specialty, at Pat's "World Famous" Snack Bar. On the drive, we talked about the county's history in the salt trade, the relatively large African-American population that once lived there and the "Affrilachian" poets movement, comprised of artists proudly claiming their identities as both black and Appalachian. Last season, I sold produce at the Clay County farmers market and saw young farmers, bakers and artisans building a stronger local economy in the face of significant job and population loss brought on by a dwindling coal industry. We talked about comparisons to the Nigerian Delta — like Appalachia, it has historically relied on an economy shaped by natural resource extraction. And we talked about our experiences of having to serve as arbiters and translators of our culture and place to Americans with no direct experience of where we come from, but who more often than not hold opinions and assumptions based on stereotypes.
TUNDE: When the evening potluck came, it was in fact everything my imagination had failed to conjure.
LORA: My friend Jenny brought venison kibbe, in tribute to the Syrian and Lebanese families she grew up with in Hazard, Ky. Another friend brought her family's recipe for chocolate babka. Kraut and "wennies," or sausages — a crowd-pleaser — spoke to the German heritage of many people in the region. The weight of dishes filled with collard greens, sorghum butter and cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and fruit cobblers with fresh cream tested even the most sturdy of tables — or, as we call them, "groaning boards," because of all the heavy foods they carry. Ale-8-1, a regional soft drink, and Kentucky bourbon made for a delightful riff on bourbon and ginger and were poured liberally all night long.
TUNDE: The food commingled congenially. My Nigerian jollof rice, cooked with baubles of fresh tomatoes and local sweet red bell pepper varietals of the reddest swatch, picked just a few hours earlier from the farm's high tunnel, shared comfortable space with Lora's chicken and dumpling dish. There was cornbread seasoned with rendered bacon fat, delicious pies and tall bourbon highballs, spaced in tasty intervals between my African yam pottage; orange from palm oil and pureed tomatoes, and my spicy wild mango-seed soup with a mound of slightly sour fufu.
LORA: The food was both familiar and strange. Fried plantains could find a Kentucky cousin in pawpaws. The fufu and stew seemed cut from the same cuisine of necessity as my chicken and dumplings — a combination of limited meat and filler to stretch a small amount of food to serve a full house. Some dishes sang in harmony, others created dissonance.
TUNDE: There was something intimately familiar about Appalachian food. The flavors were honest, reminding me of my relationship with food from my people. The food at Lora's table was also proud, filling space in cast-iron pans, deep pots, and serving bowls with confidence. Similar to food from West Africa, it delivered on its promises of flavor, nourishment and sustenance without an obnoxious megaphone.
LORA: Traditional Appalachia cooking was crafted from a confluence of Native American, African-American and European influences. The one thing I always try to stress to visitors is that the region is not monolithic. Even the quickest study of our food reveals that. And our foodways continue to evolve as new populations and immigrant communities make a home in the mountains. I think about that every time I survey my local grocery store's intimidatingly large wall of lard and see it accented with buckets labeled "manteca." A few shelves over, bags of masa sit side-by-side with cornmeal.
TUNDE: The dinner held together more than a dozen denizens of coal country. All greeted me with grace, filling me generously with many different whiskeys and potent ideas on a wide range of subjects, from the flexibility of hemp as a cash crop to the complexities of coal markets.
LORA: That night, our farmhouse table included banjo and fiddle players, straight and LGBTQ folks, college professors, restless children, farmers, illustrators, policy experts, poets, film archivists and mine-safety advocates. It was a mix of people whose families have been in the mountains for generations and those that have come on their own to find a life and home in Eastern Kentucky.
TUNDE: We sang and danced to the banjo and fiddle, and of course, went four-wheeling drowned with warming spirits. I left the next day, content with my experience of Appalachia.
I know I saw but a tiny sliver of a sliver — most of Appalachia is not Big Switch. I know who I am, and where I stand. I am an undocumented, black African. I am a target in Trump's America, but I found new friends in so-called Trump country.
LORA: When Tunde departed, he left tubs of spices from a small Louisville African grocery we'd stopped at on our way out of the city. They've found their way into our daily home cooking, our kitchen filling with the aroma of ground hot chili peppers and sprinkled dried crawfish flakes, these tastes no longer strangers at our table.
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