It's early morning around 6 am, and I'm standing with Chef Tim Urbanic in the kitchen of the Cafe Cimino Country Inn. Tim grew up in western Pennsylvania in a coal camp, and his mother, Julia Cimino, was a first generation Italian immigrant from Calabria.
“The polenta was a staple in our family. This is a polenta that I've known all my life, since I was a little kid. We add to this Romano cheese, fresh butter, and then we use water for the base.”
The night before, Tim cooked the polenta- it takes time for it to firm. This morning, he cuts it in triangular wedges, dusts it in flour and a bit of salt and pepper, and then fries it in oil.
Tim is serving polenta for breakfast, along with an omelet, scones, date and molasses cake, and a fruit cocktail served with fresh mint and peace nectar. The polenta has perfectly crisp corners and a creamy texture inside. It tastes perfect.
Tim has been teaching his son Eli to cook their family recipes, which originated in Calabria. Tim’s mother’ s maiden name is Cimino, and he named his restaurant after her. Julia Cimino is now 101 years old- and Tim brings her freshly made polenta when he visits.
“She just really has brought culture into my life. And so I still bring her a little bite of food. I'm still the baby, she still calls me 'Timmy.'”
This polenta is from locally grown, heirloom Bloody Butcher cornmeal- grown by Frances Meadows and her 93 year old father in Craigsville. Their farm is called Spring Creek Farm. They’ve had this heirloom seed in their family for about 5 generations. Frances says she grew up eating polenta, except here, in West Virginia, everyone always called it “Corn Mush”.
“Polenta is, you know, it’s just a form of grits. With, you can put different cheeses in there for flavoring. But in the old days, they made grits, but they called it “mush.”
This morning, Tim Urbanic cuts the thick polenta into triangular wedges. He dusts it in flour and a bit of salt and pepper, and then fries it in oil.
Tim discovered this corn when he met Frances Meadows, at a “chef and farmer dialogue” event in 2004. At the meeting, Meadows said that her family's farm had more than a ton of Bloody Butcher corn, but she couldn't find a buyer. Tim has been using it in his restaurant ever since.
“It's an antique corn, and the seeds are very very hard to find.”
Indeed, these seeds are very rare, especially because few farmers even use their family's heirloom seeds anymore. Except for rare farmers like Frances Meadows, this history would be lost.
“It’s family tradition. I think it’s important if you’ve got an heirloom seed like that’s unchanged, I just think it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect that.”
Someone who agrees with Frances is Dr. Jim Veteto, an anthropologist based out of Yancey County, North Carolina. He’s spent the last 15 years researching heirloom vegetables throughout Appalachia.
“My research has shown that actually, central and southern Appalachia is the most diverse foodshed in most of North America. So all the U.S., Canada, and northern Mexico.”
Dr. Veteto also directs a seedbank called the Southern Seed Legacy Project, based out of Western Carolina University. This project helps encourage farmers throughout Appalachia, like Frances Meadows, and Larry Mustain, to save their family’s heirloom seeds.
“Most people I talk to talked about, 'well this is a part of our cultural heritage. It reminds me of my grandmother, who I used to farm with, I think of my mother. I think of my lost uncle.”
That’s why Frances is growing her family’s Bloody Butcher. Not only to help preserve her family’s history, but to continue the food history that her family is connected to.
"I mean, that’s what America was started out on, and I think the younger generation needs to keep that tradition going.”
(Click here for part one of this story.)