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Your Pandemic-Era Sourdough Starters And Victory Gardens Never Went Away In Appalachia

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Jesse Wright
Myrna Gifford prepares a young zucchini plant for transplantation in her home garden outside Morgantown, W.Va. Gifford has had a small home garden for many years, but expanded it this spring in response to the COVID-19 epidemic and the economic shutdown.

The title of the article was “The Quarantine Garden Has Taken Off: Seeds are the New Sourdough.” I stumbled on to it two days after my stepdad went to Home Depot and found out that they were out of pitchforks, and a week after the owner of the permaculture company we’d used for our yard lamented having trouble finding the lumber and soil she needed to install raised gardening beds. The local garden shop, too, I discovered, was under threat of running out of seed packets.

In the Quarantine Garden piece for New York, journalist Chris Crowley noted that people making a run on seeds and soil during the COVID-19 pandemic were doing so for a number of reasons, including “wanting to nurture something during a time of isolation, or to simply fill the void presented by a sudden surplus of time.” Others, he said, were doing a kind of panic gardening, concerned about their ability to access food at a time when grocery store shelves were eerily bare.

Folks that aren’t trying to grow tomatoes and peppers for the first time are learning to make sourdough bread, as the article’s title referenced. They’re making “garbage stock” out of leftover produce scraps. They’re trying their hand at canning vegetables. They’re learning about wild foods growing around their own yards, growing culinary and medicinal herbs on their window sills, making, out of necessity, nearly all meals from what’s already at home. These are practices that our parents and grandparents were intimately familiar with, but that technology and the unrelenting pace of modernity have rendered nearly obsolete.

What is it then about a global-scale pandemic that’s waking up in people that kind of nostalgia for more simple living? That’s stirring a latent, but deep, desire to return to the old ways, especially in terms of food?

TJ Smith, director of the Foxfire Museum in Mountain City, Georgia, and editor of the latest edition of the Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, thinks a lot of it boils down to comfort.

“I think anytime, in any crisis, there is a very human desire to comfort oneself,” he says. “We talk about comfort food and what that means — there is a comfort in going back to those old cookbooks, cooking meals at home, making meals more of a family gathering than an afterthought.”

Indeed, as orders to shelter in place began spreading across the country, so too did a deeper sense of slowing down and turning inward. As businesses, workplaces and restaurants all began to close, inside our homes, it seemed like space was opening up. Time spread out, and we began filling it with things like planting seeds and baking bread, making home cooked meals from comforting old recipe books eaten as a family around the kitchen table.

For Smith and his family, that meal has been soup beans.

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TJ Smith cooks Thanksgiving dinner in this photo taken by his wife Elaina.

“It’s something that both my wife, Elaina, and I grew up with in our homes,” he says. “When the store shelves started being cleared by worried folks, Elaina and I managed to find a large bag of dried beans in our search for shelf-safe foods. We had some leftover Christmas ham in the freezer, and we cooked up a great big cast-iron pot of soup beans. Elaina made cornbread and we ate on that for a few days. It was delicious and comforting. We both remarked how much we wished we could take some over to our folks, that they would really appreciate it.”

While many people in the U.S. were experiencing a kind of quarantine-induced nostalgia for these old traditions, some across the Appalachian region were simply shrugging their shoulders, looking out and seeing their fellow Americans perhaps discovering for the first time practices and folkways that they’d never abandoned. 

“When we talk about people going back to traditions, that’s because as we’ve become more modernized, we’ve moved away,” says Ronni Lundy, a Corbin, Kentucky-native and Appalachian food writer. “But we’ve never really given this stuff up in Appalachia.”

Lundy’s comfort food of choice during this time has been speckled butter beans.

“The way my mom made them,” she says. “They cook up to a beautiful, soothing creaminess…my mother cooked them to that state in just enough water to keep them from going dry. Then she added a chunk of butter and a splash of half and half to make a sauce, and salt to taste, just heating that gently until it was ready to serve. She served them with cornbread, of course.” 

“I find them fresh in the summer, but in certain parts of the mountains and the South, they are available frozen, and I usually have two packages in the freezer. When I’m feeling blue or run down, I make them and they seem to both comfort and strengthen me. It was one of the first dishes I made in the early stage of quarantine.”

When Lundy was a girl, she’d sit on her aunt’s front porch and shuck the beans they grew.

“They taught me how to break the end and pull the string down and break the other end and pull the string back on the bean,” Lundy says. “I would watch them thread it up on a needle and thread, and they would hang that in a dry place in the house…We developed these things, like drying beans for shuck beans, or drying our apples so that we could through the winter make apple stack cakes and fried apple pies. We’d have dried beans on hand, cure every part of the hog.”

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Ronni Lundi with her mother and father taken outside of her Great Aunt Bert’s store in Corbin, Kentucky.

Growing your own food and making it last through the seasons, wasting nothing, using what you have on hand to feed your family — this is a kind of generational knowledge instilled in families all across Appalachia. It’s a way of living — one based on resilience and resourcefulness — that hasn’t been lost, and that’s also been a deep source of consolation and security during this global health crisis.

“When we’re talking about comfort food — when you eat it, it makes you feel kind of petted,” says Lundy. “But there’s also another kind of comfort that we’re seeking right now, which is the comfort of being reassured that we know how to survive. And how to survive well.”

Smith agrees. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery is full of passed-down information about how to do the utmost with what you’ve already got in your pantry or garden — a more newly-adopted tenet for some in our current pandemic times.

“The recipes that come out of the cookbook are very much rooted in creating meals out of what’s at hand,” he says. “Like, open your cupboard, see what ya got, let’s figure out something to do with it. 

It’s a ‘make do and mend’ mentality that so many people are rediscovering right now, at a time when scarcity anxiety is high, that Appalachians and many other marginalized cultures have been doing for centuries. No-waste eating, preserving food, for example — these weren’t just the chic culinary trends that we’re seeing in mainstream media and on Instagram today. 

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Credit Jesse Wright / 100 Days in Appalachia
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100 Days in Appalachia

“You had all of these wonderful vegetables and fruits that are associated with the South, but you were not going to make it through an Appalachian winter unless you figured out how to dry and preserve them,” says Lundy. “Well before the invention of Ball jars and modern canning methods, we dried and we pickled and we built cellars to store potatoes. We were doing all of these things as a matter of survival.”

“I lived in Southwest Louisiana for a number of years,” Smith recalls. “Those cultures that are like Appalachia, the Cajun culture, Creole culture, we see that these people and their foodways are really based in stretching a dollar in the most real way possible. And zero-waste eating — we talk about slow food and zero-waste eating? They were OG.”

That’s worth noting, too, that many of the traditions we’re being called back to, when so many are losing their jobs, when some kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from — the practices that are being romanticized right now — are actually based in an all-too-familiar reality that people that come from lower economic backgrounds have been living in since long before the arrival of COVID-19.

“You have groups of people who this is their reality all the time or this was their childhood because their parents were lower on the socioeconomic scale or were poor and did struggle and did have to be creative with things,” Smith says. 

“In my mind, that class really becomes our teachers in how to get by through this period when you don’t have everything you need, or when there’s a possibility of scarcity. There’s a whole socioeconomic group in the country that’s often been ignored but who does have knowledge about how to survive. And I’m hoping that those people’s voices are elevated and raised and that we get to hear more from that population, because they’re the ones that know.”

Samantha Foxx, a North Carolina beekeeper and owner of Mother’s Finest Urban Farm in Winston-Salem, came from a family where nothing was wasted when it came to making meals. It’s a lesson she’s been deeply grateful for in these uncertain times.

“It’s a big part of our culture, making something out of nothing,” Foxx says. “The majority of the time when I was young, my grandmother raised me and that’s how she operated. If she was cooking turkey, she would take the necks and make the gravy. Everything was transformed into something. And I’m really grateful I had those types of experiences growing up because it’s molded me into being such a [resilient] adult — having a sense of working for myself and producing something out of nothing to survive.”

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Samatha Foxx uses beekeeping not just to provide, but to also connect with her family, pictured here with her son.

Foxx moved from Chicago back to her home state with plans to become a cosmetologist. She fell in love with farming and beekeeping instead and with the slower pace and more simple living farming can provide. She started Mother’s Finest Urban Farm with that commitment to simple living in mind.

“You kind of just get away from things that are already inside you,” she says, crediting the farm with bringing her back. 

Foxx grows elderberries, Jamaican Scotch Bonnet peppers, Trinidad Scorpion peppers and other produce. She sells eggs from the chickens she raises, sells honey from her own hives. She makes elderberry syrup, and Fire Tonic from her peppers, and sells all her goods at farmer’s markets in her community. 

She’s noticed a huge uptick in demand for her products as a result of the pandemic. She’s also noticed many folks around her embracing slow living and the old ways to combat the anxiety that this situation has brought. Neighbors and community members are coming to her asking how to start their own gardens, grow their own food, use what’s growing around them to make meals.

“Now, I think people are more aware of what’s going on around them as a whole. They’re like, ‘Wow, I had no idea all of these things in nature were around me.’ We were so hurried, rushed and busy that [we] didn’t even really pay attention to it.”

Maybe that’s the deeper lesson then that this pandemic can illuminate for us as lockdowns lifts and life slowly begins to open again. Maybe it’s called us back to something deeper within ourselves and our communities, shifting our priorities for good.

“I think that’s where everything is going to lead back to,” says Foxx. “Going back to those things that we initially started at, to a more simple type of life for some people. I think some of that simplicity will come back.”

Lundy sees this pandemic as an opportunity to remind us how strong we are, how strong those old traditions — the meals and methods of our grandmothers — have made us, and how damaging it’s been that modernity has taken us so far away from them.

“I think for many of us, [this situation] is giving back, or deepening, our sense of self-worth and ability to survive,” she says. “The language of our culture at large is a language that gives value to power and it gives value to the money that you have or the amount of things that you can purchase. It gives value to violence. It does not give value to care, and caretaking, and nurturing and compassion.”

The pandemic, she believes, is providing an opportunity to shift that paradigm.

“I use the phrase ‘small graces and tender mercies’ a lot lately. And a lot of the things that make our life rich right now are those kind of things. They’re cooking with your kids at your house. Or having your neighbor call you on your cell phone and say, ‘I have more greens than I can deal with,’ or ‘I just picked some ramps and left them on your porch.’ I think there’s a real possibility that we will come through with a stronger sense of self, and a better sense of how to survive and thrive in a modern world without having to get back in the same cycle of trying to earn money that doesn’t buy us what we give up for it.”

That’s the hope anyway, she says.

Beth Ward is a Georgia-based writer and editor whose work has been published in/on NPR, West Virginia Public Radio, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Atlas Obscura, BUST, and elsewhere. She currently serves as the managing editor of the Dream Warriors Foundation, an organization that supports Atlanta’s womxn community through grants and community outreach, and as a volunteer nonfiction editor for the VIDA Review, the literary magazine of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

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