This handsome, eloquent, meditative and luminous cookbook came from the hands, heart, and mind of my friend Ronni Lundy. She wrote her heart out telling stories and making observations on her home region, the Mountain South. Much mocked, misunderstood, maligned, and marginalized over time, the complex and beautiful Southern Appalachian region contains treasures aplenty, from ramps and black walnuts growing wild, to music floating up from homes and gatherings. There’s coal deep under the ground, and sorghum and corn and peas growing out of it. It’s a world of peaks and valleys, streams and hollers, trees and twisty roads winding around and about, spreading out across state and county lines from West Virginia and Kentucky through Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia. I may have missed one or two —- it’s a vast, ancient and modern, extraordinary place, unique and precious, Southern in its own distinctive ways.
Ronni knows the place and the people as family and community. She has roots in Corbin, Kentucky, and lives in the region again today. She knows Appalachia deeply and well from her years living there, and she understands it in particular ways thanks to years living away from the mountains. She’s home now, but she has lived and traveled away enough to see it with clarity from a distance also, as part of the United States, the South, the world.
In addition to reflections, history, stories, eloquence, and insights, Victuals is a cookbook, and a wonderful one for us recipe lovers. Busy Day Cobbler looked so wonderful and do-able that I had to put the book down as soon as I saw it and make one for myself. While it was baking, I went back to the book.
Ronni’s words words give us plenty to think about, explore, ponder, and celebrate, and the recipes give us something to savor: simple and complex dishes that elaborate on the ideas and invite us to sit and read, or stand, stir and scoop.
Here’s another lovely dish I had to try after seeing the photograph (you notice I gravitated to the desserts, even though they are not confined to one particular chapter but rather bless the book throughout). The object of my affection is Buttermilk Brown Sugar Pie. We loved it. Couldn’t be simpler or better and it was warmly received at the covered dish I took it to the evening ov the day I made it. Good, cause i could eat way too much. Ronni Lundy drizzles a little buttermilk over her piece when it’s time to eat it.
The book is arranged poetically and thematically, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t break into appetizers mains, sides and sweets. Roots and Seeds; Salt of the Earth; Corn; Beans; Apple-achia; Preserving; Husbandry; and Appalachian Spring. I’ve got a list of things I long to make, including that cover dish with new potatoes, ham and peas. Old School Tomato Gravy. Nutmeg and Buttermilk Cookies. Killed Lettuce. Beef Hand Pies. Every single dish comes with a story, and there are stories that don’t even need a dish to be in there.
In October I got extra lucky because I got to see my friend Ronni Lundy twice in a matter of weeks. First she came to Fearrington Village, home of the Fearrington Inn, Fearrimngton House Restaurant, and McIntyre’s Bookshop. Ronni’s and her new book, Victuals, were the stars of one of McIntyre’s Cooks & Books events, in which a fine and distinctive cookbook is featured at a meal, with the author present to speak about the book and the food, and Fearrington’s culinary team under the leadership of Executive Chef Colin Bedford, cook a menu from the book. Here’s how lovely this was:
Ronni listened as our friend Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill department of American Studies introduced her to the attendees.
Then Ronni told stories about the book, her process of writing it, her roots, and the Mountain South today, in times past, and going forward. Dr. Ferris checks out the marvels of the book….and then in came the food. First course was darling and clever and tasty as can be:
Bigger Isn’t Better Buttermilk Biscuits on the left, and Chef Lisa Donovan’s Pimento Cheese Nabs. Nabs!
Next up: Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Bacon and Orange Sorghum Vinegar.
Everyday/Magnificence in a bowl: Karl Worley’s Roasted Chicken and Dumplings.
Braised Greens and Pot Likker.
Kale Potato Cakes
And for sweet farewells: That same Buttermilk Brown Sugar Pie I made above, but in an individual version WITH gloriously good Old Style Vanilla Ice Cream; and to take home, Florida Slone’s Gingerbread. (I ate mine while driving home; do not tell my husband about this picture.)
Then about 2 weeks later, I got to see Ronni again, at a cafe in Oxford, Mississippi, during the annual Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance. We were looking for a little snack and a visit between sessions of thoughtful, funny, moving, and wide-ranging discussions of corn in Southern food and culture, and it was my joy to have time to catch up with Ronni during her season of traveling all around the country sharing this new book with people. How lucky am I to know this brilliant, extraordinary and eloquent woman and be able to call her friend!
After seeing all this food, and hearing all about how precious this book is, you may be hungry and frustrated because you might not have the book right now. So here is a treat — a recipe you can make today. You might even have everything you need on hand, and if not, I hope you will be able to find the ingredients easily. It’s cornbread, Ronni’s recipe, which she learned from her mother, yes she did. Here’s how mine came out:
Butter and sorghum — is it gilding a lily, since this cornbread is a blessing all by itself? I don’t think so. It’s good plain, it’s good fancy, it’s just plain good. Like my friend Ronni Lundy: Just plain good, and a blessing.
Ronni Lundy’s Real Cornbread
4 tablespoons drippings
2 cups fine ground white cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
1 and 1/2 cups milk or buttermilk
Turn the oven on to 450 degrees. When it starts to get hot, put the drippings in a 9 inch cast iron skillet (or small cake pan, but a skillet is what you really want). Put the skillet in the oven and let it get really hot while you mix up the batter.
Mix cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder together well in a bowl. Add the egg and milk and stir until just blended. Don’t beat.
Remove the skillet from the oven and very carefully swirl the drippings around the pan to coat the inside. Drippings should be bubbly. If you’re using butter and it’s browned a bit, that fine. It’ll make the cornbread yummy!
Pour the drippings into the cornbread batter, stir just enough to incorporate, pour the batter back into the skillet and pop into the oven. It will take 20-25 minutes for it to turn brown around the edges and get firm in the middle. Remove and turn upside down on a sturdy plate to turn the cornbread out. (If it sticks, you can serve it straight from the pan.) Pass while it’s hot.
If there’s any left over, crumble it in a tall glass and fill with sweet milk later on that night for a delicious bedtime snack.”
This year in April, I had the pleasure of watching Ronni step up to receive not one but TWO James Beard Awards for Victuals. I’ll tell about that in another post. For right now, I’m going back to this lovely book, to sit and read and think, and then go make some Real Cornbread and plan a visit to Ronni so I can sit at her table and catch up.