Appalachian Foodways Course for the UNCA Asheville/OLLIE/College for Seniors, April 1, 2015. What is eaten and why? “Cornbread Nation” with Ronnie Lundy and “Traditional and Essential Seeds” by Bill Best.
What is eaten and why? “Cornbread Nation” with Ronnie Lundy
Ronni Lundy started her session by bringing biscuits and local Sorghum Molasses Syrup. She made a real southern treat, warn sorghum molasses mixed with warm butter. What a wonderful childhood memory. To mix warm sorghum molasses and warm butter into a sticky spread, just for those hot biscuits on a cold morning – yummmmm!
Sorghum cane (looks similar to sugar cane but with a big clump of seeds on top) is harvested and crushed in the fall here in the mountains. The syrup is boiled in pots or vats until it thickens. Then it is sealed into canning jars for enjoyment. For some families, other than honey, this was the only sweetener available for pancakes and stack cakes.
Ronni explained the difference between what most people know as molasses and what a lot of mountain folk call molasses or sorghum molasses. Most molasses (blackstrap) are derived from sugar cane or beets. Sorghum is a major grain that originates from Africa. Brought here by slaves, the sorghum plant has a sturdier stalk that yields the green sticky liquid that must be boiled down for hours to achieve thickness and sweetness. Sorghum molasses is a product unique to the Appalachians.
Ronni talked about the dual cultures of Appalachia (rural & cities) and her journey from the coal mining mountains to the city. “Everyone in the mountains seems to be connected by kinship or sometimes by hardship.” The rural mountain culture is one of connections and mountain people spend that time “nurturing connections.” Perhaps, that’s why the mountain people tend to know their neighbors much more easily than people in cities. Even death is a nourishing time in Appalachia. Everyone brings food and stories to share around the table.
Ronnie is the author of Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, a classic fusion of the food and music cultures of our region. https://www.southernfoodways.org/awards/ronni-lundy-2009-lifetime-achievement-award-winner/
Bill Best brought a large bag of Heirloom Appalachian Bean Seeds to accompany his talk of flavorful pots of “Beans and Leather Britches!” He spoke of “Traditional and Essential Seeds” and his lifetime of collection, identifying and sharing Appalachian bean seeds. Bill says that our Appalachian Foodshed is one of the most diverse of any county and seed saving preserves that diversity. We are losing much of that biodiversity as our right to save seed is a disappearing inheritance, thus we are losing much of our food culture heritage.
Bill keeps almost 700 varieties of heirloom bean seeds at the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, which is at his farm in the Knobs country of Madison County just outside of Berea, Kentucky. Bill says that “Appalachian seeds represent a heritage going all the way back to the Native Americans.” He was recently invited to an Appalachian archeology burial site dig dating back 13,000 years. This was a woman who was buried with bean seeds. Many of those seed types still remain with us in today.
The culture of seed saving is an ancient one. The Native Americans planted beans in a configuration referred to as the three sisters. Beans, corn, and winter squash planted together. The beans will grow up the corn stalk and the squash covers the ground and helps keep down weeds. Bill says to “look for heirloom corn because the heirloom corn has the thicker stalk to support the weight of the vines.”
Bill’s family has been saving seeds for over 150 years and he gathered some of his first seeds in 1973. He started selling heirloom beans at the Lexington Kentucky farmers market and he now sells his seeds in all 50 states.
Bill Best’s new book, Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste is a must read for understanding why commercially grown beans are just a decoration, and not for eating. Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/09/27/2846594/berea-farmer-bill-best-advocates.html#storylink=cpy