If you’ve ever doubted that patience pays, consider Ronni Lundy.
Lundy, the author of several iconic books about Southern cooking, endured six years of rejection letters and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding feedback when she first pitched a collection of recipes about the cuisine of Appalachia, including the foodways of Western North Carolina, where she makes her home. The distinct branch of Southern cooking, which relies strongly on local ingredients and favors humble beans and greens over rich proteins, was repeatedly dismissed as unmarketable hillbilly fare.
Her proposal finally landed in front of someone who got it. Francis Lam, the award-winning food writer and cookbook editor who recently became host of The Splendid Table, believed there was an eager audience for “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes.” He was right.
The stunning collection of recipes, personal stories and lush photography won James Beard media awards in April for Best American Cooking and the top book award of the night – Cookbook of the Year. It also won Best American honors from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in March, denying Kinston Chef Vivian Howard a complete sweep with “Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South.” (Howard took home four IACP awards, including Cookbook of the Year.)
“This book, in the form it is in, would not exist had Francis not been the editor,” Lundy says in a phone interview from her home in Burnsville, near Mount Mitchell State Park. “It was hard to get people outside of the region to listen to the real voices of the people who live here and see how their stories fit into our contemporary take on what Appalachian food is. It challenges a lot of preconceived notions.”
The book, whose cover includes a dictionary-style guide to correctly pronouncing “victuals” as “vidls,” describes a more optimistic Appalachia than the grim setting found in J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” That bestseller’s take on the region’s poor, white working class was cited by The New York Times as one to read “to help understand (President) Trump’s win.”
“It’s a lot of hoo-ha,” Lundy says of Vance’s book.
“It seemed clear that people were ready to hear a different story about Appalachia than negative ones that persist, as well as the overly romanticized one about everyone being so quaint and adorable,” she said. “To have their stories recognized and this book acknowledged as it has been was just huge for me.”
The idea for “Victuals” started to percolate about eight years ago when Lundy was in Asheville visiting her friend Elizabeth Sims, co-author of cookbooks from the popular Tupelo Honey restaurants. Lundy was struck by the influx of newcomers attracted to the area by jobs in burgeoning food operations like organic farms, craft breweries and high-end restaurants.
“I could see this perfect storm coming together for the region,” she said. “This is a rare place where people never stopped caring about where and how their food was grown, and that scene has only gotten stronger.”
Lundy traveled extensively to collect family stories and legacy recipes, including one for Killed Lettuce, in which crisp greens surrender to a vinegar-spiked dressing of still-hot bacon grease.
Like with other recipes in the book, Lundy shares details about its provenance. Such stories are meant to underscore the direct experiences that shape the recipes, including why people eat certain foods. Sometimes the answer is as simple as that’s what grew best in the mountain climate, or it’s the dish kin put on the table for generations. In the case of Killed Lettuce, that includes the kitchen in Corbin, Ky., where Lundy’s mother was in charge, and the Watauga County home of Chapel Hill writer Sheri Castle’s grandmother.
But it also defines a connection that can make a recreated meal bring tears of joy to someone dining far from their home place, or a revelation to a willing recruit.
After an active season of promoting “Victuals,” Lundy is taking some time off to unwind and enjoy summer in her mountain home. She will come to Chapel Hill in October for the annual TerraVita Food & Drink Festival, where she will participate in a session called “The Appalachian Table: A Humble Region Gets Its Due.”
She’s considering another book proposal and is looking for a publisher to bring back her 1991 cookbook, “Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens.” The book, recognized by Gourmet magazine as one of six essential books on Southern cooking, features recipes from several country music stars.
“I have the rights again and would like to bring it back as an updated historical document,” she says. “We haven’t gotten that far to figure it out, but that would be nice to see that happen.”
Lundy also is reaching back to an earlier career, when she was a music writer regularly published in the Louisville Courier-Journal and elsewhere. Lundy’s essay on bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens will be one of 27 published in an anthology edited by music writer Holly Gleason titled “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.” It will be released in September.
“It’s about and by women who have a connection to music,” says Lundy, who also was published recently by UNC’s Southern Cultures journal. “It’s exciting for me to be approaching 70 and have people who are interested in what I have to say.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.
TerraVita Food & Drink Festival
The eighth annual festival is Oct. 18-21 in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Ronni Lundy will take part in a Sustainable Classroom session titled “The Appalachian Table: A Humble Region Gets Its Due” Friday, Oct. 20, at 10:45 a.m. She will be joined by chefs Ian Boden, a James Beard Award semifinalist in the Atlantic Region for his work at The Shack in Staunton, Va., and Mike Moore, of Asheville’s now-closed Seven Sows and founder of The Blind Pig, a pop-up supper club that supports local charities.
Tickets are $80 for access to up to four classes. For tickets and information about the festival, go to terravitafest.com.
The defining part of this dish is that the greens – and the chopped green onions that are mixed with them – are not cooked, but are tossed with vinegar and hot bacon grease to wilt them. In that general rubric, variations exist. My mother tossed the raw lettuce and onions in vinegar and then poured on the bacon grease. Sheri Castle’s grandmother cooked the vinegar and grease together with a bit of sugar. A friend of my family made hers by tempering a beaten egg with the hot grease and vinegar and then cooking it to make a thick dressing. My mother once killed a bowl of vinegared lettuce by pouring on ladlefuls of hot, pork-seasoned pinto beans. A number of restaurant chefs serving killed lettuce these days like to top the dish with a soft-cooked egg so the runny yolk can become a part of the dressing.
Here are proportions and directions from my family’s kitchen to get you started. Serve this with cornbread to sop up the dressing.
8 cups torn crisp salad greens (in bite-sized pieces)
2 whole green onions, finely chopped
4 bacon slices
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse and thoroughly dry the greens, and then toss them with the green onions in a large bowl.
Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until very crisp, and remove from the skillet to drain. Remove the skillet from the heat. Immediately pour the vinegar over the lettuce and toss, then pour the warm bacon grease over that, tossing again. Add salt and pepper to taste. Crumble the bacon over the greens and serve immediately
Reprinted by permission of Clarkson Potter from “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes” by Ronni Lundy (2016).