Asheville author looks to preserve Appalachia with 'Victuals'

Mackensy Lunsford
Ronni Lundy.

ASHEVILLE - There's a certain way people often talk about Appalachia. As often as they mispronounce the word, they mischaracterize the region. It becomes a caricature drawn in coal soot, a hillbilly revue.

But Ronni Lundy is having none of that.

In her new book "Victuals: An Appalachian Journey" — you may pronounce it "vittles" — the Asheville-based author tells the story of a region. Her region. The one she explored growing up and as an itinerant chronicler of Appalachian culture.

"I'm an explicator of Appalachian life as I experienced it, as I understand it, and as my research has shown me it continues to be," she said.

Four thousand miles Lundy drove for her new book, gathering tales, recipes and anecdotes. It's a journey that comes alive in color far more vivid than those images you'll often see, the kind that paint Appalachia as a backwater monoculture.

You know the type. You've seen it in "Deliverance." Or in artsy black-and-white expose photos of Appalachia as primarily populated with Scotch-Irish isolationists and their descendants, eking out a living in the coal mines, fields or what-have-you.

Recipes and photos reprinted from Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Copyright ©2016 by Ronni Lundy. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

"That ignores the histories of black and ethnic communities, the Native American influence and the fact that there's a large amount of European influence in the region," Lundy said. "We're not all Scotch-Irish and those of us who are, are not all angry and isolated."

Some are German like Rosa, a woman Lundy describes meeting in "Victuals." Rosa grew up eating Getrocknete Bohnen, literally "dried beans," which Lundy postulates could have been the forebear of the shuck bean. Shuck beans are also known as leather britches, or beans dried in their pods and then slowly rehydrated during the cooking process.

You can find a recipe for the dish in "Victuals." It has only three ingredients: shuck beans, seasoning meat and salt. But the method for making them is lyrically written, like Lundy herself is perched on a stool in your kitchen, peering over your shoulder as you cook.

It's Lundy's voice that pushes recipes beyond mere instructions, to mini treatises on ingredients. A recipe for "Real Cornbread" marvels at corn's versatility and the variations in commercially available cornmeal. There's uncommon attention to detail; directions for roasting Candy Roaster squash take into account its naturally fluctuating sugar levels.

Lundy first got a taste of Candy Roaster squash at Early Girl Eatery, one of the vanguard establishments of the local food movement in Asheville and the site of a "Victuals" book launch and lunch on Wednesday.

Early Girl owners John and Julie Stehling get special love in Lundy's book as key supporters of Asheville's local movement, and as purveyors of farm-to-table fare well before it was trendy.

Recipes and photos reprinted from Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Copyright ©2016 by Ronni Lundy. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

"John was interested not just in buying from local farmers but in learning from them," Lundy said. "He just started this dialogue with people, and it was not just this dialogue with young cool people like them. He would drive up in the mountains and look for farm stands."

John Stehling would be the first to deny he's young and cool. He'll tell you building a restaurant around Asheville's local farms "just made sense." And that he's hardly a revolutionary, but rather someone who just wanted to run a mom-and-pop eatery and raise a family in the mountains.

But a steadfast devotion to local farmers and a refusal to greenwash in a time when "farm-to-table" is often more trendy than true has local farmers also smitten with the Stehlings.

Most farmers won't say who lies about serving local food in this town. But they'll readily hold up Early Girl Eatery as an example of who's cooking with authenticity.

As for being vanguards of the Asheville local-food movement, John Stehling is demure. "It was pure dumb luck," he said. "We did what we wanted to do, and we thought we could be part of community. We never anticipated things would get to be what they are."

But he'll proudly assume the mantle of authenticity. "I go home at night and I sleep well knowing I gave people what I promised I'd give them," he said.

Recipes and photos reprinted from Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Copyright ©2016 by Ronni Lundy. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

It's the local farmers and people like Lundy, whom Stehling calls an ambassador of the local food scene, that help make Asheville special, he said. "It's all the different characters and the melting together of it all that makes Asheville interesting and quirky."

Originally, Lundy thought she'd write a cookbook just about Asheville, and the way its food scene grew under an influx of food-fascinated young folks and monied tourists who became enamored with the small city's embarrassment of culinary riches.

"At the very moment that there were people who would start to buy local products, there was a market for it," Lundy said. "Suddenly there were enough people in Asheville with disposable income looking for local products, and so this thing has just ballooned."

The book concept eventually evolved to encompass a wider swath of Appalachia, an area where homegrown food movements are sprouting everywhere and evident in the restaurants, in the small farms, in the enduring and somehow radical notion of food as a way of life.

"This is a living, existing, evolving culture," Lundy said. "And we need to pay attention to that. We need to respect that. We need to look at Appalachia as it is and not as we have been told it is."

Explore Appalachia through Lundy's eyes at Early Girl Eatery's Victuals book launch and lunch Wednesday.


What: "Victuals" book launch and lunch at the Early Girl Eatery. Specials at the restaurant and the Stehling's other restaurant, King Daddy's Chicken and Waffle, all day using recipes from Lundy's book. 

Where: Early Girl Eatery, 8 Wall St. Find "Victuals"-inspired recipes there all day, and also at King Daddy's, 444 Haywood Road.  

When: Launch lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sept. 7.