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Appalachian cuisine brings history and community to the holiday season

As snow blankets the ancient Appalachian Mountains, many of the region’s inhabitants come together to celebrate the holiday season, with traditions and time-honored recipes at the forefront of these festivities.

The Appalachian region is well-known for its cuisine, developed from a melting pot of Native American Cherokee, Italian, Celtic, African American and German influences, and is typically characterized by methods of food preservation, game meat and foraged ingredients.

While iconic foods like pepperoni rolls, cornbread, pawpaw fruit and buckwheat cakes are synonymous with Appalachian culture, the region’s holiday dishes are equally noteworthy and nostalgic. Historically rooted in hunting, foraging, cultivation and preservation, Appalachian cooking prioritized affordable, long-lasting foods, especially during the winter months in rural areas.

One such example is the Appalachian apple stack cake, sometimes called “the poor man’s fruit cake.” Typically made of pancake-like layers spread with spiced apple filling, the dessert’s composition varied based on available ingredients. Key features include a dough with sorghum and a filling with dried apples, ginger and nutmeg. Spices were expensive and typically reserved for special occasions, making this dessert a holiday highlight for many Appalachians. Due in part to the health benefits of some ingredients and the spirituality of the holiday season, it was widely believed that apple stack cake contained healing qualities and sharing this dessert invited good fortune for the year ahead.

Other staples of historic Appalachian Christmas meals include gingerbread, locally crafted moonshine, homegrown cooked vegetables, country-style ham, and the special treat of oranges, nuts and candy tucked into children’s Christmas stockings. Much of this food was not only enjoyed on Christmas Day, but preserved to be enjoyed throughout the winter season. This was due to a reliance on provisions during the cold months, as well as prolonging the joyful spirit that lingered from Christmas. The holiday’s meals and desserts were tucked away to be enjoyed later and act as a reminder of the day’s radiance on long winter days.

In the rough winters of the mountainous region, food was not only a means of survival but also a source of hope. Gathering with loved ones to prepare meals, share the rare treat and exchange conversation — beyond the recipes of the region, these precious moments formed the true heart and core of Appalachian cooking.

As another holiday season passes, drifting farther from the enduring traditions of the past and through the brand new traditions developing in each passing moment, the Appalachian spirit of perseverance, resourcefulness, community and gratitude is alive in each warm memory shared with friends and family, each faded recipe scrawled on yellowing notebook paper and well wishes between neighbors.

Appalachian recipes can be found online, in books such as The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery or by discussing with friends, family or neighbors.