The Beating Heart of Appalachian Cuisine
By Shane Maxson
There are few regions of the United States with a food culture so deeply rooted as that of Appalachia. James Veteto, assistant professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University and the executive director of the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies, studied 15 Cherokee gardens and found 128 vegetable varieties.
“The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians has the oldest living agricultural tradition in southern Appalachia,” Veteto says. “The Cherokee people weren’t just wandering around the forest looking for food; they had a system for living with the land.”
The Cherokee are not the bison people or the salmon people; theirs is a society grown from the soil of the earth. Saving seeds is an important part of their foodways. We visited some of the families who still save seed and grow Cherokee vegetable varieties.
The Bradley Farm in Big Cove, NC, sits atop a slight rise. The croplands and their waving stalks of native corn spread across the landscape. Tom Bradley gets out of his truck with an easy swagger and is clearly at home on the land. As Bradley walks through the fields, he points out various crops: Cherokee cornfield beans, Cherokee straight-neck squash, Cherokee slick candy roasters and Cherokee blue beans. “These beans are real special,” he says. “The flowers are blue and then, when the bean forms in the pod, it’s blue. A real dark blue: I’ve never seen a bean like it.”
And then there is the white flour corn. Bradley’s daughter, Vita Nations Bradley, tells the story: “My granddaddy used to have a store up the road. One day this fellow came in and had a big jar of dried corn. He said he had traded it for some work he had done up in the mountains with an old Cherokee man. Daddy traded him the corn for some supplies and we have been growing it ever since. It’s a real good corn. We make flour with it and our grits.” She says they don’t know how long this corn has been around, but it’s well over a hundred years.
Another farm rich with tradition is the Long Family Farm and Gallery in Murphy, NC. Harold Long, a registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is a farmer, basket maker and a self-taught potter. His wife, Nancy Long, remembers, “Harold was so excited when he went to get his farm number and was given his father Isaac Long’s original number.” It is very clear that growing food is in his blood.
Harold Long grew up in a large family. In his words, “If we didn’t raise it, grow it or pick it, we didn’t eat.” The Longs would hunt, fish, forage, grow vegetables and raise livestock. It is a legacy to his family’s hard work ethic that Long and his family have a flourishing 32-acre farm, producing many Cherokee heirloom varieties, as well as heritage breed chickens. “We were real excited about the Cherokee tan pumpkin,” says Nancy Long. “It traveled with the people when they went to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.”
To learn more about the people whose lives shaped the foodways of these mountains, visit the Cherokee Indian Fair, which comes to Cherokee, NC, each year in October. You can also visit the Longs on Saturdays at the Cedar Valley Farmers’ Market for a few ears of corn, Cherokee butterbeans and the NC candy roaster.
Shane Maxson is outreach coordinator for the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies and the Southern Seed Legacy Project based in Burnsville, NC.