OPINION: The problem with elevated Southern food


Emma Shew, Opinion Writer

Upscale, chic and refined are words that should never be associated with traditional Southern cooking. But for restaurants like Over Yonder in Vilas, that is what they claim to be. These “elevated” Southern food restaurants take the down-home, fatty, unrefined and sloppy Appalachian style of cooking and turn it into something palatable for tourists and folks from off the mountain. 

Or so they think. 

The fact of the matter is that Appalachian food is already sophisticated. You don’t have to charge $26 — the real price, by the way, for the “chicken fried chicken” at Over Yonder — on a plate of chicken to make it worthy of tourist consumption. 

Traditional Appalachian food was built on the philosophy of making the best with what you have. Wild game like squirrel, deer, rabbit and boar were the central proteins in old-time mountain cooking, while corn, apples, ramps and green beans were the core veggies. From these ingredients came the Appalachian staples of squirrel gravy, kilt greens, livermush, country ham and the magnum opus of mountain cooking, chocolate gravy. These Appalachian standards are replaced with fried chicken, gentrified collard greens and pimento cheese.

 So why is it that these restaurants are ashamed of quintessentially Appalachian foods?

The answer couldn’t be more simple. There’s a long-held belief from those outside the region that Appalachian people are lazy, dirty, crass and unrefined. Even so-called “Appalachian” restaurants hold these beliefs. By not proudly serving an authentic Appalachian menu, they contribute to overall misconceptions of the region. 

 And it’s the same menu for all of these restaurants. Proper, another pretentious “elevated” country food restaurant, and Over Yonder both have the same gentrified tomato pie on their menus. Proper has a $15 tomato pie, while Over Yonder serves a “Tomato cobbler” for $27.50. $27.50 for tomato pie. For tomatoes, mayonnaise, cheese and crust. $27.50. 

Over Yonder serves up the aforementioned $26 fried chicken plate, while Proper serves a more pared-down version for just $18. 

There’s also a $30 shrimp and grits at Over Yonder, which is particularly ridiculous given that 18th century Appalachian folks didn’t even know shrimp existed.  

Both menus are just misrepresented mash ups of foods that someone who has never set foot in Appalachia might think come from the region. And yet, Over Yonder continues to label itself as Appalachian. Directly from their website, they claim, “Our mission is to interpret classic Appalachian food in a modern yet casual way.”

This mission has failed.

Excluding the tomato pie, none of these foods are unique to Appalachia. Shrimp and grits come from the Gullah people of the South Carolina Lowcountry, while fried chicken was created by enslaved people making the best with the scraps they were given to work with. 

Labeling these foods as Appalachian not only misrepresents the food of the High Country, but erases the cultural impact that Black people have had on the food of the south. Just about every traditionally southern food originates from enslaved people. Collard greens, beans and rice, ham hocks, fried chicken and dozens of other southern staples come directly from Black people. 

Appalachian food, at its core, is a beautiful combination of Native American, Scots-Irish, Dutch and African American culinary traditions. Highlighting Native dishes like corn pone, or African dishes like black-eyed soup beans would make much more sense, as these are actual Appalachian dishes. 

By claiming all food in Appalachia is southern food, or vice versa, you lose a lot of the detail and cultural diversity of the south. The Appalachian mountains can’t be compared to the Ozarks, and the South Carolina Lowcountry isn’t the same as the gulf of Louisiana. Yes, these areas are all geographically located in the south, but each one has its own cultural identity that shouldn’t be homogenized into a single culture. 

With all of that being said, there are still restaurants around doing Appalachian food right.

Mary’s Kitchen, located at 486 George Wilson Road in Boone, is absolutely throwing down when it comes to Appalachian cuisine. Their hours are limited to breakfast and lunch, and just about everything they serve costs less than $5. Miss Mary is serving up livermush, county ham, and yes, chocolate gravy. Three of the most Appalachian dishes you can get. They don’t market themselves as refined or upscale because the locals who eat there know it isn’t necessary. 

The seasoning that goes into making the livermush is delicate and done with purpose. The curing process behind the country ham is difficult and takes years of experience to master. And to even have chocolate gravy on the menu speaks volumes about their authenticity. These are the foods that have filled Appalachian bellies for centuries. This is real Appalachian food for real Appalachian people and those who want to eat like them. 

So go on and let the tourists eat their $30 shrimp and pimento cheese grits. Give them a $17 plate of collards and pintos. Let them feel better about themselves for not eating the same food that backwards hillbillies eat. 

Real Appalachians will stick to their chocolate gravy, country ham and livermush, thank you very much.