Q&A: Disrupting Stereotypes about Appalachian Food, with Erica Abrams Locklear

Q&A: Disrupting Stereotypes about Appalachian Food, with Erica Abrams Locklear

Bernice Ramsey Robinson’s cookbook, the discovery of which launched Erica Abrams Locklear’s investigation of “mountain food.” (Photo by Tim Barnwell)

By Daily Yonder

June 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Erica Abrams Locklear is a Professor of English at UNC Asheville and a long-time resident of North Carolina. Her new book, Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food & Peopleis an historical inquiry into the otherization of a region via narratives – positive and negative – about food.

Enjoy our conversation about “traditional” eating, the whitewashing of the mountains, and reading between the lines of an archive, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: This book project was prompted by the unexpected contents of a family cookbook. Can you describe that origin story in a little more detail for our readers? What realizations did you have about your own perceptions of “mountain food”?

Erica Abrams Locklear: My maternal grandmother, Bernice Ramsey Robinson, passed away in 1996, but my uncle continued to live part-time in her house. When he died in 2014, my mother and her sister began the long and emotional process of cleaning it out, and they worked on it for a long time. In 2016, my mom called to say that she’d found a cookbook my grandmother made between 1936 and 1952; until then, none of us knew it existed. It was wrapped up in a plastic grocery bag and stored under the kitchen sink; it’s a miracle it wasn’t thrown away. As I describe in the book, it’s a carefully compiled collection of recipes that follows genre conventions. Some recipes are handwritten, while others are clipped from magazines, newspapers, or product packaging. Knowing my grandmother, none of this was out of character: she was an avid reader and a creative person. What surprised me were the recipes. Although the cookbook contains “mountain” dishes I apparently expected to find (think leatherbritches, apple stack cake, chowchow, and so on), it also features recipes I would have never imagined on South Turkey Creek, from devil’s food cake with coconut icing to fig pickles to sugar blossom cake. I realized pretty quickly that I had envisioned a culinary script for my grandmother that was at least partially rooted in stereotypes: it was closed-minded, naive, and grossly incomplete.

Bernice Ramsey Robinson’s cookbook, the discovery of which launched Erica Abrams Locklear’s investigation of “mountain food.” (Photo by Tim Barnwell)

DY: You’re a professor of American literature, but you also teach a lot of courses with a southern foodways focus. How’d you get interested in that intersection? Has food always featured prominently in your academic life?

EAL: I’ve always enjoyed thinking about, reading about, and writing about food. In graduate school I took a folklore seminar with Dr. Carolyn Ware at Louisiana State University. For our final paper we needed to incorporate field research, so I interviewed my father and his friend about ramps; it eventually became my first published essay. After I published my first book about Appalachian women’s literacies, I wrote an essay about representations of food in Appalachian literature, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There was so much more I wanted to know!

DY: This book is far from an attempt to describe and categorize Appalachian cuisine, and more like a meta-narrative of past entries to that genre. In broad terms, you depict the shift from a culture of denigrating mountain food as “coarse” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the contemporary veneration of foods like cornbread and apple stack cake. For you, what’s the lesson of that dramatic change over time?

Erica Abrams Locklear, Professor of English at UNC Asheville and author of Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food & People. (Photo by Tim Barnwell)

EAL: I love the way you describe the book as a “meta-narrative of past entries.” Exactly! For me, the big lesson in that dramatic change is one of caution. It would be easy to think, “Mountain food was once derided, but now it’s celebrated. Great! Problem solved.” But not so fast. We also need to think carefully about those celebrations, where they occur, who has access to them, how that labor is compensated, who benefits from them, what “counts” as mountain food, and so much more. Moreover, just because mountain food is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, that doesn’t mean the same holds true for public perceptions of mountain people. There’s still so much work to do there.

DY: I’m really interested in the way you write about whiteness in relation to this topic. On the one hand, you seem to see a lot of value in pointing out the contributions of Black and Indigenous culinary traditions to what is now seen as Appalachian food. On the other, you’re very sensitive to portraying the ethnic heterogeneity of the region and its culture as in any way surprising. How do you think about that tension, between actively recognizing the contributions of nonwhite people, and your feeling that the presence of those contributions should be assumed?

EAL: It was important to me to repeatedly emphasize the fact that people of color are in Appalachia and have always been in Appalachia, but because of a pervasive myth of racial and ethnic homogeneity, the dominant narrative equates Appalachia with whiteness. That myth doesn’t account for Indigenous populations (hello, first Appalachians!), African American communities, immigrant communities, and more. As a result, the culinary history of the region is whitewashed: for example, when many people think of Appalachia, they associate corn with moonshine instead of Cherokee agriculture. I was also trying to point out that these food histories should not be surprising, but to many Americans, they are.

DY: What was the most interesting archival work you did for this project? You read a ton of old travel writing for this book. Were there any outsiders’ tales that stuck with you?

EAL: The archival work for this book was delightful. It’s exciting to feel like you’re making discoveries and connections that haven’t been made before. The cooperative extension materials at North Carolina State University were fascinating, and I was thrilled to find a dinner menu for the Live at Home Banquet held in 1932 at the governor’s mansion. To your question, I had long been curious about William Goodell Frost and his work at Berea College in Kentucky, but I knew little about his second wife, Eleanor “Nellie” Marsh Frost. Berea’s Special Collections house her private diaries, which include entries about trips she took in the mountains on horseback; she was no shrinking violet. Unlike her male counterparts, who were often writing with fundraising and publication in mind, Nellie chronicled life as she saw it. She wrote detailed descriptions that were raw in their honesty, whether describing poor conditions and a hungry child or food abundance and silver servingware. These reports were meant to guide curricular planning at Berea, and I respected those accounts and her for their willingness to see the complexity of what was there, not what might be the most convincing fundraising portrait of a region and its people.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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