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«Alex Howle Virginia Food Heritage May 6, 2012 Introduction: Virginia is a destination for both food and history. History buffs travel from all 50 ...»

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Preparing our Food Heritage:

Promoting Cooking that Engages with

our Heritage and Sense of Place

Alex Howle

Virginia Food Heritage

May 6, 2012


Virginia is a destination for both food and history. History buffs travel from all 50

states to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Civil War battlefields, and other historical sites and

communities.1 The Commonwealth also boasts fertile and scenic lands from the coast

to the mountains, certainly a contributing factor to the range of history that has taken place here. In Central Virginia, small farms engage with their longstanding heritage by sustaining surrounding communities. These two regional assets do, in fact, have common ground. The intersection of the Virginia’s rich history and its deep agricultural and culinary traditions serves as a basis for the heritage of food preparation. Food is important not just as a means of sustenance, but also as an indicator of the culture, climate, and inclinations of a place and its people. In the Thomas Jefferson five-county region, the cooking and preparations of foods further defines the area as a distinct historical and cultural area.

The region currently benefits from the economic and cultural stimulus of a connection with both history and food, but there it is also room to grow the area’s unique food heritage for the benefit of community, the environment, health, and the economy.

Though the scope of food heritage is expansive and inclusive – covering production, processing, retail, preparation and consumption, as well as celebration – there is particular opportunity to make the most of the region’s heritage cooking. Seeking out and collecting food stories, interviews, recipes, remembrances, and an inventory of historic edible plant varieties supports the continuation of the region’s food heritage.

Additionally, promoting cooking classes in schools and in the community that focus on                                                                                                                            Rypkema. Donovan D., Virginia’s Economy and Historic Preservation: The Impact of Preservation on Jobs, Business, and Community (Staunton, Virginia: Preservation Alliance of Virginia, 1995).

  2     heritage foods allow children and community members alike to engage with the history of food and preserve it for future generations through continued use. By encouraging the documentation, preservation, and continuation of heritage foods and preparations in the Thomas Jefferson five-county region, the area can become more engaged with its history, food system, and culture, which will foster an enhanced sense of place, optimal economic activity, and a more sustainable future.

Why Food Heritage?

Food Heritage in Virginia encompasses more than just old recipes and heirloom varieties; food heritage is personal, powerful, and evolving. At the regional scale, foods grown or raised historically as well as traditional ways of preparing them represent a general food heritage, but at the familial and individual level, food heritage becomes more emotional and deeply connected to personal experience and habit. Though this more personal heritage may not fit exactly within the regional context (for instance, a family tradition of having lobsters at Christmas in a landlocked state!), the continuation and honoring of significant histories and foods is important to the culture of a place.

America is a melting pot that has imported (and exported) a myriad of food traditions that have strewed within a new geography and culture to become new and distinctive.

Food heritage, like culture itself, changes and adapts to new environments and new situations. This evolution is representative of historical and local trends and changes as well. The oft forgotten role of food in the chain of history is important to complete a full image of a place and its culture.

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culture, food heritage, like historic preservation, can be utilized as a powerful means of environmental and economic resiliency. In an age where food has become insecure and in even dangerous, reflection on a historical, locally-based food system can allow a region to envision a future in which the region is able to fully sustain itself and its communities.2 A locally-based cycle of production and consumption allows economic capital to flow within a region; therefore, benefiting the region economically.3 This reliance on a local region promotes trust and accountability among growers and consumers. The economic leakage that results from a failure to support and engage a local food system (that also promotes heritage food) deprives the region of both profit and independence.4 A region that produces, processes, distributes, sells, prepares, and consumes its own food is agriculturally and economically resilient. This system upholds and fosters a historically based, yet evolving food heritage.

Heritage Food Preparation:

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traditional fruits, vegetables, meats, and other food products that establish a connection with the past and further the resilience and distinctiveness of the region. With new ways of cooking and newer more efficient appliances and utensils, historic methods, and often tastes, are being lost and forgotten.5 Recipes and preparations either wane or adapt as heritage breeds and varieties disappear. As food heritage can accommodate                                                                                                                            Cobb, Tanya Denckla, Reclaiming Our Food (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2011), 171.    Bendfeldt, Eric, et al, A Community-Based Food System: Building Health, Wealth, Connection, and Capacity as the Foundation of Our Economic Future (Virginia Cooperative Extension, 2011), 3.    Ibid.    Interview  with  Elizabeth  Ferguson  

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continuing and honoring old preparations in the modern world provides a link to the distinctive regional food culture. Today, food has become merely an anonymous product one buys at a store or restaurant; however, before the industrialization of food, there were strong communal and personal connections between the farmer, the market, and the consumer that grounded food and preparations to a sense of place.6 Regional distinctiveness was not a choice or a goal for which to strive, but merely the way of life.

The content and origin of foods were transparent and accountable. This openness and trust allowed the region to develop unique and personal food preparations. By continuing or returning to a food environment with transparency, regional significance, and historical precedent, a powerful sense of place can be reestablished and enhanced for the Thomas Jefferson five-county region.

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time consuming. Historically, things were cooked a certain way because of the limited tools, resources, and technology available. Today, fitting heritage food preparations into modern schedules and eating habits may seem difficult and inconvenient.

However, historic recipes can and must adapt to cultural changes in order to survive.

There certainly is something to be said for continuing or recreating historic methods of preparation, like churning butter, but to truly and realistically accommodate heritage foods into our everyday lives, some changes must be made. For instance, compare preserving heritage food preparations to preserving a historic building: both need to be used to survive, but both also need some sort of updating for the way we live now. In                                                                                                                          

 Sokolov, Raymond, Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods (Boston:

David R. Godine Publisher, 1998), 3.

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document heritage preparations, recipes, and stories to be used as a benchmark for teaching heritage cooking skills in the context of modernity. Some foods will no longer be available, while others will taste differently. However, the more awareness of heritage there is in the regional food system, the more ingredients and food products will reflect the regional food heritage. Starting with fresh, local, and seasonal food (whether strictly considered heritage or not) to prepare regional or personal heritage recipes both supports the growing of a new, regional food heritage and represents the evolution of food and the region.

Heritage Food Preparation Preservation: Appalachian Food Storybank

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and document traditional recipes and food practices that have been an important part of the identity of the area. This is the idea that spurred the formation of the Appalachian Food Storybank in Asheville, North Carolina. The Appalachian Food Storybank is a newly founded organization that collects recipes, stories, and interviews that document heritage foods within a 100-mile radius of Asheville, NC.7 It started as a program of Show Food Asheville and seeks to preserve the personal connections people have with their food and heritage as both a service to the families and individuals who remember historic foods and preparations and an effort to maintain a sense of place and history for the region’s diverse and unique foods.8 The project gathers recipes and other material for their website, which provides the region with an accessible and engaging database                                                                                                                            Patty, Susannah. Phone Interview by author. Charlottesville, VA to Asheville, NC. April 19, 2012.    Ibid.  

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personal connections or networks and attendance to regional food events and festivals, like 2011’s Mountain State Fair, where they set up a “Storybooth” in which to conduct interviews about people’s food heritage.

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and archive” the personal stories, memories, and histories of the Asheville region to provide a link to food heritage in the future.9 This will preserve local food stories and practices for future generations. By promoting the documentation of “local knowledge, natural resources, and food biodiversity,” the Appalachian Food Storybank forges connections between the past and the future as a service to those with local food acumen as well was for educational purposes. By compiling stories, histories, growing techniques, recipes, and other foodways, the program provides the public with a shared accessible resource. They also hope as they acquire more and more food heritage documentation, the local university (UNC Asheville) can become a partner as a repository to hold, protect, and promote their archive.10 By gaining more information on heritage food preparations, the food traditions that have been lost or are at risk are indentified and can be targeted for continuation or revival. The Appalachian Food Storybank can become a powerful resource of local heritage food knowledge that can be mined to promote the continuation of heritage food preparations through cookbooks, cooking classes, partnership with the local university, heritage gardens, restaurants, and, of course, traditional home cooking.

                                                                                                                          Appalachian Food Storybank, About, http://appalachianfoodstorybank.org/, Accessed April 19, 2012.      Patty, Susannah, Phone Interview by author, Charlottesville, VA to Asheville, NC, April 19, 2012.  

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execution of oral history interviews. Interviews with knowledgeable, often elderly individuals can offer a wellspring of information and insight into heritage foods and the evolution of food today. They train volunteers to conduct both long and short interviews with people in the know.11 At the Mountain State Fair in Fletcher, NC, which “celebrates the people, agriculture, art and tradition” of Western North Carolina, the Appalachian Food Storybank set up their “Storybooth,” a portable recording studio for conducting short interviews.12 This was their first use of the Storybooth, but the concept can be applied at other fairs, festivals, farmers markets, and food venues. As a way to focus specifically on heritage food within the Asheville region, they require interview topics pertain to local or wild plant varieties and animal breeds, traditional preparations, and/or life in the woods, on a farm, or in a garden.13 Additionally, they define local as a 100mile radius of Asheville, also the bounds for a partner organization Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.14 Interviewees can be nominated by friends or family members. Through the training and execution of targeted oral history interviews on heritage foods and preparations, the Appalachian Food Storybank is well on its way to becoming a beacon of regional knowledge and an important stimulant of cultural and agricultural resilience for the Asheville region.

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