Reading the introduction to the just-released Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly, you might think this is going to be one of those spiral-bound potluck affairs with Xeroxed photos and hundreds of recipe contributors. And that author Joan E. Aller is surely a culinary historian or local food luminary who was raised in the Southern Appalachian region, that mountain range that runs through a half-dozen states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, maybe a few others, depending on who you ask). It is, after all, a rather niche history-driven regional cookbook.
Nope. This part history/part cookbook is brought to you by a major publishing house and includes beautiful photographs taken by Aller, a California native who moved to the mountains of Eastern Tennessee several decades ago. With today's bookstore shelves so littered with cookbooks from food celebrities, bloggers and journalists, it can be easy to forget that everyday home cooks (cooks without blogs) write great cookbooks, too. Really great cookbooks.
Aller begins by introducing her home. “My place, in the midst of this abundance of nature, is back in a mountain hollow on a bad dirt road surrounded by forest, wild blackberries, mountain critters, wildflowers, a few neighbors, and a passel of 'dawgs.'” We like this place already. Then she guides us through a refreshingly recipe-free history of Southern Appalachia's settlers over the centuries: the native Cherokee, Melungeons, Spanish and French settlers who brought African slaves, and later European-American settlers from other parts of the United States. These are the original cooks of the Appalachian mountains.
You get the sense this cookbook of local lore is actually a time line of Aller's personal discovery of her newfound homeland. The fry breads, Kentucky “hot brown” (turkey-bacon-Colby cheese sandwich drenched in Tabasco-spiked milk gravy), stews, pulled pork, and Appalachian tarts, pies and fritters. That personal sense of chocolate gravy discovery is precisely why this book is so charming.
You'll also find recipes for somewhat tired classics, like the ubiquitous blue cheese ball (an amalgamation of cream cheese, blue cheese and Worcestershire sauce, shaped into a ball and rolled in chopped walnuts) that you might recognize as the mysterious, dense orb on virtually every Southern cocktail party and holiday buffet table. Yet somehow Aller manages to give even that cream cheese oddity a renewed intrigue — maybe it's the interesting sidebar on the history of the Appalachian Trail history (no silly sidebars or text boxes with obvious “tips”).
Not to worry, most of the recipes are more interesting, like that Cherokee pepper pot soup (beef short ribs stewed with tomatoes, onions, turnips, potatoes and corn) and German bierocks (cabbage and meat pies from the German-Americans who trickled down from Pennsylvania) among the savory dishes. And yes, the breads and sweets are laden with butter and sugar. But remember, this is the South, where people bake to share.
There's a Melungeon “friendship” bread recipe (the starter recipe makes enough to share with two neighbors) and a “mountain molasses stack cake” (get the recipe here), an ingenious party custom. Guests guests bring a cake layer for the hostess to smear with fresh apple butter and pile on top of other gifted layers until a towering buffet table masterpiece is created. If the cake falls over, no matter, as there's always plenty of homemade Appalachian wine (made with whatever fruit that you happen to have on hand), or come mid-summer, a dandelion version, to forget any minor party mishaps.