Moonshine, Chow Chow, Sausage Gravy and … shattering stereotypes.

Hands Across the Hills inspires local foodies to explore Appalachian culture through cuisine

  • A cook book brought to a Five College Learning in Retirement class about Appalachia. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • As part of their seminar, the group made bean salad, spoon bread, corn chowder and Pepperoni bread, traditional foods from the region. Shown below is a gingerbread cake. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ellen Kosmer, Katy vanGeel, Suzette Jones, Gail Gaustad, Mary Herman, Nina Scott and Betsey Johnson, listen to a presentation about Appalachia as part of a Five College Learning in Retirement class. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The group prepared dishes like spoon bread and gingerbread cake while delving into Appalachian culture.

  • As part of a Five College Learning in Retirement class about Appalachia the group made ginger bread cake, a traditional foods from the region. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • As part of a Five College Learning in Retirement class about Appalachia the group made ginger bread cake, a traditional foods from the region. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Chocolate Gravy Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • Buttermilk Biscuits Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • Corn Chowder Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • Kale Potato Pancakes Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • At right, Buttermilk Biscuits with White Sausage Gravy and Chow Chow.

  • Soup Beans Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • Sweet Tea Spiced Courtesy Katy van Geel

  • Photo Courtesy Tyll van Geel Photo Courtesy Tyll van Geel

Published: 6/24/2019 2:11:04 PM
Modified: 6/24/2019 2:10:52 PM

Katy van Geel had the initial idea for a Five College Learning in Retirement seminar on Appalachian food and culture. She had read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and was inspired by stories of the cultural exchange between residents of Leverett and Letcher County, Kentucky called Hands Across the Hills (HATH). She and Nina Scott are also passionate cooks and have co-moderated similar seminars. They invited two members of the Leverett HATH group, Judi Fonsh and Pat Fiero, to share some of their experiences.

Appalachia, bound more by culture than definitive geographic boundaries, stretches from southern New York to Alabama and Mississippi. But how does one study “Appalachian” food? How, for example, might one distinguish between “Southern” dishes and those thought of as uniquely “Appalachian?” Especially when so many dishes overlap the two cuisines — cornbread, biscuits and gravy, fried apples, chicken with dumplings, sorghum syrup and soul food (collard greens, ham hocks, sweet potato casseroles, corn pudding, coconut cream cakes). Rice features prominently in southern dishes, as does cane sugar and seafood (crayfish, oysters, shrimp, crabs). But seafood in landlocked Appalachia would be available only in canned form to people who had access to a grocery store. Potatoes feature prominently in Appalachia, because it has the climate to hold seed potatoes over from one season to another. And plentiful forests have provided hunters with wild game, like turkeys, squirrels, groundhogs, rabbits and possums.

Eight of us met in each other’s homes for ten weeks. In addition to researching topics in Appalachian history and culture — European, African-American and Latino immigration; the environmental effects of coal mining and logging; geography; language; stereotypes; music; politics; poverty; welfare; opioids; moonshine and bourbon — we prepared foods from Appalachian cookbooks. Many of the foods were unknown to the group, including molasses pie, pawpaw custard, pepperoni rolls, biscuits with chocolate gravy, vinegar pie, soup beans, pickled baloney, chow chow and apple stack cake (spoiler alert: that one is a ton of work!). We included recipes from some of our favorites below.

The ingredients used in Appalachian cooking reveal the cultures of the different settlers: Native American corn, beans and squash; African okra, sweet potatoes and sorghum; Scots-Irish beef and pork; German/Austrian layered tortes (like the apple stack cake) and the use of pickling as a preservative. Not everything the cooks prepared was perfection, but as Suzette Jones put it, “Failure is good!” Van Geel, perhaps the most adventurous of the group, tried all sorts of dishes new to her and never took short cuts, but sighed at one point, “I’ve tried a number of things I’ve never made before, and some of them are quite throw-outable!” Others, though, were definite keepers.

The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest on the planet, and the terrain furthered enclaves of population. Many have lived together for generations. The HATH group found this out on their initial trip to Whitesburg, Kentucky. Some Kentuckians’ families went back two-hundred years, and they liked it that way (“being with my people”), whereas many from Leverett were new to western Massachusetts, and included children of Holocaust survivors. When they got to know each other better, one woman from Kentucky, initially anti-immigrant, remarked, “I can’t dislike immigrants anymore.”

One quandary we had was how to pronounce “Appalachia.” Was it Appa-lay-cha, or Appa-latch-a? A call to Berea College’s Appalachian Center clarified that it was a geographic thing: south of the Mason-Dixon line it was generally Appa-latch-a; north thereof Appa-lay-cha, although “there are pockets of divergence.” Berea College in Berea, Kentucky was founded as an interracial, coeducational school in 1855. Its motto was and is: “God hath made of one blood all nations of men.” In 1904 Kentucky mandated segregation by law; the school was re-integrated in 1950. All its students come from Appalachia and must be low-income to apply; none pay tuition and all work in some capacity at the college. A craft store on the premises features beautiful woodwork, brooms, ceramics and weavings made by students.

In their hardscrabble environment, mountaineers depended on hunting and foraging for some of their food. Gerry Harvey from Hadley, an expert in foraging, led the group on an excursion along the rail trail, which taught us about all manner of plants we didn’t know were edible, such as sheep sorrel, garlic mustard, tender stalks of Japanese knotweed, violets and dandelion blossoms. The knotweed was sour and not unlike rhubarb; Jones wondered if some sugar would help, and Scott thought perhaps bourbon might, too. Sorrel soup with sautéed wild onions was tasty, as were violets and dandelion petals as part of a salad.

Foraging for spring greens used to be popular locally, as well as in Appalachia. Gail Gaustad has an 1883 diary from one of her Amherst Dickinson ancestors, and shared these entries: “May 9: Wallie came over here to pick greens. He got a bushel. May 19: We had greens for supper.”

Of course, we sampled bourbon and moonshine. Ellen Kosmer had recently been to West Virginia and brought back a proper Mason jar filled with “white lightning,” while Scott bought a bottle of moonshine made in Connecticut (all she could get here, and not as good as Kosmer’s). Scott phoned Gwen Johnson of the Kentucky group about moonshine versus bourbon, and Johnson told her that in her area, drinking one or the other was a “class” thing. She is from a family of coal miners, whom she described as “black-collar workers,” and added, “They don’t drink red.” Red, we learned, refers to aged whiskey in oak barrels.

Our seminar was a mind-stretching experience for all. Kosmer wrote that, “Before the course began, I thought of Appalachia as ‘that place where maybe you should have a passport to get there,’ but this experience opened up a whole new world. I now want to know more about it and do more traveling in that area of the country.”

Can’t ask for more.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Gravies

Servings: 12-18

Biscuit Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

1 cup cold buttermilk


3 tablespoons melted butter


Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until crumbs are about the size of peas. Add the buttermilk, then stir gently just until the dough starts to come together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 5-6 times. Pat into a rectangle; fold the left third over, do the same with the right side. Give the dough a quarter turn, and repeat the folding process once more; pat the dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle.

Cut out biscuits using a cookie cutter, then transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 450°F for 14-16 minutes until the tops are golden. Brush with melted butter.

Cool slightly, split biscuits, and pour on the gravy.

White Sausage Gravy

Servings: 4


¼ pound pork sausage

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

½ tsp salt

½ tsp white pepper (to keep the gravy white)


In a large skillet over medium heat, break the sausage into small pieces while you fry it. When the sausage is no longer pink, stir in the flour. The sausage grease should absorb all the flour (add a little oil if necessary).

Whisk in the milk, salt, and pepper. When the milk boils, reduce the heat and simmer 1 minute or until the mixture is as thick as pancake batter.

Cook over low heat 5-15 minutes until the gravy thickens, stirring every few minutes. Remove from the heat and reheat before serving. If the gravy is too thick, add a little add milk, water, or heavy cream.

Chocolate Gravy


1 cup sugar

⅓ cup cocoa powder

3 tablespoons flour

Pinch of salt

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla


In a large saucepan, whisk together the sugar, cocoa powder, flour, and salt. Add the milk and whisk until combined. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla until the butter has melted.

Soup Beans

Servings: 8


1 pound dried soup (pinto) beans

½ pound salt pork

1 small onion

1 garlic clove

1 tsp salt


Day 1: Sort the beans and rinse them well in a colander, then put them to soak in a big bowl with cold water at a level a couple of inches higher than the beans. Leave them at room temperature overnight.

Day 2: Skim off and discard any skins that have floated to the top. Put the beans and any soaking water into a heavy pot with a lid, and add more water to reach about an inch above the beans. Nestle the salt pork into the beans.

Peel the onion and garlic cloves; nestle them into the beans as well. Bring the water to a boil, then turn it to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook the beans at a simmer until they are very soft and tender. Depending on the age, and therefore the dryness, of the beans, this can take from 1-2 hours.

Remove the salt pork, the onion, and the garlic from the pot and stir in the salt. Allow the beans to simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes or so to let the salt soak in. Taste, and add more salt if needed.

Serve hot. Good with a skillet of cornbread. Crumble bacon, green onions, and/or chow chow on top.

Chow Chow (topping for Soup Beans)

Servings: 12


1 cup cabbage or 1 green tomato

1 red bell pepper

1 medium onion

1 small cucumber

1 tbsp salt

¼ cup sugar

1 tsp ground mustard

½ tsp turmeric

⅓ cup white vinegar

⅓ cup water


Chop, grate, or dice the cabbage or tomato, pepper, onion, and cucumber. Combine. Measure 4 cups of raw vegetables into a bowl. Mix with the salt. Cover and let stand most of the day or overnight.

Drain the vegetables and rinse off most of the salt.

Transfer to a saucepan and stir in the sugar, mustard, turmeric, vinegar, and water. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Spoon on top of soup beans. May also spread on top of hamburgers, crackers, etc.

Kale Potato Pancakes

Servings: 6-12


3 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes


1½ pounds kale

Olive oil

3 whole green onions, finely chopped

5 ounces Asiago cheese, shredded

Freshly ground black pepper

4 eggs, beaten


Peel the potatoes, quarter them, and place them in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water, add a teaspoon of salt, place over high heat, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes.

While the potatoes are boiling, rinse the kale well, remove the stems, and coarsely chop the leaves. Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a wide heavy skillet and add the kale, a few handfuls at a time, with a little salt. Sauté until just wilted. If you prefer it softer, cook it a little longer.

When the potatoes are done, remove the pot from the heat and drain them. Mash them in a large bowl until they have a creamy consistency (a few small lumps are OK).

Combine the kale with the potatoes. Add the green onions and the cheese. Taste for salt and pepper, then add the eggs and mix thoroughly.

Pat the potato-kale mixture into cakes approximately 3 inches in diameter and about ½-inch thick.

Pour olive oil into a heavy skillet until about ¼-inch deep and place it over medium heat. When a bit of the potato mixture flicked into the skillet dances, add 3 or 4 patties. Fry, turning the patties over when they are crisp and golden, cooking them each side for about 3 minutes. Adjust the heat to keep them from burning; add oil if necessary. When they are golden on both sides, transfer them to a rack lined with paper towels to drain. Keep them warm in the oven while you fry the remaining patties.

Corn Chowder

Servings: 4


1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 strip of bacon

½ large yellow onion, chopped

½ large carrot, chopped

½ celery stalk, chopped

3 ears of corn, kernels removed from the cobs

3½ cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 medium potato, peeled and diced

¼ cup red bell pepper, chopped

Salt and pepper

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves


In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the bacon and fry until it renders its fat, but doesn't begin to brown. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the carrot and celery and cook for 4-5 more minutes.

Break the corn cobs in half and add them to the saucepan. Add milk and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a bare simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. The heat should be as low as possible and still maintain a gentle simmer.

Discard the cobs, the bacon strip, and the bay leaf. Raise the heat, add the potato, red pepper, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to maintain a simmer until the potatoes are almost fork tender.

Add the corn kernels and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Sweet Tea Spiced


3 quarts water

1 tsp whole cloves

3 sticks cinnamon

6 tea bags

Juice of 3 oranges and 3 lemons

1 ½ cups sugar

2 cups water


Boil together the water, cloves, cinnamon, and tea bags. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Boil the juices, sugar, and water. When clear, add to tea mixture.

Strain and serve hot.

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