When Damian first conceived this blog and asked if I would like to contribute, I knew that most of my contributions would be centered on my Appalachian roots. These are my stories. Anyone who knows us already understands our differences and how we likewise complement one another. When it comes to a love of food and nature, I think you might find that the marriage of an Appalachian to a Pacific Northwesterner is a beautiful thing. Mountains are important to us.
This is the first of what I hope to be several entries centered on Appalachia. For practical purposes, this first entry will provide a broad overview of a few topics, centering on my hometown, with personal stories woven in. I plan to share additional personal stories in future entries that will drill down to more specific issues. Some will be serious, others more lighthearted. Think of this first entry as sort of a level set, especially if you’re into corporate jargon or literally like to use a level to hang pictures or build things. I desperately want to insert a witty sentence here for the math people on how this blog entry relates to level sets, as in graphing functions, but writing this sentence nearly broke my brain. If you’re more of a creative, think of it as the opening act of a play with a plot that you think you already know. So, let’s dive in. Not a deep dive, not yet, but we can splash around in the creek.
I want to talk about Appalachia and what growing up there taught me about ethical eating. I don’t live there anymore, but it will always be home to me, my special place that inspires so many emotions. It still teaches me, still inspires me. It’s the place for me where hope, beauty, love, sadness, disappointment, frustration, perseverance, peace, and calm all coexist. Despite some of the degrading narratives, stereotypes, and tropes that have plagued the Appalachian story through the years, the region cannot be described accurately with a singular narrative. At times, it can be a living and breathing contradiction. Perhaps that quality, which fascinates many, is the reason why so many outsiders have failed to accurately capture its essence. Although some have successfully described what Appalachia is all about, most of those who have failed have done so because they failed to document Appalachia with the dignity that it demands. Yes, I said demands. Remember that, it is important. Appalachia is a place of many stories, all of which underscore the ups and downs of the human experience, just like a lot of other places. And people.
Let me be your guide into a community in Southeastern Kentucky that is most special of all the special places to me, my hometown of Hyden, KY, which is located in Leslie County. I am sure to name the county because the town is very small. It would be inaccurate to just name the town of Hyden here since the community that I want to discuss includes the entire county. And I grew up on Rockhouse Creek, which is technically outside of the Hyden city limits. Leslie County is in Southeastern Kentucky, which is part of Central Appalachia—the heart. The Daniel Boone National Forest could be described as a ventricle of this heart, maybe. I grew up with it all around me.
So, about the food. Let’s start with commercial options. As for commercial chain establishments, there aren’t many. We have a Subway, Dairy Queen, and Hardee’s. When I was a very young kid, none of these fast food chains existed there. However, as a growing, but still young child, the Druther’s opened (hello, Andy Dandytale meal), which became Dairy Queen (hello, ice cream cake). Subway and Hardee’s came along later in my elementary school years. You weren’t cool during my middle school years if you didn’t have a favorite pizza sub combination. My Dad and his buddies still meet for coffee nearly every day at Hardee’s to discuss the daily gossip, at least that’s what I imagine they discuss. If you were a kid in Hyden in the 1980s and/or 1990s, and you didn’t have a birthday party at the Druther’s or the Dairy Queen, or didn’t go to one there, then you were missing out. Seeing “Happy Birthday, Sarah” on the Dairy Queen sign was everything to a nine-year-old me. We all know that the elaborate kid birthday parties are a big thing these days, but do they include your kid’s name on what amounts to THE town sign, for everyone driving through town to see, usually reserved to congratulate winning sports teams and hometown heroes?
As for ethics in the fast food industry, it’s no newsflash that ethics can be a murky issue. You can Google this topic for a primer, you don’t need me to serve it up to you with a side of snark. Pick any sub-issue within this larger universe—low minimum wage; unsustainable food production and packaging; health concerns with processed foods; lack of affordable, healthier choices; public health and food prepping—to get a fuller idea of the ethical dilemmas wrapped up in the fast food industry. I’ll admit that I’ve had my share of fast food over the years. The last thing I want to do is sound like a judgmental proprietor of healthy food choices. But I am someone who wants to learn more and be healthier. I believe this can be done with a good mix of reason, curiosity, humility, and grace. I refuse to take cheap, hypocritical shots at people for choosing fast food. Instead, I want to ask why certain areas, including Appalachia, have fewer healthier choices available? Healthy food options can be expensive if you’re not dialed into a family garden (more on that below). I believe that if you’re going to advocate for healthier food choices, you must also consider obstacles such as access and expense on the population you’re trying to reach. Let’s be more open about these obstacles people face and less judgmental about personal choices they make. For a quick introduction, I recommend Roberto A. Ferdman’s article, “America’s Growing Food Inequality Problem.” It does not focus specifically on the fast food industry, but instead discusses the broader issue of food inequality in socioeconomic terms.
One of my favorite blogs, Joshua Wilkey’s “This Appalachia Life” does an outstanding job of distilling many of Appalachia’s more difficult issues, including lack of opportunity, with the dignity and humanity that’s lacking in so many other assessments floating around out there. His work is a treasure. In addition to his blog entries, please also check out his Appalachian reading list.
Let’s get back to the specifics of food in Hyden, KY/Leslie County. Smaller, mom and pop diners and pizza takeout/delivery have come and gone in Hyden/Leslie County over the years. Don’s Dairy Delight was the place to get ice cream once upon a time—you walked up to the window for your ice cream and had the option of picnic tables outside. Cindy’s Diner Bell had home cooking around that same time. That area eventually became Hyden Diner, which had a similar concept of country cooking. I used to go there with Dad and my little brother in the summers and pick up the daily lunch special. My older sister was away at Union College and my Mom was at work at KRADD in Hazard during those summer days, so they usually missed out on Hyden Diner lunch specials. The meatloaf and mashed potato plate was my favorite special there. Dad worked third shift in the mines, so it was important for him to eat a hearty lunch before he went to sleep before his shift started later in the night. He liked the meat loaf, too. I missed out on the more recent Red Light Cafe, which is closed now, but I heard that it was a neat place. It was located where Campbell’s Drug used to be. Campbell’s Drug had an old fashioned soda counter. It closed fairly early into my childhood, but I have a few memories of it. My memory wants to think of it as similar to the place George Bailey worked as a kid in It’s a Wonderful Life.
One newer place that I have thankfully had the chance to check out is a coffee shop called The Well. I stopped in there for a cup of coffee one recent trip home. The lady who was working there was great. I told her that I was home visiting family and that it was my first time in there. I told her who my parents and aunts were, and of course, she knew some of aunts. It was nice to have such a cheerful chat with an unfamiliar person about things and people familiar to us both. My coffee did not disappoint, either. It gave me the jolt I needed for the errands Mom and I had to run that day. The Well is owned and operated by Big Creek Missions, a non-profit inter-denominational Christian ministry that connects church groups and other volunteer groups all over the country with needs in Leslie County and surrounding areas. Services coordinated by Big Creek Missions include free home repairs and community programs. All proceeds from The Well support a food pantry (The Pantry) next door. The Pantry serves over 700 families monthly in Leslie County.
And then there is gardening. This is probably what I want to talk about the most. I started jotting down garden stories I remembered from my childhood and then realized that I should break up garden stories into separate blog entries. There is so much to say. Vegetable gardening is something that many families back home are familiar with. Even for those who never gardened a day in their lives, they likely have extended family members who do/did, or were otherwise the beneficiary of homegrown garden vegetables. Corn and beans are usually the stars of the vegetable garden show, with tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes, and cucumbers all providing the more visible supporting roles. You know you are home when people are talking about White Half Runners, a type of green bean. I could also devote a whole blog entry to Shucky Beans (aka Shuck Beans), and I probably will. If you don’t already know what they are, I won’t spoil the fun for later. To be clear, I’m not talking about acres upon acres of commercial crops here, these are smaller gardens, sometimes grown on hillsides, tended mostly by family units. My Dad and his sisters are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s and still do as much gardening as their health allows. I learned many lessons in the various gardens my family grew over the years. The garden could be a source of drama and intrigue and/or fun, but it was always hard, yet rewarding work. The bounty of a successful garden is a sight to behold, with dividends that pay as much as your canning skills can accomplish and/or freezer can withstand. I grew to understand garden vegetables as nourishment, family togetherness, and goodwill. My Mom and Dad always gave garden vegetables away, still do. People shared their garden vegetables with us over the years, too.
I’ll never forget when I left home—not going off to college in another KY town leaving home—but packing up my 1998 purple Toyota Corolla, listening to Janis Joplin telling me not to cry, driving to another state to live on my own leaving home. I was 22-years-old and it was the end of Summertime, both seasonally and through the interior speakers of my trusty car, an old friend I held onto until 2013. It was also the end of my last summer as a (mostly) carefree kid in Southeastern KY. Janis was kind enough to help me drive the hardest leg of that trip across my parents' bridge to the other side of the toll booth of the Hyden Spur. Before I left, my Mom was adamant that we fill big baskets full of fresh garden vegetables. She instructed me to give one to my landlord, and the other two to my neighbors. I did. I know deep down in my heart, though Mom didn’t come out and say it, that she wanted me to spread goodwill with those vegetables. It was the kind of goodwill that said, this girl is loved and she comes from caring people who hope to share a little bit of that with you.