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From Shame to Acclaim: The Unlikely Path of Appalachian Food

Dobree Adams

Beans and cornbread are something that seem almost as big a part of growing up in Appalachia as the mountains themselves. But did you know that these beans and seeds have a history that dates back to Native American culture?

Farmer and author Bill Best has spent his life farming and learning all about the different ways that beans have been used to sustain life and fill several purposes throughout Appalachia over thousands of years. His new book is called Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving

“To an archeologist, a bean is a bean is a bean… and I was the first one to point out that the beans were being grown for different reasons," said Best.

He tells us more about how beans have really been a lot more influential in our past than we tend to think. And we hear why they may be in danger of extinction.

Although, as far as biodiversity goes, Best says that he isn’t worried for Appalachia one bit.

Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

Vidalia Onions

They say that complicated things are like onions because there are so many layers. But what if onions are what is so complicated?

The Vidalia “sweet” onion has a very colorful story to its simple name. Special soil conditions, controlled atmosphere refrigerators and seasonal restrictions  are only a few complications involved with producing these onions.

Delbert Bland, a farmer from southern Georgia, can tell you anything you want to know about growing and selling these fragile onions. He started his entire Vidalia onion enterprise by himself by going around the country and selling to grocery stores.

Credit courtesy of Gravy Podcast / Southern Foodways Alliance
Southern Foodways Alliance

Through his time with Vidalia onions he, along with all of the other Vidalia growers, has learned exactly how to harvest, maintain, ship and sell the onions. He even took his onions to other countries in order to produce them year round.

The story doesn’t end there. Find out how he has handled imposter “Vidalia labels” and complications with the law… over onions!

Credit Emily Hilliard/ WV Folklife Program

What Happens When Local Food Goes Mainstream?

The biscuits and gravy that we know as staples, might be seen as “trash food” depending on who you ask.

This week on Inside Appalachia we hear about how the foods that we see as traditional, are only recently being recognized as anything worth eating.

It’s no secret that some of the more urban or modern restaurants will recycle things and call it “new” or “rediscovered.” But why did our cultural dishes get a bad reputation in the first place?

Ronni Lundy tells us some of her experiences as a young girl from Appalachia who really enjoyed the foods from our region. 

Struggle to Stay

This week we continue our journey with Mark Combs to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Last time we heard from Mark, he had just lost another dear friend to suicide. It was time to move on, but not alone.

Mark is traveling with his good friend Cameron Elias Williams, a friend from theater school. Together with his dog, Lilly, and cat, Terror Czar or T.C the men will make their way all the way across the nation to get to California.

“I love West Virginia; it’s always going to be another home for me. But for the arts, there’s not a whole lot here,” said Cameron Williams.

They begin their journey with high hopes and an open mind, but they really can’t know what to expect upon arrival.  Can Mark and Cameron’s optimism sustain them while they find jobs, a home and a whole new life?

“So I am homeless. . .  jobless, with ten dollars accessible to my name on the complete opposite side of the country,” Mark Combs recorded a few days after he arrived in LA. 

To find out what happened, listen to the podcast.  

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly, and Roxy Todd. Jesse Wright is the executive producer.  Patrick Stephens is the audio mixer. Claire Hemme also helps produce. Thanks to Lora Smith with the Appalachian Food Summit for her help recording Bill Best. 

Music in this episode was provided by Marisa Anderson, Dinosaur Burps, Andy Agnew Jr., and Ben Townsend.


Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.