Sometimes the most hardscrabble land yields up the most delicious food. On a trip through Appalachia, two writers discover folk genius.
Eighty-four-year-old Hazel Miracle sat in her armchair, talking with us as she expertly cored, peeled and quartered enough Black Ben Davis apples to fill a five-gallon bucket. "They aren't much to look at," Miracle observed in her deep eastern Kentucky drawl, and she was right; they were as tiny as golf balls, with olive green skin darkened by powdery black patches. But when she offered us a handful of last year's harvest, the leathery chunks were the richest apples we had ever tasted: tart, sweet and bursting with concentrated flavor. Once the bucket was full of apples, she would dehydrate them, and they would supply the filling for a year's worth of the fried apple pies she had been turning out for most of her life. (Sadly, this was her last batch; she died a few months later.)
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.
At our first stop, in Maysville, just 40 miles downriver from Cincinnati, Judy Dickson gave us a taste of the shortbread-crusted "transparent pie" she's been making from scratch at Magee's Bakery every morning since 1979, and we knew we were on the right track. She calls the pie transparent because, compared to its close cousin the chess pie, it nearly is. The filling, which has no corn syrup, appears just slightly cloudy--an opalescent gray, eggy, buttery gel that's the perfect sweetness. Dickson volunteered that her pies are "made of everything that's good for you--butter, sugar, eggs, milk," but when our praise began, she'd have none of it and abruptly changed the subject: Had we seen Maysville's flood wall? On our way out of town, we noted the impressive three-story cement bulwark that keeps the town's tidy brick row houses dry when the Ohio floods its banks. Dickson's buttery 45-cent mini transparent pies seemed to us the greater achievement.
The road curved south with the state line, and then we followed Highway 23 into the fog-shrouded mountains of the central Appalachian coalfields. Dubbed the Country Music Highway for all the big-time honky-tonk stars who grew up along its path (and some small-time ones, too, if the shiny vintage tour bus belonging to the Singing Hayes Family was any indication), to us the road seemed less a testament to the hard-luck days and lonesome nights of country ballads than to the mastery of that unyielding mountain range. Where nineteenth-century travelers had to clamber over Peach Orchard Mountain to get from Paintsville to Pikeville, we were speeding through it at 75 miles per hour, on a super-highway at the bottom of a man-made canyon whose rock walls were streaked with glossy veins of coal. These mountains have been fully wired, and when the indigo haze that settles on their summits fades into the night sky, the lights of shopping-mall parking lots set the hills ablaze, a ghostly orange.
But take a few strategic turns and you can find yourself in a tangle of red-clay roads with only wild hare and penned hogs for company, or surrounded by the steel chutes and boreholes of a long-defunct mining operation graced with a daisy-strewn memorial to dead coal miners. The next afternoon as we drove along Route 160 (the Kingdom Come Parkway)--a steep, sinewy blacktop bordered by purple, yellow and orange wildflowers--to the top of Black Mountain, we didn't encounter a soul.
The following morning, on a tip from a friend, we set out for Whitesburg, a snug mountain hamlet 25 miles back up Route 119 that gives the impression of being held aloft by clouds. Our goal was Ramey's Diner, a quiet, dimly lit place that's been around since anyone in town can remember (though the posters of NASCAR racers speeding across the walls are strictly up-to-date). Aggie Hatton, the bun on the top of her head barely visible in the pass-through window to the kitchen, has spent the last 13 of her 70-odd years in the kitchen at Ramey's, serving up authentic mountain cuisine and shrugging off the townsfolks' raves. Her skillet-fried chicken and her wilted greens with spring onions have made Ramey's the de facto company cafeteria for another Whitesburg institution, Appalshop, an arts center that since 1969 has been sending reporters, filmmakers and other volunteers into the mountains to document craftspeople and storytellers, to record dulcimer jam sessions and to teach cutting-edge media technology to Kentucky teenagers.
When we arrived at Ramey's for lunch (the Monday special: soup beans and salmon cakes), the Appalshop gang was crumbling warm skillet-baked corn bread and diced raw onion into bowls of pinto beans that had been slow-cooked with a hunk of country ham--a mountain ritual older than radio.
Distances on a map are deceiving in this craggy terrain. What looks, on paper, like a short jaunt can easily meander into a whole afternoon of climbing, twisting, descending and climbing again. As we pressed on toward Berea, we kept our eyes peeled for the great white pawpaw among the lush roadside foliage, but all we saw was plenty of pokeweed--a tasty treat in the early spring but a powerful emetic now, in the late summer, once it has put out seeds.
We had to stop in Corbin to visit Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, a.k.a. the world's first Kentucky Fried Chicken, built in the 1930s. Though the motor court's long been demolished, there's a Colonel Sanders museum of sorts in the café, whose kitchen and dining room have been lovingly preserved. Adjoining the café is a spanking-new KFC franchise with some of the Colonel's original recipe cards on display not far from the cash register. His scalloped tomatoes, chess pie and buckwheat cakes seemed far more ambitious, appetizing even, than the Triple Crunch® Zinger sandwiches we got.
Just south of Berea, on I-75, we tuned in to a country station and heard Don Williams croon, "I don't believe in superstars, organic foods and foreign cars..." A great lyric, maybe, but not an accurate expression of mountain attitude: The people here care deeply about their vegetables and hold fast to their preferences. At the Lexington farmers' market, we eavesdropped on a man bagging handfuls of "greasy" beans (so called for their waxy appearance), who was musing, "You can't beat these long greasies for flavor." A woman hefting tomatoes shot back: "I've always been a half-runner girl myself."
Eastern Kentucky's bean pride has made it command central for the effort to preserve native bean varieties. Bill Best, a Berea farmer who, with his son, Michael, founded a seed bank to preserve heirloom beans (they share them with other enthusiasts and sell them at the Lexington market), estimates that there are more than a thousand varieties growing in Appalachia. Since bean plants mutate more readily than other vegetables, many of the beans they collect are so distinctive--in color, flavor and texture--that they're named for the family who grew them.
After we'd talked for a while, Best invited us out to his farm. The sun was low in the sky when we rolled onto his slim 12-acre plot, which is tucked in between two small mountains. He ushered us down the bean rows at a rapid clip, stopping every few yards to show off features of the 80 varieties he grows. Some pods were longer than a pencil, others quite short; some appeared swollen and others gaunt, revealing the contours of the seeds within. Best split open pods with his thumb to reveal further differences in the beans they contained--a purple-spotted hull here, a speckled bean there or the squarish ends of a cut-short variety.
"I grew up on a hardscrabble, subsistence farm, and we didn't have much," he told us as we walked between trellises of sky-high heirloom beans. "But back then I always thought we ate the best food available. Now I know we did." We didn't have to imagine what he meant for long, since he invited us to a summer supper with his wife, Irmgard, and two of their granddaughters.
Back at the house, the two girls bounced around the room while we helped ourselves to roasted new potatoes dug up that afternoon, a pot of beans so fresh they sparkled like green peas and onion-garnished tomato slices as big as pancakes, with flavors as intense and vibrant as their colors--from the persimmon orange of a Carolina Gold to the burgundy shot through with blood red of a Cherokee Purple.
When we marveled over the crowds we'd seen at Best's stand in Lexington, he chuckled and said, "Beans won't get you a whole lot at market. What they will get you is a reputation for being eccentric." It turns out he has a second full-time job, as a professor of English at Berea College. After the meal, he walked us back to our truck and spied our pawpaw photo on the dashboard. He didn't know of any trees nearby, but he gave us directions to a pawpaw orchard just an hour up the highway, in Frankfort.
If bean lovers were eccentrics, what would pawpaw people be like? "Fanatics!" according to the stout, bespectacled Dr. Kirk Pomper. As leader of the horticultural program at Kentucky State University's Atwood Research Facility, the only laboratory in the country dedicated solely to pawpaw research, Pomper has about him something of the air of the nutty professor. We'd put some distance between us and the mountains on our drive northwest to Frankfort and were now strolling through hilly, impossibly gorgeous farmland, toward a neat grid of 1,700 pawpaw trees of various sizes, their branches heavy with fruit.
A pawpaw's greenish-white skin covers yellow flesh as soft and dense as an avocado's. Under a blazing sun, we picked fist-size fruits, sliced off their tops and sampled. Pawpaws are exotic and delicious, as rich and creamy as custard, which is why they're also known as custard apples. Some tasted like mango crossed with apple, others like banana crossed with strawberry; their flavor, it seems, varies according to small degrees of ripeness. Slightly overripe ones had a richly caramelized, madeira-like note that we loved.
Pomper's ambition is to create a new agricultural industry for the Appalachians. But the fruit presents some serious obstacles: Pawpaws ripen very quickly, the harvest lasts only a few days, and once the fruit is picked, it bruises easily. When we asked Pomper how long the pawpaws we were taking with us would last in the cab of our truck, he looked at his watch. We got the picture.
We had higher hopes for the seeds. They were the size and shape of shelled Brazil nuts, and there were three in each fruit. Once we were home, we planted a few in our garden; if all goes as planned, in about eight years we'll have our own fruit-bearing trees. Until then, we'll just have to look forward to our trips back into the mountains.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee, contributing editors at Travel + Leisure, write frequently about food and travel.