Cast-iron cooking: Book chronicles history of mountain meals
May 14, 1999
CNN Interactive Food Editor
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Author Joseph Dabney is quick to admit he's not a cook, but that didn't stop his book of Southern Appalachian fare and folklore from taking top cookbook honors at the James Beard Foundation Awards last week.
"Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine" (Cumberland House) may give directions on how to broil a bear chop, pick a dandelion salad, or deep fat-fry a rattlesnake, but the book is more a history of hardy and resourceful people and generations of mountain living and beloved meals.
Dabney traces the migration of European immigrants down into the Southern Appalachians in the 1700s and documents the dishes derived from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Germany and the Cherokee Nation.
Interviews with a "100 odd" people capture the making and sharing of meals -- from boiling down sweet sorghum syrup in kettles to sampling it at church camp meetings and cookouts. Survival and self-reliance are found in the arts of planting, hunting, canning and curing, often dependent on the moon and stars and cast-iron common sense.
Not a typical cookbook author
Dabney, a suburban Atlanta resident and former public relations executive with Lockheed, said the book grew out of an idea to write about centenarians. "I began thinking about my own roots -- my father is Scotch-Irish, my mother is French-English."
The result is four years of research and a tome just shy of 500 pages.
Dabney, whose first book was a definitive history of the C-130 Hercules transport plane, says he is more of a gardener than a chef. "The book doesn't get you into the finer points of cooking."
However, its collection of recipes, pulled from individuals and old books, is substantial. Beyond the methods for baked squirrel pie and elderberry wine are more classic country standards -- buttermilk biscuits, Brunswick stew, apple cobbler and a warming selection of mountain gravies.
Holding on to history
Dabney does not shy away from stereotypical Appalachian food or drink; he paints the history of corn pone and pot likker in full. He says his cookbook may be the only with a chapter on moonshine (recipes included).
Interest is high-country cooking remains strong, Dabney says, but old standbys are in danger of disappearing by way of interstate highways and modern conveniences -- stack cakes, sorghum syrup, mountain ramps may be just a few.
"Smokehouse Ham" was originally nominated in the American cookbook category for the James Beard awards, the U.S. culinary community's top honors. It stood against books with multiple authors and pages of color. "I didn't think one little ol' Georgia redneck could win," he said. When it was announced that he took cookbook of the year, "I really went into shock. I started to walk, but went into a gallop."
Culinary world celebrates excellence at James Beard Awards
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