Appalachia Proud

You know when you hear an idea that is so simple -- so brilliant -- that you can't believe somebody didn't think of it before now?

Here on HerKentucky, I've shared many stories of growing up in Appalachia. As I look back over so many essays and blog posts I've written about my Eastern Kentucky childhood, I realize that two themes have surfaced time and again: the need for a diversified economic base in Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian region and the delightful fresh-from-the-farm food that we love back home.

Sunflowers from my aunt's Floyd County garden.
I'm certainly not the only person who's noticed those two facts. But, like the old Reece's Cup commercial said, somebody finally put those two great tastes together. Yesterday, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced a new marketing initiative called Appalachia Proud: Mountains of Potential. An offshoot of the Kentucky Proud brand, Appalachia Proud will connect the dots between the area's economic needs and its amazing agricultural potential.

I am so excited to see Appalachia Proud branding on local products in and around my hometown. I can certainly attest that the best tomatoes and beans in the world are grown in Floyd County, Kentucky. I can't wait to see how these and other local products are showcased by the Appalachia Proud branding. It's been so amazing to watch the Kentucky Proud incentive transform the way food is served across the Commonwealth.  I always enjoy finding new ways to try Kentucky Proud products -- my favorite Vietnamese restaurant here in Louisville serves Pho with locally-sourced beef -- and I can't wait to see how products from the Eastern Kentucky mountains find hip new incarnations!
Tiny tomatoes in my mother's garden.
I am so impressed by the Appalachia Proud initiative. It's far more than just a brand to stick on locally-sourced products. It's a well-designed plan to effectuate real economic change in the mountains. It's a sustainable project that seeks to train a new generation of farmers and provide a long-term impact on a fragile economy. Here's hoping it blossoms!

The Christmas Repeal

We don't drink in my hometown. 

Well, people do drink alcohol, of course, but it's never been as socially acceptable to go out and have a glass of wine or a cocktail in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky as it is in the Commonwealth's bigger cities. Part of it is a religious distinction; there's a whole lot of Baptists in our neck of the woods. Part of it is economic; there isn't a lot of extra income for frivolous things like drinkin'. And, more than a little of it comes down to the booze we produce. The Appalachian end of the state doesn't produce Kentucky's storied bourbon. We don't have limestone in our water, nor do we have oak barrels charred to exacting specifications. We have a proud -- or perhaps infamous -- history of moonshine stills. Most of us have a 'shiner or two on our family tree, whether we want to admit it or not. When your spirits are less than legal, you generally don't announce them with pride.

via Maker's Mark

That all changes, come the holidays. Now, it's never been any surprise to me that the 21st Amendment was repealed on December 5th. You need to break out the good stuff for the Christmas baking. And, we may need a little nip in the house, because you never know if company will want some. Even the most devout Baptist grandmas suddenly know their liquor store order when it comes time to make holiday confections. They want Maker's Mark or Early Times. Or rum for the cake. It's not like we drink the rest of the year. It's simply a month-long lift on the Prohibition, in the name of good cheer.

My grandma Margaret would never touch a drop, but she sure would soak her fruitcake. My great-aunt Marie made these weird little cookies with raisins and cherries and a whole lot of rum; they were strangely addictive, and the whole family loved 'em. And then, there are the bourbon balls. My family's recipe. I can't make enough of them during the holidays; everybody wants some. It doesn't matter if you touch bourbon the rest of the year.

This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal, and the far longer-standing tradition of the Christmas Repeal. Here's my family's bourbon ball recipe, if you find yourself in the mood for drinking or baking.

  • 1 to 2 cups good bourbon whisky (preferably Maker's Mark) 
  • 1 cup chopped pecans 
  • 1/2 to 1 cup whole pecan halves (optional) 
  • 1 two-pound bag of powdered sugar 
  • 1 stick butter, softened 
  • 1-2 bags semisweet chocolate chips (preferably Ghiradelli)
  •  paraffin wax 

  1. Place 1/2 to 1 cup of chopped pecans in shallow bowl. 
  2. Pour bourbon over nuts, immersing completely. Cover and let soak 12 hours to overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pecan halves in shallow pan and toast lightly for about ten minutes. Cream butter in stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. 
  4. Combine bourbon-pecan mixture with just enough powdered sugar to form a stiff ball. Refrigerate to let stiffen slightly. Roll dough into small balls. 
  5. In double-boiler (or a sauce pan placed over a cooker full of boiling water), add a third to a half a bag of semisweet chocolate chips and a small shaving of paraffin wax (no more than 1/4 cup). Heat until just smooth. Dip dough balls into the chocolate mixture. The key is to coat them quickly and make small, frequent batches of melted chocolate. 
  6. Place bourbon balls on wax paper to cool. 
  7. Top each ball with a toasted pecan half, if desired. Results are better if you leave them to cool at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator.

What's Cooking in Kentucky

If you live in Kentucky, then you've probably seen What's Cooking in Kentucky.
It's one of those cookbooks that's just everywhere. It's in the gift shop at each of Kentucky's State Parks. It's in the Kentucky Interest section of every bookstore across the state. It's been a traditional wedding present for Eastern Kentucky couples for generations. It captures the spirit of traditional Kentucky cuisine. And, it originated in my teeny-tiny hometown of Hueysville.
Irene Hayes, via What's Cooking in Kentucky.
Now, growing up, I just knew that the cookbook was a part of our community. I knew that the book's author,  Irene Hayes, and her family had known my own family for decades. As I've said before, when you're a kid, you don't always know that the folks around you have done impressive things. You simply know them as the people you know. Way before I could be impressed that the great chef and food writer James Beard gave What's Cooking in Kentucky glowing reviews in his Cooks' Catalogue, I simply knew that Irene and her husband Rondal were the backbone of our church. I knew that Mrs. Hayes was a dynamic, opinionated woman who got things done.

When I sat down to learn more about What's Cooking, I wasn't surprised to learn that Mrs. Hayes began the project in 1965 as a fundraiser for the Hueysville Church of Christ. Over the years, the cookbook -- comprised of recipes submitted from home cooks across the Commonwealth -- was released in four editions and sold over 200,000 copies. A sequel, What's Cooking for the Holidays, sold over 20,000 copies.

Hueysville Church of Christ, photo credit: Susan Patton Salisbury

The original Hueysville Church burned when I was a kid (the congregation built a larger, more modern building in its place) and both Rondal and Irene passed away several years ago. The cookbook lives on -- Mrs. Hayes's daughter Sharon continues the legacy by keeping What's Cooking in print. It's a wonderful feeling to still see What's Cooking on the shelves of local booksellers. The classic, uncomplicated recipes reflect nearly fifty years' worth of Kentucky recipes, and they always remind me of home.

Kentucky's Regional Cuisines

Have y'all read your July issue of Southern Living yet?

I just loved the Letter from the Editor this month. Lindsay Bierman, who has done a great job with giving the magazine a hip and relevant edge, addresses the big issue of Southern food. It seems a small-town newspaper criticized the venerable publication for using "exotic" ingredients like fennel, and claimed they should get back to the basics by including more traditional Southern recipes like fried chicken, grits, and so on. Mr. Bierman does a lovely job of countering those complaints. He notes that Southern food is an inclusive cuisine, encompassing styles from Cajun to Lowcountry to Appalachian. I loved this manifesto so much that I mentioned it on Twitter. And, no big deal, the editor of Southern Living tweeted us back.

Now, if you write about Southern lifestyles, there are three gospels to which you adhere: Southern LivingGarden and Gun, and the Oxford American. Getting a tweet from the editor of one of these publications... Well, it's like one of those Belieber kids hearing back from The Biebs. It made my day: Lindsay Bierman liked what we had to say!

Mr. Bierman's manifesto also got me thinking about the foods that define Kentucky. There's Western Kentucky's mutton barbecue. There's Central Kentucky's beer cheese and burgoo. There are the Louisville foods I traditionally think of as "Derby Recipes" -- benedictine and hot browns. As the holy trinity of Southern lifestyle magazines are starting to tell us, there's the stack cakes and soup beans of my youth, now re-branded as Appalachian cuisine. There are country hams and tomatoes. And that doesn't even count all the ways we can cook with bourbon. There are so many tastes that are unique to the Commonwealth. As Mr. Bierman articulated in his "manifesto", there are new tastes and old tastes and room for inclusion. And they all taste pretty darn good.

We'd love to hear from y'all. What foods are your idea of "Kentucky Cuisine"?

Dogwood and Redbud Winters

Have y'all noticed how cold it's been lately? The flowering trees are in bloom, and  the temperature is dipping down into the 40s at night. Of course, there's an old-timey mountain tradition to explain the phenomenon. Here's an essay, first posted here on HerKentucky last year, about just that. -- HCW

When I was growing up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I rolled my eyes at a lot of conventional mountain wisdom.  Some of that was, of course, the traditional child's prerogative; parents and grandparents simply can't know what they're talking about with their old-fashioned perspectives.  And, to this Muppets-and-Madonna-loving child of the '80s,  old-timey mountain traditions seemed a relic of a long-gone era. 

As an adult, I've had to rescind quite a bit of my know-it-all scorn. The twangy mountain music that my granddaddy played on his vintage Martin guitar sounds curiously like the hipster-standard Raconteurs and Avett Brothers tracks that fill my iPod.  My grandmother's Crisco-and-butter cooking turned out to be far healthier than the fake food revolution of my childhood.  And, so many pieces of folk wisdom -- the most embarrassing, "unscientific" observations of the natural world -- have turned out to be true.  I've been forced to eat my words time and again.  The most dramatic example is Redbud Winter and its close, usually later, cousin Dogwood Winter.  

Now, when I was a kid, I hated hearing about these supposed weather phenomena.  When the first warm spring rolled around, it should be warm and pretty and springy from then on.  Without fail, someone would note "Oh, it'll get cold again.  We haven't even had Redbud or Dogwood winter yet.  Don't put your coats away." That was surely just an old wives' tale.

Except, it wasn't.  Every spring, the pretty, delicate blooms on the flowering trees brings a dramatic cold snap.  This year was no different -- last week brought 85 degree days, then the redbuds and dogwoods started to peek out.  As I started to unpack my spring dresses and shorts, I immediately thought that I'd better leave out a few cold weather items, just in case.  Of course, redbud winter came a few short days later, bringing cold mornings and brisk days.  

I guess the old-timers are right after all.

{all photos taken in my mom's Floyd County backyard}

A Caney Creek Christmas Tree: Alice Lloyd College Ornaments

Alice Lloyd College is a very special place for my family. The College has been a part of my family for generations. So many of my relatives can thank ALC for their education and their career path. It's truly an amazing, one-of-a-kind school.

Every year, ALC sends little presents out to all its alumni. These gifts are  work-study projects for ALC students. These ornaments are some of the "Caney presents" we've collected over the years. The ornaments are actually marked with name, class, and major of the student who made them. What a wonderful reminder that, after all these years, Alice Lloyd College is carrying out the mission of the great lady who founded the school!