Fred Sauceman is known around East Tennessee for being an Appalachian culinary writer and historian. Growing up in Greene County, his family taught him how to have a deep respect for the land and the food that came from it. Later in life, this background and his education in English and history coincided, creating what is now a lengthy and impressive career in food writing.
“I’m trying to show that food is all about connection: in terms of its history and in terms of bringing people together,” said Sauceman. “It’s pervasive.”
In sharing the history of Appalachian food, Sauceman attempts to remind people that what is here today either comes from the Native Americans or from overseas. He explains that the heart of Appalachian cuisine is a ‘meshing together’ of different cultures in order to create something new.
“Take the iconic meal of Southern Appalachia— soup beans and cornbread— and break that down,” Sauceman said. “You have the beans, from the Native Americans, and those beans are usually seasoned with some version of the pig, from the Spanish and Europeans, and finally, you have the cornbread, which is also a direct inheritance from the Indigenous people.”
Not only are these iconic meals a testament to the melting pot that is the South, but they are also evidence of a history of poverty in the area. Working-class families often had to be creative with how they cooked and preserved food and stretch ingredients for their families.
“The creativity, to me, comes from doing the most with what little you have,” said Sauceman.
However, economic devastation is not something only in the past, as many local small businesses today are being taken over by chains because they cannot afford to stay open. Because of this, Southern culinary visionaries are having to adapt and push the boundaries of what is considered Appalachian cuisine.
Dano Holcomb is changing the scene in multiple ways. His Asheville-based food truck, Root Down, serves a mix of Creole and Southern foods. Although the food is not particularly Appalachian, Holcomb often channels his years visiting, and eventually living in North Carolina. This appreciation for Appalachian food, incorporated with his time in New Orleans for culinary school, created the inspiration for Root Down’s unique menu.
“You’re giving an interpretation of yourself through your food, and you just have to go with it,” said Holcomb. “Once I started thinking in that way, everything kind of just fell into place.”
Although Holcomb’s business is quite successful, it did not come without its own set of challenges. On top of having a difficult opening process and little space to work, food trucks are not often viewed as delivering “real restaurant quality.” Holcomb and his employees work hard to push back against the criticism of food trucks to prove that they can create dishes just as praise-worthy as any restaurant.
“Food trucks are real food,” Holcomb said. “The more people that are willing to break that stigma and spread the word, the more that are able to come and enjoy what we offer.”
The community surrounding Root Down is a strong one, and not just with customers, but with other businesses. They work closely with venues and breweries in Asheville in order to provide an experience beyond the food.
“They handle the beer, the wine, and all that stuff, and we handle the food,” Holcomb said. “I think it’s a match made in heaven.”
Because this setting draws in a heavy crowd and the truck is out in the open, Holcomb is constantly being watched by customers while he works. Though it took some getting used to, he now enjoys this more social aspect of his job. Whether he is interacting with locals or those just passing through the area, they are all connected through his food.
Janie Shope, owner of Janie’s Place in Bristol, Tenn., is also adding to the ever-changing scene of Appalachian cuisine in her own way. Shope is a native to the area and has been working in restaurants since she was 16 years old. Through her love for the food industry and a lot of dedication, she was able to build the consistent business she has now.
“When I started that restaurant, there was no business whatsoever,” said Shope. “I brought it to where it is now, and I worked very hard for it.”
Shope’s appreciation for the place she has created is evident throughout the building and in how she greets customers. She can be seen conversing with regulars while diligently waiting tables and serving food. Her effort to provide a welcoming experience is impossible to ignore.
“I just like to make everyone feel at home,” Shope said. “My regulars, I know them by name.”
It is not only the customer service that makes Janie’s Place stand out, though. The menu offers a variety of items other than traditional Southern meals, including a vast array of seafood. Shope also extends daily specials throughout the week, and her most popular one is “Seafood Friday.”
“You have to be able to have a selection out there for your customers,” said Shope. “People don’t want the same stuff every time they come in your restaurant.”
When it comes to keeping Appalachian food interesting and exciting, Janie’s Place has expertise. It is yet another example of how this category of cuisine is constantly evolving from generation to generation.