revolutionWhy can’t a revolution based on traditional Appalachian foodways be televised?Photo: April McGreger

Having watched the first three episodes, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” TV Show. Who can argue with his efforts to get fresh food into West Virginia’s schools? No doubt, the pantries and fridges in most school cafeterias need to be purged and restocked.

However, from what I can tell so far, our imported food revolutionary could stand to slow down and think a little bit harder about what he’s up to.

First, Oliver has demonstrated little knowledge of (or interest in) the traditional food culture of the region whose people he has set out to “save.” Over the decades, Southern Appalachians have been plagued by many well meaning do-gooders who wanted to teach those poor, underprivileged folks how to act more civilized–and eat better. Problem is, time and again, those reformers proved to be wrong.

According to the scholar and Appalachian native Elizabeth Engelhardt, for example, public health officials in the early 20th century targeted cornbread as the latest source of diet-based diseases in the South. Activists set out to create a social revolution in Appalachia by switching mountain women from cornbread to beaten biscuits, the symbol of aristocratic Southern cooking, for which their efforts were sardonically christened the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.”

These biscuits required prohibitively expensive wheat flour, elaborate middle-class equipment– including a marble slab and modern ovens– and much more labor and time than their common cornbread. Beaten biscuits became an aspirational dish, separating the privileged from the poor and—following now discredited public-heath logic–the healthy from the unhealthy.

On the contrary, replacing whole-grain, freshly milled cornmeal with chemically bleached, nutrient-stripped, shelf-stable industrial flour proved nothing but detrimental to Appalachian health. You need only watch Appalshop’s 1977 documentary Waterground, about fifth-generation miller Walter Winebarger, to know that traditional wisdom foresaw this sad outcome.

Cornbread is just one of a long list of other traditional foods that were replaced with inferior industrial ones–many of which succeeded through propaganda campaigns. Lard from pastured hogs was demonized (largely by nutritionists funded by the vegetable oil industry) and replaced by now-maligned partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, touted for its “purity.” Fresh-churned butter gave way to another trans-fat bomb, margarine. Much-beloved, live-cultured, and naturally low-fat buttermilk was banished in favor of inert, homogenized, pasteurized, growth hormone-injected, high-fat milk. Wholesome beans, greens, and cornbread gave way to sad casseroles based on canned soup and highly processed “cheese food.”

Overall, I worry that Oliver’s “Food Revolution” show obscures the fact that our food crisis is a symptom of underlying structural problems. In Appalachia, the government watched idly while the coal industry grabbed control of the region’s abundant natural resources. Widespread erosion of topsoil, contamination of drinking water, devastation of forests, and gut-wrenching destruction of the world’s oldest mountain range has resulted. The area remains in dire need of environmental protection. Is it any wonder why its economy is in ruins and the people in Huntington, West Virginia, are the unhealthiest in the country, as Oliver repeatedly reminds us?

Then there’s the workers’ rights crisis. Since stagnant wages compelled many women to leave the household and go to work a generation ago, who is supposed to make the from-scratch meals Oliver talks about? Many working mothers are on the clock until 5 or 6 o’clock. Add to that a long commute that many families endure to find jobs, and there is just no way. The system is unsustainable. Long hours at sedentary jobs with fast-food lunches produce unhealthy parents who then produce unhealthy children.

Moreover, the outrageous school district nutrition guidelines that Oliver struggles with are just one of a whole host of government policies that prop up the industrial food system that supplies most school cafeterias.

Our food system’s problems run deep–and the solutions won’t come easy. However, we can begin by recognizing, celebrating, and supporting wholesome, traditional foodways. They hang on despite being ground down by industrialization. Here, we find much-needed common ground between two often opposed groups–the liberal outsider and the mountain old-timer. This partnership could provide the fire for a real, lasting food revolution–one that heals Appalachian people, Appalachian economies, and Appalachian environments.

In that spirit, here are a couple of recipes meant to fuel a food revolution while celebrating mountain food culture, clean and healthy environments, and glorious spring!

(Next page: Recipe for Spring Vegetable Cornbread ).