Let those dried Black Ben Davises stand as a warning to anyone who would write off this lean, mountainous corner of eastern Kentucky. Everything Hazel Miracle grew on her 14 acres near the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park found its way into her kitchen or into the workshop of her son, James, who chisels bowls from yellow poplars and sycamores felled just a few yards from his workbench. Wildflower honey flows from a hive behind the house, and a plot between apple trees is polka-dotted with teardrop tomatoes. In the Miracles' hands, such humble raw materials become objects of elegance and dignity.
We'd traveled from New York to Appalachian Kentucky against the advice of travelers who knew the place and assured us that this easternmost, mountainous end of the state, just over the western borders of Virginia and West Virginia, was strictly for backpackers. Mint-julep Kentucky, they said, with its immaculate, post-fenced Thoroughbred farms and its bluegrass, was more our speed. But we had a hunch, bred of years tasting great food in places where resources are slim and hard-won, that we might unearth a few exceptional dishes here, and the possibility that they might be both unsung and served without fanfare only made the quest more alluring.
And there was a further quest: the elusive pawpaw. America's largest native fruit, the "custard apple"--which, as every toddler knows, occupies the patch "way down yonder"--once kept Lewis and Clark's hungry band from perishing. It thrives in eastern Kentucky. But who's ever seen a pawpaw? Researching the eggplant-shaped fruit on the Internet before we left, we had turned up a lone photo. So we downloaded this mug shot and, after landing in Cincinnati, pasted it on the dashboard of the pickup truck we were renting. Then we set off, heading southeast on Route 8, the narrow, leafy road that traces the Ohio River, through dusty gypsum mines and tobacco fields.