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“God put the good stuff where lazy people can’t have any”: Exploring West Virginia Foodways in a New AFC Film Series

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The following is a guest post by West Virginia State Folklorist Emily Hilliard, who directs the West Virginia Folklife Program, based at the West Virginia Humanities Council. AFC staff have been working with Emily, as well as Mike Costello and Amy Dawson of Lost Creek Farm, to co-produce the Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia program, a series of four films that explore a range of food traditions in the state, premiering on the AFC’s Facebook page on Wednesday, August 18th, Wednesday, September 1st and Wednesday, September 15th (double feature), with a culminating discussion panel on Thursday, September 30th. The title of this post comes from an interview by folklorist Mary Hufford with Joe Aliff, who talks about foraging for wild grapes, or “possum grapes,” in Rock Creek to make jelly, as part of the AFC’s Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia Collection.

pickled vegetables in jars
Vivian Jarrell’s canned goods, produced from her Raleigh County, West Virginia garden, including tomato juice, pickles, grape juice, and beans. Part of the AFC’s Coal River Folklife Project Collection (1999/008). Photo by Terry Eiler, 1997. Find archival file here.

Foodways in West Virginia

As in most places, foodways in West Virginia offer a lens through which we can examine histories of immigration and migration, labor, race, gender, class, and geography. Drawing from the diverse cultural traditions of populations who have and continue to make their home here, foodways of the Mountain State reflect a deep connection with the land, twining community life and kinship networks to seasonal cycles as they exist in this mountainous landscape of forests, fields, and waterways in central Appalachia. 

With its dense forests of game sustaining black bear, deer, and once, buffalo, as well as its plentiful rivers running with native trout, bass, and walleyed pike, the area that is now West Virginia was used as a migratory hunting land by Native Americans such as the Cherokee, Shawnee, Saponi & Delaware, and Mingo from at least the late 17th to the mid-19th century. White Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and German settlers who arrived in the area in the early 17th century and later learned to hunt, forage, and fish, preserving the food they harvested in order to survive. By the mid-19th century most settlers in what is now West Virginia lived and worked on subsistence farms, which employed a self-sustaining corn-woodland-pastureland system, making use of cultivated, foraged, and hunted products, often sourced from a de facto commons.

African American Man and Woman Butchering Hogs in early 20th century
African American Man and Woman Butchering Hogs, Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by Scott Gibson, ca. 1910. Courtesy of West Virginia History on View, West Virginia University.

As industry enclosed the land, pushing many residents away from an agrarian lifestyle and into waged work in coal and timber camps, and immigrants and southern migrants moved to the state for work, West Virginiansboth new and deeply rootedretained their respective foodways traditions to some extent (many coal camps encouraged gardening, for instance) while also adapting and sharing those traditions across cultures. Syrian and Lebanese immigrants working as peddlers or merchants in the coalfields and industrial areas like Wheeling sold food and fresh produce, bringing with them foodways traditions such as cabbage rolls, kibbe, and pickled vegetables. Italian miner families in the northern coalfields developed the pepperoni roll as a shelf-stable, inexpensive food for miners, and continued traditions such as the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, making and preserving homemade pasta sauce, and baking an array of cookies for wedding celebrations. Greek immigrants opened restaurants and groceries in coal communities like Scotts Run and Kimball, and built outdoor wood-fired ovens, where women of the household regularly made bread and pastries. Black migrants who moved from the Deep South for work brought their own practices of whole hog cooking, growing and preparing greens and field peas, and the preservation of wild plants.

Ruby Abdulla and Nariman Farah make roti in Abdulla’s Charleston, West Virginia home. Photo by Emily Hilliard, 2016.

These diverse and cross-pollinated traditions persist in the Mountain State of the 21st century, where newer immigrants, among them Indian, Thai, Salvadorean, Peruvian, Ethiopian, Korean and Filipino communities, continue to practice their respective foodways traditions and share them via restaurants, religious services, public celebrations, and private social gatherings. Food-centric events and festivals, such as Our Lady of Lebanon’s Maharajan Festival in Wheeling, the Serbian Chicken Blast events and Annual Picnic in Weirton, the Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg, the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society’s annual Soul Food Tasting, seasonal Swiss foodways celebrations in Helvetia, and more, as well as regular ramp suppers, fish fries, and beans and cornbread fundraisers across the state play a vital role in sustaining communal, often labor-intensive foodways traditions of the various cultural communities who call West Virginia home.


West Virginia Foodways in the Collections of the American Folklife Center

man gathering ginseng in the woods
Randy Sprouse gathering ginseng (‘senging) in Tom’s Hollow, West Virginia. Part of the AFC’s Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008). Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1995. Find archival file here.

Many of these histories pertaining to foodways traditions can be traced in the West Virginia collections of the American Folklife Center. In the New River Gorge Folklife Project, collected from 1991-1993, Mary Hufford and Rita Moonsammy documented the diverse cultural practices of communities embedded within and surrounding the New River Gorge, then a national river, and now the country’s newest national park. The team conducted interviews with vegetable gardeners, hunters, and fishers from the all-Black Oak Hill neighborhood of Harlem Heights, Italian restaurateurs in Mt. Hope who made homemade pasta, sauce, and pastries, Lebanese foodways practitioners who cooked for events at St. George’s Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, a former railroad crew cook, herbalists, and more. Many of the communities continue to rely on the land within the gorge as the location and ecological base for traditional foodways practices and sustenance. 

In the Coal River Folklife Project Collection, Mary Hufford documented the still-pervasive foraging, hunting, fishing, gardening and preservation practices in Big Coal River Valley from 1992-2000 during a period of ecological disruption. Through interviews with home cooks and canners, ginseng diggers, wild grape and berry pickers, morel (molly moocher) mushroom foragers, fishers, hunters, and ramp supper cooks, she records how these land-based traditions have been affected by climate change and industryparticularly timber and mountaintop removal mining. 

The Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia Film Series, August – September, 2021

Perched on the rolling hills of Harrison County, West Virginia, in the north central part of the state, lies Lost Creek Farm, the home of chefs, farmers, and foodways storytellers Mike Costello and Amy Dawson. The couple make their home on a farm that’s been in Amy’s family for several generations, in a circa 1880s farmhouse which sits among fields of sorghum and Bloody Butcher corn, heirloom vegetable beds, free-range chickens, rabbit hutches, grazing Hereford cattle, and a heritage apple orchard. Up the hill, lush woods offer opportunities for foraging morel, chanterelle, and pheasant back mushrooms, shagbark hickory, pawpaw, ramps, and more. Using foods harvested, fished, and foraged from this land and other farms, woods, and streams around West Virginia, much like subsistence farmers before them, Mike and Amy operate a traveling kitchen or as they call it, a “culinary roadshow,” celebrating and sharing West Virginia foodways with audiences local and afar. In doing so, they share the accompanying stories they’ve learned from elders, farmers, cooks, foragers, hunters, and other foodways practitioners of the diverse cultural communities in the Mountain State.

A portrait of Mike Costello and Amy Dawson
Mike Costello and Amy Dawson of Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia will co-host the Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia film series. Photo courtesy of Lost Creek Farm.

As part of the AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in West Virginia program, Mike and Amy will serve as our guides in four short films celebrating diverse foodways traditions in West Virginia. The series premieres on the AFC’s Facebook page on Wednesdays at noon beginning August 18 and culminating in a virtual panel discussion on Thursday, September 30. To whet your appetite, below is information on each of the films. 

Wednesday, August 18th @ noon (update: click to watch): Foraging and Relations with Jonathan Hall

In this film, Mike and Amy will be joined by fellow hunter and forager Jonathan Hall as they sustainably harvest and preserve ramps. Like the Black fishers, hunters and foragers recorded for the AFC by Mary Hufford in Harlem Heights in the 1990s, Jonathan reflects on the experience of being a Black outdoorsman hunting and foraging in virtually all-white spaces in rural West Virginia, discussing how racism has created unique barriers to entry to the practice of outdoor foodways traditions in Appalachia. As a teacher to his friends, to his children, and professionally, as a geography professor at West Virginia University, Jonathan uses wild food to educate about the conservation of the resources that sustain us, informed by the ethos of “relations” that has guided Indigenous communities for thousands of years before white settlers arrived in Appalachia. 

Wednesday, September 1st @ noon (update: click to watch): Kimchi Fermentation with Marlyn McClendon

Marlyn McClendon remembers the pungent smell of kimchi wafting from her lunchbox in the middle school cafeteria, but what she especially recalls are the sneers and snickers that followed. Growing up in Huntington, West Virginia, she was often teased by mostly white classmates over her Korean-American identity. “It made me want to be white, so I ran away from it,” she says. “It was really kind of embarrassing in a lot of ways.” Over the years she developed a deeper appreciation for her Korean heritage––as well as a closer relationship with her Korean-born mother––largely through food. Now living in the remote community of Lobelia, in Pocahontas County, Marlyn explores both her Korean and Appalachian heritage at the dinner table, often preparing traditional Korean foods with ingredients grown or foraged nearby. In this video, Marlyn and her mother, Yong, prepare traditional kimchi and a variety of other Korean dishes for a meal shared with friends and neighbors. 

Wednesday, September 15th @ noon (update: click to watch): Ravioli and Sauce with Lou Maiuri

Lou Maiuri, 92, is the son of Italian immigrants who arrived in West Virginia in the early 1900s. “Italians are big on food,” Lou says from his basement cellar, where the shelves are lined with preserved peppers, canned beans, and a family-recipe pasta sauce he’s been making for 70 years. Mike and Amy often find themselves exploring Italian-American foodways in West Virginia in places like Clarksburg’s historic Glen Elk District with its bakeries and delicatessens, at traditional spaghetti houses, and with seasoned cooks like Maiuri, who shares his recipe for homemade pasta sauce and ravioli in this video.

Wednesday, September 15th @ 12:30 (update: click to watch): Turkish Cuisine with Mehmet Öztan

In the small mountain community of Reedsville in northern West Virginia, sits a farm where hundreds of varieties of heirloom seeds are preserved, but relatively few of these varieties are known as Appalachian heirlooms; they’re mostly Turkish seeds from Mehmet Öztan’s home country. Mehmet, who is the owner of Two Seeds in a Pod Heirloom Seed Company, and is a teaching artist in the 2020-2021 West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, got into saving seeds after he moved to the U.S. and had a difficult time accessing ingredients he knew growing up in the Turkish capital of Ankara. He has used seeds and communal meals prepared in the traditional brick oven he and his partner Amy Thompson built in their backyard to establish new connections with the rural community where he now lives. In this video, Mehmet prepares a hearty bean stew and lavash, a traditional rustic bread, in his backyard oven.

Keep an eye on Folklife Today for more posts by Emily in advance of each of the premieres and culminating discussion event. You can also register for the September 30th discussion panel by clicking here!

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