Sheri Castle has happy memories of dinners in her childhood home in Watauga County, where nearly every meal included cabbage, potatoes, beans, or squash grown in mountain soil.
“Or all of them,” says Castle, a prolific food and cookbook writer who has lived in Chapel Hill since 1978, when she came east to attend UNC. “I especially love cabbage and potatoes, though. I can talk about them until I cry.”
Castle’s deep mountain roots have made her a de facto expert in the burgeoning field of Appalachian foodways, a topic celebrated in the new edition of Southern Cultures, the quarterly journal of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. Tickets for the meal at today’s 5:30–7 p.m. launch party, catered by Castle, are sold out, but guests are welcome to attend a free program of music by Sam Gleaves and a reading by novelist Silas House. The two recently collaborated on In These Fields, a folk opera commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Among the Southern Cultures contributors attending the event will be Ronni Lundy of Burnsville, N.C., north of Asheville and the home of towering Mt. Mitchell, who writes rapturously about The Art of the Saltville Centennial Cookbook. Lundy just won American Cooking and Cookbook of the Year honors from the James Beard Foundation for Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. It also was named Best American Cookbook by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
The menu for the fete celebrates the regional fare that only in the last few years has gained credence as a distinct branch of Southern cuisine. Because of the altitude and climate in which produce and proteins are raised, Castle says Appalachian foods have more in common with New England than the cliches of fried chicken and greasy greens that once define Southern food—especially for those who don’t live here.
“At that elevation, the growing season is unlike anything else in the South,” Castle says. While they ate piles of the aforementioned vegetables—especially cabbage, which both sides of her family raised—they consumed virtually no heat-tolerant okra or field peas.
Castle takes satisfaction in the growing acknowledgement of Appalachian food, but she also is concerned that its “overnight success” could inspire undesirable commercialization.
“If there’s an ingredient or cuisine or locale that’s having a moment, there will be people that carpetbag it,” she says. “When something is popular, it sometimes can be hijacked and misconstrued and misappropriated.
“One of the reasons I do my tiny part of all this is to remind people that there are lots of voices,” she adds. “Authentic is a very troublesome word, but it’s one that comes to mind right now. My word, I do believe, is legitimate, and I am privileged to share it.”
For tonight’s menu, she’s sharing with an assist from her beloved daddy, Lynn Castle. He milled the meal she’ll bake into cornbread, and dug the peak-season ramps from a spot so secret only he and a buddy know about it.
“Is there anything more stereotypical than a mountain person eating ramps?” Castle mused of the wild spring onions renowned for their tender stalk and garlicky flavor. She asked him to pull about a pound and a half, but he delivered closer to twenty pounds, which could sell for as much as $400 at a farmers market. “I come from a long line of overachievers,” she deadpans.
Castle will use some of the bounty to dress smashed potatoes with ramp butter. The cornbread will be crumbled into jars with bits of famed Allan Benton bacon. That in turn will be saturated, according to consumer preference, with an old-school glug of buttermilk or with sweet milk, and garnished with chopped green onion or sugar.
Sorghum made by another of her dad’s friends will burnish snackable pecans and black walnuts with a sweet lacquer.
Two sandwiches will start the feast: one of Castle’s favorites: peanut butter, sliced banana, and Duke’s mayo, and bologna (charcuterie-style made by Sam Suchoff of The Pig in Chapel Hill) on traditional salt-rising bread imported from West Virginia. In case you’re still hankering for a taste of the mountains, she’s also cooking soup beans and has prepared a veritable mess of chow-chow slaw.
Dessert will be fresh berries on a split biscuit topped with a ladle of Castle’s signature chocolate gravy. If you’re not lucky enough to have a ticket, console yourself with the recipe.