Appalachia Doesn't Need Saving, It Needs Respect
Travis Milton didn't set out to be an evangelist for Appalachian cuisine, and he seems borderline surprised that he's ended up making a name for himself as a chef. But if you get to chatting with him for just a minute or two, it makes all the sense in the world.
After earning his degree in education, the Castlewood, Virginia-born Milton was barely making ends meet as a ninth-grade remedial English teacher. He'd grown up at the stove, shucking beans alongside his elders at his great-grandparents' motel restaurant, the Village, then kept on cooking when he and his parents moved to Richmond, so it was logical enough to take on a job as a line cook at a local restaurant, Bottega Bistro, while hashing out his lesson plans at night. When the academic year ended, the restaurant came through with the offer of a sous chef position and after a short tenure, he moved up to head chef. After that first restaurant job, he traveled around the country, staging in notable kitchens to lap up every drop of knowledge he could before coming back to Richmond to work as chef de cuisine at his friend Jason Alley's restaurant, Comfort. It was there, back in his home state that Milton began to feel comfortable enough in his skin to delve back into the ingredients, dishes, and techniques that had whet his palate in childhood — the foods of Appalachia.
This Spring, Milton is opening his newest venture, Hickory restaurant at Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards. And while Milton may have left the lunchroom and lockers behind long ago, but at Hickory, class is back in session, with a culinary curriculum in the form of a menu and mission focused on one thing: honoring Appalachian food, and the diverse and dignified people who make it.
Reclaiming "Coal Country"
Bristol, Virginia, sits at the exact halfway point between Richmond, Virginia, and Nashville, Tennessee, smack dab in the center of what many people still think of as "coal country," even though much of the machinery and the money has long since moved on. Milton has never shied away from discussing his beliefs about how detrimental the mining industry has been to the Appalachian coal region throughout Alabama, Eastern Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. But to create the kind of restaurant he'd been envisioning for the past decade, he's had to find a middle ground with an unlikely business partner, Kevin Nicewonder, a member of a multigenerational coal mining family. "He's an amazing human being, but is a conservative, and I'm about as liberal as they come," says Milton. When Nicewonder first approached him about working together to build out his 480-acre property as a resort, he almost didn't take the meeting.
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"We are very much an odd couple. I was like, 'I don't see any way we are gonna see eye to eye on anything,' letting my own stupid bias almost get in the way, but it ended up that he has this vision of flipping the narrative of Appalachia as well," Milton explains. "His father had coal mines and [Kevin is] investing in the land by having this beautiful growing property and wonderful agriculture. This is what Appalachia really should be seen for." The more the two talked, the more Milton realized how closely their values aligned. "We are the same person on two sides of an aisle."
At the end of that aisle, though, looms the mountain they've got to climb together. "Appalachia is a region not without its issues, but no region is without issues. It's just like any part of the South there's complicated conversations," Milton says. "But the region as a whole has never really been afforded the opportunity to grasp its own narrative and tell its own story." To Milton, both industry and journalism have done their part to extract as much as they could from Appalachia, stripping the land of its bounty and the people who live there of their agency to be portrayed as the varied and valuable humans they are.
"When the war on poverty started, we became the poster child for poverty porn and that was all anyone saw or knew of Appalachia. Then it cascaded with the opioid epidemic, people talking about 'Mountain Dew addiction.' It always seems to be the narrative of Appalachia," Milton says.
And J.D. Vance sure didn't help. The venture capitalist and aspiring senator's 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy — in which he chronicled the culture shock he felt when he left his troubled, Kentucky-raised family and their what he calls their "hillbilly values" back in Middletown, Ohio, and scaled the academic towers of Ohio State and Yale Law — was used by pundits and politicians as a cudgel with which to beat Appalachian people into a flat caricature of ignorant, drug-addled hicks, too lazy to lift themselves up by their tattered bootstraps or get out of their own way. Readers ate it up, sending the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and eventually a film starring Glenn Close as Vance's Mamaw, and Amy Adams as Bev, his drug-addicted mother. But Milton choked on its message.
"It's insanely damaging for the region because it's painting it as the monoculture of these issues," Milton says. "You can't just look at Appalachia and blame it for the opioid epidemic, poverty, or Trump. His book really perpetuated that narrative and it's completely the opposite of everything I do in my professional and even personal life here in Appalachia."
When Milton says "personal," he means it with every cell of his body, fiber of his clothes, and syllable of his speech.
When Milton had first left Castlewood for Richmond as a teenager, he was bullied for the way he spoke, what he wore, the music he listened to, and back then, he did everything he could to wash the coal country dust from his person. But with some years and miles behind him, he was able to page through all he'd learned and dog-ear his favorite chapters.
At Comfort, Milton had begun to meld the lessons he'd absorbed on his travels with the wisdom of the people and place that'd raised him and with that, create a new lexicon of modern Appalachian cooking. He pickled, canned, cultivated, and preserved like his family and neighbors had, paying homage to the traditions and skills that had sustained them through cruelly lean times. He celebrated the unique bounty of the land and the diversity of the people who make it their home. He saved and traded seeds to ensure that the produce essential to these dishes remained available. He studied and read and listened and learned from anyone who was willing to teach him, and then he got loud — as you sometimes have to do when there are voices accustomed to shouting over you.
Milton's menus at Comfort, and at the restaurants he opened after his tenure there, said plenty about his stance on Appalachia's rightful place in the modern-day pantheon of global cuisine. The message came through on the plate in dishes like pig's head terrine with charred onion dust and black garlic jus, Cheerwine vinegar pie, or a chicken-fried steak cooked sous vide with black garlic, kimchi, and bourbon-barrel-aged soy sauce, then topped with sausage gravy. But Milton needed the gospel to spread beyond the walls of the restaurant. He joined the choir of voices also invested in this work — scholars, authors, and chefs like Ronni Lundy (who he lovingly refers to as "Mammaw Lundy"), John Fleer ("Papa Fleer"), Lora Smith, Kendra Bailey Morris, Sean Brock, and more — speaking out wherever they could in the media, books, conferences, festivals to sing the praises of the region and its foodways. The noise nearly drowned him out of existence.
Putting Self-Care At the Center
"I don't think I really felt the true weight of the work and those words until I actually got to move back," Milton says. "When I was in Richmond doing Appalachian food, it was real, but the hard parts of the work weren't really there yet. As I started opening things down here and trying to get programs rolling for hospitality training, and creating jobs, and doing the nuts and bolts parts of my goals, it really started to weigh heavily."
It's not too hard to find the words "savior" and "patron saint" next to Milton's name in stories about his Appalachian crusade, and there's so much further to fall when you've been lofted up on a cloud that high.
"The more I heard those words, it just built up into this monster of expectation in my head that I had to be and exude this at all times. I had to be wearing a snap-button shirt from Tractor Supply. I had to have a beard halfway down my chest. I had to wear a trucker cap," Milton recalls. "It snowballed into dominating my personality, and obviously it's my life's goal. But it's not everything about me, and I kind of went crazy. It drove me just about nuts. I was in a really bad place."
This pressure nearly destroyed most of Milton's personal relationships, and him along with it. "I hit a point where I was like, 'I've got to go to therapy. I've got to start talking about this. I've got to start taking care of myself. I've got to start allowing myself to be me within this role,' and finding out who I was again. I ended up really losing myself in the brand. The brand was me, and I didn't even know who I was anymore," he recalls. "I was very intentional from then on that I'm not going to let that happen again, or let the expectations or those words create something that I can't fulfill."
"Five, ten years ago I was like, 'Hey, it's fun drunk guy at the food event. He's going to be stupid. It's going to be fun.' That was still a part of the Appalachian guy that likes his whiskey, and makes a mean batch of collard greens. I've embraced that portion of myself," Milton says. "I don't let it dominate. I'm not a sober chef, but I didn't let it take hold of me through it all, thank God somehow." (He's also trimmed the beard.)
Though Hickory will still have the focus of Milton's previous mission, he's learned a valuable lesson about what he needs to do to sustain his ability to do it. "I've got to take care of myself. The words will be what they are. The work is what I want to stand. What people say or the expectations people will put on me: it is what it is," he says. "As long as I'm not losing myself in that, I'm happy and I can do the work. The work is daunting when you're not taking care of yourself. You lose sight of the goal."
Over the past decade, Milton has had his fair share of partners and investors asking him to open an Appalachian restaurant in far-flung cities and his answer remained the same: "Absolutely not." The very notion is hypocritical to him because it flies in the face of everything he's been railing against — extracting the benefits of a place and a culture without benefiting the very people who have made it so special. And at the top of that list are the farmers who grow the fruits, herbs, and vegetables that are essential to the region's cuisine, but fairly unknown elsewhere.
Plenty of that happens on those 480 acres of property where Nicewonder's inn, vineyard, Taste restaurant, and Hickory reside, and it's practically a fever dream for the produce-obsessed Milton. "We have foraging opportunities, three different garden plots, a greenhouse, people growing heirloom varietals, stuff out of my seed bank, stuff out of [Nicewonder's] family's seed banks. We're growing everything from an heirloom cucumber to pineapple trees. There's a vineyard right in the back. The agricultural portion was always a foundational point, and I never thought it was going to be able to happen," he marvels.
"I get to work with the local growers who are still growing all of these things. A lot of people say that they're forgotten or they're about to be lost. If you're in the region, you can find these people," Milton continues. "That's one of the most beautiful parts of it — being able to go to somebody's farm and they're growing their own greasy bean that's been in their family for a while. The amount of pride that they take in it is another part of the story."
One of Milton's favorite touches in the restaurant (along with his Golden Girls paintings and a nature photograph that uncannily resembles the cover of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures) are containers of heirloom seeds, and framed recipe cards from his cooks' families. They don't even necessarily have to be Appalachian, but just hold significance for the people working side by side with him to realize this vision. Even if they're not steeped in the region's past, they're part of its future, and Milton knows it's his responsibility to honor that. "I rarely will completely recreate a dish of my grandmother's because that's her story. I'm not here to tell her story; I'm here to shine a light on her story. I'm just here to add my chapter to the book and not dominate the narrative. It's on me to make sure that other voices are heard."
And should anyone — a guest, a line cook, a server, a passing stranger — be curious as to what a greasy bean is and why it matters, Milton would be more than delighted to teach them. Just as importantly, he wants to learn what they have to teach him, whether it's about beans or being. "You've gotta be really good at learning to be a good teacher, and when you're in a kitchen, you're learning how to teach people. Everyone learns differently and you can't just teach everybody one way. You've gotta learn about this person in order to teach them. Chefs who embrace that mentality and who understand self-care are taking care of everybody around them."
Maybe it's thinking like this that will turn that mountain of misinformation, tired old jokes, and systemic neglect into a hill of beans. And a bowl of beautiful food can serve as an edible textbook. "There are so many techniques and varietals that we have here that don't really grow anywhere else due to seasonality, or due to the creativity through subsistence that has been Appalachian food from day one," Milton says. "These are intrinsically ours, and we can tell our story too. We can show people the beautiful dichotomy of this place through a bowl of shucked beans, because it's this humble dish full of just fear and humility."
"It's just beans," he continues, "but through hard work, care, and love, it transforms into this beautiful, wonderful, vibrant dish that you wouldn't think just from looking at it, or having a cursory knowledge of it. Tasting it and understanding what went into this, you're like, 'Wow, this is one of the most beautiful things in the world,' and it's just a bean." Class dismissed.
Travis Milton's 5 Quintessential Songs That Make Him Think of Appalachia
"Panbowl" by Sturgill Simpson
I vividly recall the first time I heard this track. I was sitting in my truck, in Richmond, Virginia, after a long Saturday dinner service, moved to tears upon hearing Sturgill's description of his Kentucky upbringing. I felt completely enraptured back to my own youth in Castlewood, VA, just a couple mountains over from where Mr. Simpson. I'd be lying if I didn't include this as one of the moments that really tugged at me to come back.
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by Al Green
I feel like I had a constant soundtrack throughout my days growing up between everyone in my family having the radio playing 24/7 and everyone singing all the time. My great-grandfather's would bellow out this tune along with bits and pieces of other '50s country tunes all day long. Most of my family listened to strictly country and gospel, my mom however was a lover of R&B, and had me listening to Al Green before I could talk. This version of this song has always been the perfect amalgam to me.
"Shake the Frost" by Tyler Childers
This tune just hits me hard from the get-go. Tyler intertwines two beautiful metaphors throughout, weaving back and forth between memories and experiences from back home in Kentucky and realizations of regret and emotional reckoning. Hearing this one can evoke about 200 different emotions in me, depending on the day, but always leaves me at a point of gratitude for where I'm at and why I'm still here.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Amythyst Kiah
Anyone who has ever spent more than 20 minutes with me probably knows of — at length — my adoration of Joy Division and New Order. I audibly shrieked with giddiness the first time I heard this beautiful cover. I had enjoyed Amythyst's music for quite some time, and knew her strong connections to Appalachia, before I stumbled upon it. The depth of her vocals mixed with Ian's lyrics really evoked the "love/hate" relationship I've always had with Appalachia.
"Do Wrong Right" by Devil Makes Three
This is just a fun one that brings out a bit of devilish grin for me. The fiddles and banjo really take me back to the church bluegrass I would hear every Sunday, but the lyrics really hit home with some rowdiness. Definitely a good representation of the dichotomy of the Appalachia of my youth.