We are grateful for Rachel Hampton’s permission to publish her essay from the Landscape, Food, & Culture course with Dr. Leah Bayens from Fall Semester 2019. Rachel is a student in the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College in Henry County, Kentucky.
A Culture Encased
by Rachel Breeden
So therefore in solemn worship of salt, dedicated to the unfathomable
variation in soil, and powerfully dependent on the pig…we forge ahead.
—Meredith Leigh, Pure Charcuterie
I stepped out of my car, hours away, and felt more at home than I ever had. The scent of leaf mulch was rich in the air and nearly overpowered me upon my first breath. I spun in the shadow of the mountains that surrounded me on all sides, and made a feeble attempt to take it in. Every time I turn from the main road and begin winding into these deep hills. I imagine myself as a small child tucked in the folds of a grandmother’s skirt. Is that why I feel such peace here? Or maybe it’s because the hills know my blood, having held my kin for six generations. Although I didn’t grow up in Appalachia my Poppy’s farm there has always been a second home to me, and I’ve held a tenderness toward it my entire life. There is no place in our state, or perhaps in our nation, that has been more ravaged, exploited, abused, desecrated, and abandoned than Appalachia. Yet, even while subject to such harsh treatment, this place and its people have persisted. Against all odds they have carried their stories, songs, names, histories, recipes and grit, and they remain.
Nothing embodies the perseverance and thrift of Appalachia and its people, quite like its charcuterie. Old smokehouses sit quietly behind so many homesteads, reminiscent of days long past when they were the life-breath of mountain families.
As long as there has been salt and meat every region, and people, have found their own ways to combine the two. Ours is a culmination of many styles and places, and still completely unique. Today the words “charcuterie” and “Appalachia” seem to stand in stark contrast. Charcuterie is fine dining on little wooden boards piled high with prosciutto, salamis, olives, and pungent cheese; not the country cooking and comfort food we remember in our granny’s kitchen. Yet, charcuterie persists in our southern cuisine under the disguise of fried bologna sandwiches, bacon, country ham, smoked hocks in a pot of weathered green beans, and spicy sausage patties sizzling in a cast-iron skillet.
There are many reasons why charcuterie, of all things, embodies Appalachian culture but it’s for a wide array of reasons. One is simply logistics, the need for the ability to store and transport meat. Many reasons are because of the characteristics of pigs as livestock in general, giving folks ready access to pork, and also because the Appalachian region is well suited, geographically speaking, for curing meat.
Charcuterie, pork, and pigs have a long, tangled history across the globe, and the United States is no exception. Cured meats were born from pure necessity. Before refrigeration, salt and a root cellar were a family’s only hope of having meat throughout the year. I often forget that my own grandmother grew up with an icebox and not a refrigerator. But everything happens slower in Appalachia. While my grandparents in the North were getting air conditioning in their homes, my relatives in the mountains were finally getting electricity. Although refrigerators were invented about a hundred years ago, that doesn’t mean everyone had the electricity to run them, access to purchase one, or excess money to invest in such a luxury. Which means they were still using the original ways of preserving food, and pork was the meat for the job. In Lesser Beasts author Mark Essig writes, “Cured beef or mutton often tastes like shoe leather, but pork- as bacon and ham lovers know-only gets better. In the time before artificial refrigeration, which has existed for less than 1 percent of recorded history, it provided a year-round source of protein.” (Essig 9). This reason alone gained pork quite a bit of popularity. But, just as important was the ability to export pork across countries and oceans in the “New World’ or send rations to the front lines of an army on the move. Only a food with the ability to store and travel had any hope of making its way onto the plates of the masses.
But it was as much the qualities of the pig itself that gained its popularity on the table. A friend recently stated that pigs are the “zucchini of the animal kingdom,” and she couldn’t have been more accurate. Piglets grow quickly from a three-pound newborn to a full-grown hog of nearly three hundred pounds in just six months. Even prior to selective breeding for earlier growth, pigs were still some of the fastest-growing animals compared to their herbivorous counterparts. With a gestation period of less than four months a sow can farrow two, or even three, litters in a year. And, in contrast to other barnyard critters producing twins and triplets, at best, a sow will raise eight to twelve piglets or more. Mothers can be ferocious in defending their nests and also very elaborate in building them and smart enough to pick out a good location naturally sheltered from the elements. My poppy had a sow once that farrowed in a small opening, about three feet wide, between two huge rocks where she was sheltered from the wind and the rain. All they had to do was hand her a bit of hay and stretch a tarp across the top of the opening.
Pigs can easily be counted on to fend for themselves and let loose into the woods to eat acorns and hickory nuts. Forests in England were often quantified by how many hogs they could raise, as opposed to acres, because it was a more valuable measurement. When brought outside of the woods, they’re better related to vultures than vegetables. Whoever claimed goats would eat anything apparently hadn’t reached the pigsty yet. Essig puts it this way, “Pigs are the weediest domestic animal-opportunistic, tough, and fecund. Like rats, they can live nearly anywhere; unlike rats, they taste good.” (Essig 121) This thrifty attribute had varying effects on the swine reputation. For peasants who had no forests, or lived in cities without pasture for other stock, a pig could be counted on to rustle up his own meal in the city streets. He would eat all kinds of refuse and small animals, it certainly wasn’t the best diet, but eating the porker would certainly be better than starving to death yourself.
Once we crossed the ocean, with the city streets behind us, life changed significantly for both man and pig. Hogs were again turned out into the woods, which were more than ideal. The Native Americans had been selecting nut-bearing trees for their own culinary uses and the pigs had no trouble taking advantage of their bounty. They would also eat mice and even snakes, pinning them under a hoof at one end, and slurping them down like a fat noodle at the other. They would stand on the shore watching the ocean tide and run out into the damp ground to root up clams. Native Americans eventually begged for protection from the beasts as they preceded the colonists in pushing them from their lands and at the same time stealing nearly all of their food supply:
‘But these English have gotten our land, they with their scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved.’ Mattagund, an Indian leader in Maryland, made a similar plea: ‘You come too near us to live & drive us from place to place,’ he wrote to the British in 1666. ‘We can fly no farther. Let us know where to live & how to be secured for the future from the hogs & cattle.’ (qtd. In Essig 143)
The pig in early colonial America was basically a weapon of warfare. According to the Livestock Law you were required to fence out your crops, and the fence had to be “bull strong, horse high, and pig tight” for the owner to receive any compensation for lost crops or damaged property. In Appalachia the Livestock Law was still in effect (if not legally, socially) as late as the 1950s. On our family’s farm, the cattle herds would roam the mountains all summer grazing, and once the corn was put up in November they would turn the pigs out to eat whatever was left in the field and scour the hillsides for nuts. They wouldn’t be brought back into the dry lots until the crops were set out again in spring.
As families began to push further west, coming through the Cumberland Gap, we nestled into the heart of Appalachia. This was the perfect place to raise swine and to craft New World charcuterie. The Appalachian region was settled by a wide variety of people – many English families, Germans, and the Scots-Irish, who had been displaced twice now. I often look at the rough and unforgiving terrain and wonder why they all stayed. Did they simply run out of steam to go any further? Were they hiding out or squatting (both of which are still happening in the area today, mind you), or maybe the Scots saw a piece of land reminiscent of a homeplace they would likely never see again. Charcuterie was a way for these people to make a new food indicative of their new lives here and also a way to connect them to their homelands left far behind, often with little choice. Mike Costello at Lost Creek Farm articulated this connection really well: “Perhaps we don’t have legitimate Iberico hogs necessary to produce Spanish jamon, but I’ve spent a great deal of time with Spanish sausage makers who still make traditional chorizo, longaniza, and morcilla in north-central West Virginia. For these folks, the sausages certainly tell a story about Appalachia, but also about their connection to a place half-way around the world. For immigrant communities who lost certain elements of their culture like their language, their music, etc., food is one of the few pillars of culture they can express so tangibly, and something so regionally specific, like sausage is a way for them to connect directly with their ancestors.” (Costello) Regardless of the reason that brought them here, or made them decide to stay, all of these cultures, and more, converged in the hills to keep old traditions alive and make new ones through a bit of pork, a pinch of salt, and a little smoke.
The mountains of Appalachia, similar to the east coast, were still covered with oaks, chestnuts, and hickories when the settlers arrived, giving pigs a hefty diet throughout the fall and winter. This forest provided plenty of ideal wood to fuel the smokehouses and flavor meat. There were also numerous salt mines in the region, one of which is still operating today as a seventh-generation mine in West Virginia.
The climate itself is also ideal for curing meat. According to Beth Drennan at Broadbent Hams, “For these early settlers, these were the only states that had the perfect climate for curing meats. In northern states, there would be deeper freezes and the salt would not have time to penetrate the meat before a deep freeze. In the more southern states, if there were a few warm days, the meat might spoil before the salt had time to do its job. That’s why when you get further North and West, they aren’t familiar with Country Ham.” (Drennan)
In addition to having perfect climatic conditions the hog farmers in the mountains had a ready market for excess animals. If cattle drives are the epitome of the Wild West then hog drives are our own inheritance. In fact, in early colonial America there were about five times as many hogs being driven than all other animals combined. Essig elaborates on this estimation when he says, “Hog droving…involved hundreds of thousands of animals during peak years and on some routes lasted nearly a century. From Kentucky alone, as many as 100,000 hogs per year were driven east to Richmond, Baltimore, and Philadelphia…the route through the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky…came to be called the ‘Kaintuck Hog Road’ after its most frequent traveler.” (Essig 164) In addition to traveling to the east coast, Cincinnati became the country’s largest processing center for hogs with easy access to send barrels of salt pork down the Ohio River. There are still parts of the culture that remain, including the Flying Pig Marathon and a stronghold of sausage makers. You’ll find German goetta boasting a place on many diner menus in the city still today. With butchers ready at hand to buy a surplus of animals, mountain-dwelling farmers had every motivation to produce as many pigs as they could, and they also had the surplus to gamble with new recipes in the smokehouse.
Realizing how isolated the region is, hog killings, charcuterie and farming at a family level persisted much longer here than in other parts of the country. Even today, many families truly rely on homegrown meat and game such as venison to fill their freezer. Though there are now grocery stores in town, and public assistance for families that need it, not all of them have reliable vehicles to get to a store, and hunting is literally how they’re putting food on the table that day for their families.
Agriculture in Appalachia is different than engagement with the land anywhere else because farming can’t be entirely commodified or industrialized there. Outside of coal and timber, obviously, there isn’t the same level of industrialization we see elsewhere. It’s simply not possible to operate large scale equipment on the landscape. To build a machine for a function you have to have one thing, and that’s predictability. The mountains completely defy anything predictable. Most people still rely on the land directly for their needs. According to K.S. Warren in A History of Knox County, “Knox County consists of approximately 238,720 acres of land. Of this approximately 36% is devoted to farming…There are today more than nine hundred farms in the county with an average size of eighty-nine acres.” (Warren 193) The folks in Knox county residing on farms or on small homesteads still rely on the mountains. They cut firewood, dip water from a well and gather blackberries in summertime. They’re staying physically engaged with their place every single day to meet their needs. People living in the mountains know fully well that they can’t control the land. Every time you go out into the woods you have to watch for predators from rattlesnakes all the way up to cougars and black bears. Appalachia is still a bit wild, and many folks who live there realize that it will never be fully tamed. Convinced, bribed, stolen from, caressed…..maybe…but tamed? No. The rest of us, on land that is easier to take advantage of, are unfortunately still learning this lesson.
Appalachia has long memory, along with her inhabitants. Mountain people are storytellers– some of the best in my opinion. When I came to visit, my poppy met me at the door and had started a story before I had even sat down. He talked for hours about our history in the hollow there. We often walk through the family cemeteries, and he’ll tell me about a great-grandfather who was a surgeon or someone who was a deputy or a magistrate, and who died in which war, and about the time a pair of brothers had a shootout in the middle of a church service. I don’t know how he remembers it all and keeps everyone straight, I still haven’t gotten them down quite yet. Stories are how we learn a place in detail, how it becomes alive in fullness, as it exists today but also a hundred or a thousand years ago. It’s in well-told stories that the veil of time recedes and you see a place for what it is beyond our own ambitions and interaction. I begin to find comfort in the idea that long after someone has spread my ashes over the mountains, or into the creekbed, that the birds will still sing just a sweet, the sound of the creek will still lull anyone wise enough to listen, and that the mountains will still stand, a testament to the short lives we’ve led in a place eternal.
As well as being avid storytellers, my people give every place a name. Rattlesnake Rock (shown at right), Slick Rock, Gobbler’s Knob, The Peak, The South Mountain, Goudy Branch, Mill Branch, The Cliff Bottom… How are you supposed to discuss a place without a name? How are you supposed to watch a place change over time if you have no words for it? The coal and logging companies have no names for my place other than profit. It’s clear to see how much they mean to them. They don’t put them back together, and they wouldn’t wipe their boots before coming through your door. They don’t need to know the names of these places because they’re just moving onto someplace else next week. A job number is all they need.
We’re staying here. We’re living here. If I see a cougar on a hillside I’d better be able to tell somebody where that is. If I find a hillside teeming with blackberries I’d better remember that spot for next summer. I don’t notice things that don’t have names. I recently began learning the names of plants, and I see them more often now. I never did before, although I’m sure they were there. I wouldn’t know Rattlesnake Rock from the hundreds around it, if it didn’t have a name. It would just be a big rock instead of a place with a name and a story that actually mean something to me. As a culture we don’t often recognize know the power in knowing a name, or telling a story, but in Appalachia they still do.
Stories have an amazing ability to transport us across time and space. I’ve spent many rainy afternoons in a bit of a cloud, not wholly convinced I’m back in the present year, or the present place, with some book I’ve gotten caught up in, still ringing in my ears and mind. Food, much the same, also bridges that gap. Everytime I make strawberry jam I close my eyes, and I’m instantly standing in my grandmother’s kitchen five hundred miles away. It almost comes as a bit of a relief to me to know that no matter how many years pass, or how long it’s been since I’ve stood in her kitchen, that I will always be able to conjure her home and her love through the boiling of ripe summer berries and a mound of sugar.
But, charcuterie is more than food. It’s more than history and it’s even more than keeping your kids from starving. Charcuterie is gleaning from your ancestors, but it’s also taking from the place your feet stand on right now and making something new. It is learning ingredients and seasons and nature and celebrating food. This morning I picked juniper berries while the world was still covered with dew, and although my fingertips burned with the cold, it was splendid. I wouldn’t have walked out into the forest and smelled cedar trees or heard the birds chatter today if I hadn’t gone out picking berries. You miss out on life itself if you aren’t involved in growing and foraging food, and there is no higher craft than curing meat. You have to yield yourself to mold and mystery, completely let go of control, and let nature takeover. Most of us don’t know how to do that anymore. That is why I love Appalachia. That is why I need Appalachia. It reminds me how small I am, when mountains tower around me, they put me in my place. I am but a speck in a huge, and amazing world, that should never cease to astound me, and that I should never cease to be in awe of.
Essig, Mark Regan. Lesser Beasts a Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig. Basic Books, 2015.
This book was my primary resource. Most of the history I included of the pig in society was paraphrased from this book.
Leigh, Meredith. Pure Charcuterie: The craft and poetry of curing meats at home. New
Society Publishers, 2018.
This book is mostly recipes but Meredith writes a really eloquent forward. The opening quote, and the one toward the end are both from the forward of this book. I’ve sent her some interview questions and I’m hoping she’ll respond in time for me to incorporate them.
Warren, King Solomon. The History of Knox County, Kentucky. Daniel Boone Festival, Inc, 1976.
I pulled a few statistics out of this book about the shape of agriculture in the county in the mid-seventies. It didn’t have as much information as I had hoped about agriculture.
Lewis, Michael. Personal interview. 10 November 2019
I spent an hour interviewing Michael. I wasn’t able to incorporate as much as I wanted. He was raised in Appalachia and his grandmother farmed a lot. My reference to folks having to hunt for deer because they didn’t have anything else to eat came out of my interview with him. He had a lot of good information about life in the mountains in general but just not much I could work into this particular paper.
Warren, Bige. Personal interview. 16 November 2019.
I got to listen to my poppy tell me stories for a few hours and I worked in a few pieces of what he told me. Along with a few “classics” I’ve been hearing told and retold my whole life.
Beth Drennan. Personal interview. 11 November 2019.
Beth had some great insight. She works for Broadbent Hams in western Kentucky. The best thing I pulled from her interview was the point about our climate lending itself to charcuterie.
Costello, Mike. Personal interview. 18 November 2019.
Mike was so amazing and I’m really hoping to work in more of his stories. He’s a farmer and charcuterie maker at Lost Creek Farm. He talked a lot about “lower” charcuterie and the stuff that people are looked down on for, the disparity in the charcuterie world. It ranges from high-class society to slim jims basically. And also how and why charcuterie persisted and how it connected people back to their home countries which I thought was extremely crucial.