Kathleen Purvis

Mining the Southern mountains for food stories

Ronni Lundy had almost given up when she got the chance to write “Victuals.”
Ronni Lundy had almost given up when she got the chance to write “Victuals.” Pableaux Johnson

Mountains are not easy to cross. Ronni Lundy had to cross a lot of them to get to her new book, “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50).

The trip is turning out to be worth it: After six years of struggle to even find a publisher, she has produced a book that’s being called a masterwork. So many rave reviews are pouring in that Lundy, who now lives in Burnsville, N.C., admits she’s taken aback.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “But it’s just like, ‘Wow, what is this about?’ I check to see if I have a pulse. It’s like I died and everybody is saying all these nice things about me.”

I’ll put this up front: I’ve known Ronni for a long time, through both the Association of Food Journalists and the Southern Foodways Alliance, since back when she was a food writer in Louisville. I knew her when she took a break from the South and moved to New Mexico for a while, switching her attention from her beloved mountain South to the Southwest.

Ever since she returned to the South to be near her daughter and her family about five years ago, she’s been struggling to get a publisher for a book on the food of Appalachia. The proposal for “Victuals” (pronounced Vittles) took six years and a lot of rejection. One publisher wanted her to take “Appalachia” out of the subtitle. Others were interested, but couldn’t offer enough money to do the research.

Now 67, she had started to consider handing the project to a younger writer because she was sure it wasn’t going to happen in her lifetime.

Then Francis Lam became editor-at-large at Clarkson Potter, charged with creating food books that are also literary. Lam understood her plan for a book about the deep and rich food life of Appalachia that wouldn’t “prettify” the stark beauty and hard reality.

“Francis got the vision,” she says. When she sent him a sample chapter, on the complex story of salt mining in Virginia, including slave and indentured labor, he wrote back and said, “ ‘I want more of this – I want more of the same.’ 

Combined with pictures by photographer Johnny Autry, Lundy’s book goes deep into today’s Appalachia, where people fight for jobs while hanging on to food traditions that the rest of the world may see as too austere, things like dried beans, sour corn and salt-rising bread.

The book crosses the territory from Kentucky across the Virginias, with plenty of stops in the Carolinas. Her chapter on preserves focuses on Walter Harrill, who makes Imladris jams and jellies: Longtime shoppers at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market may remember a dozen years ago when Walter used to drive down from Asheville every Saturday because he couldn’t find a good market close to home.

In all the attention for her book, the only thing that bothers Lundy is that people are calling it definitive, even encyclopedic. To her, it barely scratches the surface.

“Appalachia has not gotten the attention it deserves, and now it’s beginning,” she says. “Part of my work is to say: This region is so much more diverse.” She wants more stories on how immigration shaped the mountains, how Europeans interacted with Native Americans, how the region is adapting today.

“I wish people would think about it as a piece of a much larger story. That’s what I want it to be – a conversation that continues.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Meet the Author

Ronni Lundy will speak at a luncheon at 1 p.m. Oct. 6 at The Fearrington Granary. Tickets are $85 and include a signed copy of “Victuals” and a three-course meal with wine. For a reservation, call 919-542-3030.

Info: fearrington.com/event/cooks-books-ronni-lundy/

Buttermilk Brown Sugar Pie

From “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes,” by Ronni Lundy (Clarkson Potter, 2016).

Single unbaked pie crust

1 1/2 cups (packed) light brown sugar

1/4 cup very finely ground cornmeal (see note)

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, room temperature

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled to room temperature

3/4 cup whole buttermilk, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the crust in a 9-inch pie pan and refrigerate it while making the filling.

In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, cornmeal and salt.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until frothy. Beat in the melted butter. Add the dry mixture and stir vigorously until the brown sugar is dissolved. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and mix well.

Pour into the pie crust and bake for 45 minutes, or until the center is set (no longer liquid, but still tender to the touch).

Cool until just barely warm before slicing. (Lundy likes to drizzle about 1/2 tablespoon of buttermilk over her slice.)

NOTE: If your cornmeal is not very fine, whir it in a blender until it is just a little denser than flour. If it is mostly fine, you can sift it to remove any larger pieces.

Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie.