Last Bite: Edible Asheville
How many times a year do we drive over the mountain to see a show, grab a bite or a beer, to get a taste of Asheville’s distinct and different culture? We’d rather not check our bank statements. But are we ever excited about the June publication of edible Asheville, a new story-centered guide (and new sister publication) to what this part of the Appalachians has to offer us. We talked to editor Mark Essig to get a peek at the perspective behind what’s to come.
We’re so excited to hear about edible Asheville. Tell us what we can expect.
Asheville has an amazing food culture, and it’s high time we had an edible publication to give it the coverage it deserves. The publisher, Tennille Tracy, until recently worked at the Wall Street Journal as a food policy reporter, and my own background is in history and journalism. We’ll be bringing solid reporting, lively voices, and a deep appreciation for the past. There’s a lot of beer news to report, of course, and we’ll also tell the stories of farmers and ranchers finding innovative ways to make a living from hilly terrain. Some of Asheville’s best chefs are exploring the traditions of Southern Appalachian food, with its broad and unusual palate of farmed and foraged ingredients. Our first issue focuses on Appalachian beans and includes stories on greasy beans (a string bean with a hull that’s slick, not fuzzy) and leather britches, a traditional way of drying beans in the pod for winter use. The Washington Post just did a long feature on Appalachian food, and a new book—Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes—from the great Western North Carolina writer Ronni Lundy will be out in this summer. A lot of people are talking about Appalachian food, and we plan to be at the center of the conversation.
We’re also excited about your book, Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig. What’s the moment in your research, be it at the computer or at the table, that made you want to write a book about pigs?
I blame it on pig drives. After moving to Asheville nine years ago, I learned that in the nineteenth century tens of thousands of hogs were driven on the hoof through town each winter. My first reaction was delight. Who knew pigs could walk miles at a time, or would move in the required direction? The story had comic potential. But it also has a serious side. Those pigs were being driven from East Tennessee, a mini-Corn Belt region, down through Greenville and Spartanburg to the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia, where the planters grew cash crops and needed to buy food to feed their slaves. I love to cook and I love to eat, but the reason I write about food is that it reaches so deeply into the world of power and politics. This is true of all foods, but it’s especially true of pigs—a filthy creature, food for the poor, a sort of edible pet who devoured our leftovers before being devoured itself. The book covers ten thousand years of pig history, and I learned that this animal has always been wonderful and strange.
What’s the most fascinating thing you learned?
It’s so hard to pick! But here’s one thing that may be of interest to South Carolinians. We associate open-range livestock ranching with the American West, but the South preserved this practice for a surprisingly long time as well—until after the Civil War and in some areas, until after World War II. That meant livestock had the legal right to all land, public or private, that wasn’t protected by a fence. If you planted a field of corn, and your neighbor’s pig rooted it up, that was your fault for not building a good fence. As a result, you didn’t need to own land to keep livestock. Per capita, there were more swine in the South than in the Corn Belt. Pigs wandered lose in the streets of cities and towns, scavenging garbage. In rural areas they were turned loose in the woods to fatten on acorns and chestnuts. That’s one reason Southerners love pork so much—there were plenty of them around, and they tasted delicious.
What’s the best kitchen trick your mother taught you?
I’ll tell you about one of my grandmother’s kitchen tricks, which is almost a party trick. My grandmother spent her life in Rich Fountain, Missouri, a German-Catholic farming town, and she was a terrific baker. She had eight kids, so there was a lot of baking to do. I remember angel food cakes, cherry pies and cookies. She died 22 years ago, but I can still taste her ginger snaps and snickerdoodles and sugar cookies. Here’s the trick: When she pulled freshly baked cookies from the oven, she would give the edge of the cookie sheet one sharp rap, and all the cookies would slide onto the counter in perfect rows, not a single one broken. My mom—who inherited her mother’s baking skills—never mastered this trick, and neither have I. At least not yet.
What’s the one ingredient or tool in your kitchen you could never live without, and why?
I am that most clichéd of American males, the one who loves to cook outdoors. I have a gas grill for weeknight dinners, a kamado (the cheap kind, from Lowe’s) for smoking, and a Weber kettle for high-heat grilling and rotisserie cooking over hardwood charcoal. My wife’s a pescatarian, so I grill a lot of fish and vegetables. Fortunately our children eat meat, so I have an excuse to smoke pork butts and grill skirt steaks cowboy-style, right on the coals.
If you could share your table with two other food people, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d love to share a meal with Emeline Jones, a woman who was born a slave in Baltimore and ended up cooking for New York’s white elite. Her story was uncovered by David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has done so much to dig up the lost history of Southern food. A lot of quintessentially Southern ingredients—okra, peanuts, field peas—had their origins in Africa, and so many iconic Southern dishes were created by African-American chefs who never got their due. Jones offers us a glimpse of that lost history. She cooked in private homes and private clubs, making cornbread, chicken soup with okra, Virginia country ham with champagne sauce, or terrapin in brown gravy. I’d love to talk to her, and eat her food.
I’d also like to dine with A.J. Liebling. If you wonder why, I’d highly recommend Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.