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The Appalachian Table

AP Table

WRITTEN BY DIANA MAZZELLA AND RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.

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Mike Costello climbs a gentle slope on his farm, armed with a handful of clear plastic bags. The thick brush clears as he enters the understory of the forest behind his farmhouse. As he navigates the fallen limbs of dead trees on the forest floor, he scans for the orange funnel shape of wild chanterelle mushrooms.

“When I was a teenager, I didn’t set out to cook Appalachian food and tell stories of Appalachian culture heritage through food,” Costello says. “Food is for sure a mark of a deeper kind of cultural identity, place-based identity. It reflects the way people live off the land.”

Costello, BSJ ’07, and his partner, Amy Dawson, run the Lost Creek Farm and traveling kitchen in Lost Creek, W.Va., that features “heritage-inspired, story-rich cuisine.” Many of those stories are growing in their garden, wrapped in an electrical fence to keep away the rabbits and deer who this summer made successful incursions into the vegetables.

Costello points out Bernice Morrison’s Old-Time lima beans, which when they are fully grown will be speckled and maroon. There are the Williams River pole beans from Nicholas County, named for the river that begins in the Monongahela National Forest. And then there is the Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato from Logan County. 

Mike Costello
Found Food:  Costello uses foraged produce from the land in his meals from paw paws to ramps to bark. 

The story of this tomato goes that Charlie Byles was a farmer and mechanic in the 1930s who took out a $6,000 mortgage to build a house. The tomato became so popular that within a year he had paid off his mortgage. Costello says it is still a popular variety in heirloom seed catalogs for backyard gardeners.

There are also the stories of the recipes. In the kitchen, Costello shares yellowed recipes cut out from decades of local newspapers that share the meals that came out of working with available ingredients and a vast array of cultural heritage as workers came from across the world to live in the region. The stories he and Dawson share are from family and neighbors, so that when you eat with them, you are taking in a piece of their story and the story of West Virginia.  

While visiting the farmhouse that was passed down through Dawson’s family for generations, they offered, on a Fiesta plate - which is made in West Virginia – salt-rising toast, smeared with bark butter. It held history in the Appalachian tradition of salt-rising bread; Dawson is in a salt-rising bread apprenticeship through the West Virginia Folklife Program. And there was the care to explain where the food came from and the generosity in sharing food, something everyone needs and can enjoy when it’s tasty. 

The couple’s traveling dinners surprise guests with flavors and history while showing the value of a culinary tradition that has sometimes been felt as shameful because its ingredients came out of not having other ingredients. Costello recalls a dinner in Charleston, W.Va., last year. 

“There were people that came up to us with tears in their eyes because they said ‘When I was young I used to have to eat tomato aspic,’” Costello said. “‘Then I intentionally stepped away from it and wanted to leave it behind, because for me it represented this time in my life or my family’s history that represented poverty and it represented shame.’ They say ‘I’ve never heard anyone talk about the story of tomato aspic of being one of innovation,’” Costello says.

Lima BeansRoasted Corn ChowderForaging
RICH IN FLAVOR (from left): A bag of Bernice Morrison’s Old Time lima beans. Costello’s roasted corn chowder with shaved country ham, wild nettle puree and bloody butcher corn crouton. Costello forages for chanterelles in the wild land behind his and Dawson’s farmhouse.  

Costello served aspic at a heritage dinner in Alderson, W.Va. The gelatinized tomato salad sitting on borrowed china has been a popular dish in the state and a way to consume cold, refreshing tomatoes when they are preserved and out of season. Costello inherited his grandmother’s collection of community and Junior League cookbooks. To indicate how popular the dish is, he said, in a Charleston Junior League cookbook there were seven aspic recipes. Garnishing the aspic was a mayonnaise from Dawson’s grandmother, whose ancestors came to Lost Creek from France. 

Costello believes that he’s not just sharing food but evangelizing  for a shared future through living lessons of the past.

“Food has always been a rallying point for community for a reason,” he said. “We had to get together to survive. Someone grew something over here, somebody grew something else over here and you had to pull together. Traditionally we didn’t have the option of not knowing your neighbors and not trying to get along and survive.” 

Costello’s version of a food community got national attention when one of the most well-known food storytellers, the late Anthony Bourdain, came to West Virginia. 

In the spring of this year, CNN aired the episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” set in West Virginia. The storyteller and chef wanted to know about the region’s history in coal and its present politics and food culture. Toward the end of the episode, he visited Lost Creek Farm as Costello foraged for paw paws, a fruit that tastes like a blend of bananas and mangoes. 

At the dinner, guests feasted on sweet corn chowder drizzled with a sauce of nettles and wild apples and topped with broken communion wafer crackers. They also ate buttermilk-fried rabbit served with chow chow – a vinegar-pickled relish – and maple syrup, and venison in a wild chicory root rub served with chanterelles, sorghum syrup and wild pears. The meal was topped off with paw paw ice cream and vinegar pie, which is from a class known as desperation pies made from substituted ingredients that were available. 

In the episode, Bourdain says: “Appalachia has a rich and deep culinary culture, increasingly fetishized, riffed on, appropriated for the genteel taste of a hipster elite willing to pay big bucks for what used to be, and still is in many cases, the food of poverty.” 

Costello maintains that as more of the country has incorporated traditionally Appalachian elements such as ramps, a garlicky green onion, the connection and benefit of those foods to the region is lost. But within the region, as the stories are shared, there’s a new appreciation for the culture that made the food. 

Paw Paw
SPLENDID FRUIT: Costello sliced open one of the first paw paw fruits of the season from his yard. The tropical-tasting fruit with many seeds grows on trees throughout the Eastern U.S. and Ontario, Canada.

This spring, on a footbridge over the Greenbrier River in Alderson, W.Va., a row of tables, overshadowed with tents, sat covered with lent mismatched dishes and mason jars full of wildflowers as guitar and fiddle music played. 

Each dish came out from the kitchen of the nearby Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church only after Costello had explained the provenance of each, how he learned of it and his own experience. 

He spoke about the appetizer, a smoked trout Spanish empanada, which he learned to cook from his neighbors who are also teaching him how to make Spanish sausage. While Harrison County is known for its annual West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival, celebrated by generations of Italians whose ancestors came to work in the mines, there is also a population of Spanish who started arriving in the early 1900s to work in zinc factories. It’s led to a rivalry of flavors as both have sought to get spices to cling to bread and pastry.  

When it came time for the pork and dumplings, the sky had grown dark, the wind kicked up and as the tents rattled and it began to rain, the time on the bridge was over. The guests ran through the rain, carrying tents and tables and plates. 

As one man held a dumpling bowl in each hand walking among the fat raindrops, a friend asked him, “Dumplins OK, Chad?”

“Yeah,” he replied. 

“Just checking,” the first said.

Once in the church hall, fitted with unfolded tables and chairs, there was still the fried chicken and collard greens and a trio of desserts from strawberry hand-pie, to rhubarb upside-down cake and sweet potato pudding.

Appalachian Table diner
SHARING STORIES: A table full of guests shares Spanish empanadas at Lost Creek Farm’s dinner on a footbridge in Alderson, W.Va., as the sun sets.

But before those courses were served there were the stories of this meal being told as damp diners stood talking, their seating rearranged by the weather. Some were friends of Costello’s from when he lived in Greenbrier County. Others were new to this kind of a good time. 

Chris McCormick, BS ’08, Business Management and Economics, and his wife Monica, from Lewisburg, were taking a night for their second date out since their 16-month-old was born. They could have moved anywhere in the region with Chris’ traveling job, but chose Lewisburg after Monica saw a picture of the town.

In the dimly lit church hall, the couple stood together in a corner, sharing Chris’ bowl of dumplings, the back of his checked shirt soaked, her mouth twisting into a smile.

As the fried chicken with fancied-up potato salad was served, Costello said he was torn. On the one hand, he had to move the dinner inside. On the other, he wished he was capturing photographs of the retreat inside as he did in his photojournalism days.

“It was a really great image of all of you guys.”