Chef Mike Costello on the Power of Nuanced Food Narratives
When I was a fledgling environmental activist in my early twenties, I was part of the March on Blair Mountain—a five-day walk across the coalfields of southern West Virginia to protest the mountain’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places (a move spurred by corporate desires to mountaintop removal mine the site). In 1921, Blair—which was put back on the register in June 2018—was the site of the largest armed labor insurrection in United States history. On its slopes, striking miners fought coal company-backed private guards and, ultimately, federal troops, losing the battle but paving the way for a stronger organized labor movement in the United States.
Before the march, I accompanied a friend and filmmaker around the town of Blair, where he spoke to residents about the 1921 march and current struggles against the coal industry. There’s one moment I will never forget from that day: sitting in Jimmy Weekley’s living room as he told us how his ancestors set up a kitchen at the base of Pigeonroost Hollow to feed the striking miners. The Battle of Blair Mountain is the stuff of labor movement legend, but what set my imagination alight was this simple act of solidarity, serving cornbread and soup beans and whatever else was on hand to those marching for a more just working environment and world.
When I asked friends and acquaintances who I should talk to about food and the West Virginia Mine Wars, they pointed to chef and journalist Mike Costello. He’s the food editor of 100 Days in Appalachia and, with Amy Dawson, runs Lost Creek Farm (I first heard about the farm, and Costello and Dawson’s work there, on the West Virginia episode of Anthony Bourdain’s brilliant Parts Unknown). In this interview, Costello not only talks about the cuisine of the Mine Wars, but brings the conversation into the present, discussing how the solidarity forged across cultural lines and language barriers has implications for Appalachia today.
[This is the first in a two-part series: be sure to look for our interview with Wilma Steele, a founder of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum and organizer of the West Virginia Strike Supper, next Sunday.]
Would you mind giving us a brief overview of the Mine Wars?
Yeah, totally. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I’ve learned a lot, especially through food stories. Back in 1912 was the first incident that we think of when we think of the West Virginia Mine Wars, and that was an organized mine strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek. This was in the days when the coal industry was still somewhat fledgling but also rapidly expanding. There were a lot of miners who were fed up with poor wages and poor working conditions. Some of the conditions of working for the mining industry at the time were like—if you were going to buy anything you were required to buy from the company store, for instance. It wasn't just that if you worked in the coal mines you were there for work—it was your community and your place in community and your living situation and your shopping situation and everything. So the miners started to get together and work as one to create leverage and organize against the mining company for higher wages, for better working conditions and the removal of some of those stipulations like ties to the company store. Of course, this was met with heavy resistance from the industry to the point that [coal companies] hired armed guards to push back against the miners with deadly force.
What I like to do is to think about the food angle when we're talking about the Mine Wars or just coal strikes in general. I like to use food always as a way to tell a story, often a story that we're not used to hearing about ourselves. I talk about this a little bit differently depending on who the audience is. Sometimes I'll talk about what we can learn about ourselves because I'm talking to an audience inside Appalachia. Then other times I'll be telling this story to people that are located outside the region who maybe have never been exposed to some of these bits of our history or some of the narratives around them. So that's a little bit of a side note in the overview of the Mine Wars, but I think it's an important one for the way I tell the story.
Getting back to do the Mine Wars, another incident of note that is probably more notorious than the Cabin Creek and Paint Creek strike is the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was also a struggle by organized miners working basically for the same improvements in wages and conditions. It ended up with an armed struggle between those miners, armed guards from the mine and then armed soldiers who represented the US government, which was fairly unprecedented.
In all the situations of the Mine Wars and other strikes, you had miners in communities that were intentionally segregated by the industry because the companies knew that solidarity created power. They wanted to keep them segregated on the lines of national origin, race, religion and ethnicity. When the miners could break down those barriers, they had leverage and they had power that they did not have if they remained confined by those walls of segregation that were erected by the industry.
The miners' wives played a critical role in growing and preserving food. Oftentimes these people didn't have a lot of lands that we would think of as farms or large gardens even, but families in these company houses, sometimes they had a small yard or a little bit of land that they could work with. Even a small garden really went a long way when you think about people working together and trying to feed each other. Like I mentioned earlier, these miners were required as long as they worked for the mines to buy from the company store. So if they were on strike and if they weren't working for the mining companies, they didn't have access to the company store and they had no way to feed themselves. So the miners and their wives realized that the more food they could grow together, the more food they could preserve together, the more power they had because that meant they could extend the strike for longer. But if they didn't have food put away, they had a harder time trying to survive in the coal camps and on the picket lines. So there was this really critical role that food played in our labor history.
When you think about it, it was really incredible because you had African-Americans moving up from the south, moving out of sharecropping arrangements. You had these Eastern European miners, these Irish miners that had this expertise in agriculture that some of the native-born Appalachian miners didn't have. They were able to work beyond these barriers of segregation to figure out where there were these complementary skill sets. It’s this beautiful thing if you look back and see how difficult [it was] to overcome those barriers of segregation in those coal camps, and how powerful it was for that moment of solidarity to be realized and embraced and captured in such a way that we're still able to look back and celebrate it today.
Today we have these real parallels to that situation because there are still a lot of divisions that have been created based on media narratives of the poor white working class and then [media narratives of] immigrants and people of color in urban settings. The way that lines are drawn today, we have these needs to break down those barriers and establish solidarity in a very similar way to the way it was required during the days of the Mine Wars.
When I think about food during the Mine Wars, I always think about that scene in the movie Matewan [where an Italian immigrant and a woman from Appalachia argue over preparing polenta and grits in a striking miners’ camp and then, later, share their recipes].
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Right!
Are there any specific dishes that are emblematic of or come from the Mine Wars era?
There are a lot because you had so many communities that were coming together. You had Italian miners, you had Hungarians and African-Americans, Syrians, you had Czech and Russian miners. When you look back to the history of Appalachian food, there were all these really proud food traditions that these people brought with them.
Not all of [the traditions] they could really keep alive because let's take, for instance, a lot of the Italian miners, especially those that came from coastal regions—hey didn't have access to fresh seafood [in Appalachia]. But there are a couple traditions that tended to take root and are still preserved in the same way today. Those were typically meat preservation, canning of certain things like chow-chow or these Italian style peppers that people still do. Pastries were big, too, because you could still access, for the most part, the staples like flour, salt and sugar, which is all you really needed for those things.
I often like to talk about things like chow chow and pickles and whatnot because the idea of those gardens that people were growing together—you know, it's almost like the Victory Garden of the coal camps. It’s so symbolic of the way that people broke down those barriers.
The garden is such a significant thing, too, when I think about people preserving vegetables and whatnot. Everybody knew that the garden was a weapon and the miners—and the miners’ wives especially—used that weapon for sustenance and to strengthen the power of the union. But the coal company realized that these gardens could be used as a weapon against them and they would go out and they would destroy gardens. When people started growing and preserving food together, [the companies] knew that it created a situation where the miners and their families would no longer have to rely as much on the company and the company store. There's a lot of power in the food that we grow. It can be a weapon for good or for bad. It can be used for you or against you. Everybody in that whole camp knew that there was so much power in that garden just as much as there were powers found in those guns and those bullets. There was power in the peppers and the turnips and the tomatoes.
Wow. I never thought of the garden in exactly that way, as a weapon. And I didn't know about that history of gardens being targeted by the coal companies.
It’s fascinating to hear these food stories because when I was twenty and living in southern West Virginia, I was supposed to know how to do all these practical things because we were working on a direct action campaign [against mountaintop removal], but I was mostly just reading books about the Mine Wars. None of the books ever really talked about food or eating—I would just find these little tidbits—so I'm really excited to tiptoe back into the subject a little bit and hear about it from a culinary perspective.
So, segueing: I was reading your piece on the Parts Unknown site about recent food trends that have led to the commodification of Appalachian cuisine, as well as Appalachian food being sold at really high prices in fancy restaurants. Why do you think this commodification is detrimental for the region’s food culture and how do you see Appalachians responding to it?
Okay. This is definitely a very of complex, multifaceted answer, so if I drift here, I’ll try to pull myself back in!
It’s detrimental in that it's generally an idea of what Appalachia is supposed to be that is not defined by people from the region, but is rather defined from this long history of stereotypes and tropes. If you have a menu at a restaurant and you say, “This is Appalachian cuisine,” and on that menu you only have deep fried things or biscuits and gravy, and moonshine in a mason jar, it tells a story about who people are, right? It tells a story about how people are incredibly simple and they have this monolithic culture and they obviously don't have the complexities that we would find if we were to go to a restaurant and see one of the world's more respected cuisines on display, where there are these layers of spices and flavors and a wide variety of ingredients and technique. In some ways—I have to sort of provide this caveat—I think simplicity is one of the positive trademarks of Appalachian food, but I also think that the way Appalachian food tends to be used as a story about a people who are simple is a very different thing than telling a story about food being pleasantly simple for its lack of frills.
Like streamlined, thoughtfully simple.
Right, exactly. The food can be simple without the people being simple. That's why, at Lost Creek Farm—where we work with other food businesses or farmers on using stories in their marketing—we say you have to really emphasize the storytelling part of it because without the story, you're going to put ingredients on a plate and people are going to come up with their own story; and they always have come up with their own story about Appalachia. Food is really a chance for us to tell a more nuanced, inclusive and complex story about the people of our region and it’s a story that people have often never heard before. So you know, you could go to a restaurant and you could have chow chow and you might not think about it that much. But if you go somewhere where we're serving chow chow and we tell the story of the Mine Wars and how chow chow represents preservation and people coming together in solidarity against injustice, you're going to have a very different takeaway.
To sum all that up, the commodification of Appalachian food can be detrimental because it's just the next thing in a long, long line of portrayals of the region that takes this story about a very complex people and further boxes them in, reduces the complexity of our narratives and reinforces stereotypes. And when you've got restaurants that are outside the region that serve up simplistic narratives on a plate, it's obviously detrimental because it's not us, the people in the region, who are telling the story; and it is certainly not us, the people in the region, who are benefiting from that story from an economic perspective. In fact, it sort of hinders the ability of people in the region from capitalizing on this from an economic perspective because it creates this market for Appalachian food, but only in concept. It’s a very specific, simplified version.
The way the region deals with this is very complicated, too. I would say Appalachia itself has fully embraced this idea of Appalachian food being marketable, and this is somewhat rooted in all of these damaging stereotypes and portrayals to the point that they've conditioned us sometimes to run from our own heritage. We’re sort of taught to try to put on this face of being somebody else from somewhere else because those people from those other places are taken seriously. There’s still a common idea that if you're going to find quality in food, you're going to find it in a cuisine from somewhere else that’s more respected than Appalachia. I certainly saw this when I was in high school and I wanted to become a chef. I saw this pervasive mentality that West Virginia doesn't have anything of quality, so if we're going to be taken seriously, we have to try to be like French bistro food or a fancy steakhouse. I worked in a restaurant that had to get lamb from New Zealand and our pork from Colorado and the seafood had to come from as far away as possible because it was like, you know, there's nothing of quality here, but the farther away it comes from, the better it is. And some of these places are now labeling themselves “Appalachian” while serving the same exact bistro food they did when they wouldn’t have touched that term with a ten-foot pole. It’s become a term of convenience people use when it’s trendy, but I guess once all the national media stops writing about it and a few more stereotypes come out of the movies, they’ll go back to trying to prove their food is better than anything Appalachians would come up with.
I want people to understand there’s potential that can come from embracing our cuisine and our food traditions, especially the stories that come with those traditions. Those stories can create so much pride in our region and how we’ve gotten through our complicated past. In terms of economic issues, you’ll never build a food system or community economy based on place if young people are taught to be ashamed of their cultural assets. It takes a willingness to flip the narrative. One story can have a couple different interpretations. On its face, it can be the same story, but if you choose to see it a story about a shameful time you want to run away from, you’re not going to turn that into much of an economic opportunity. But if you see that same story as one of resourcefulness, and you take pride in the impressive way people here negotiated hard times, creating beautiful foods with such limited resources, you learn to love that story and you want to share it with the world. That’s so important when the way that food has always been treated here represents this kind of shame and a level of embarrassment around owning up to and embracing that we have a thing here that people might actually want. I've seen it in our business—people don't just want the stereotype fed to them on a plate, they actually want to learn about that complexity and they want to learn about these stories and they want to learn about these traditions. We have people selling this idea of Appalachia in all these other places and making money off of it and why wouldn’t we want to do that here? Why don't we want to double down and have the most legitimate Appalachian portrayal of ourselves possible and, to an extent, kind of delegitimize all those other people and say, “You can cook Appalachian food if you want, you can sell it and you can make money off of it, but we get to be the ones who define what it is, what Appalachian food actually means”? To me it's this lost opportunity, but I think things are changing. It might be a really long, slow process, but that's something I'm hopeful about.
Do you have any examples of how things are changing?
I think that there are some really tangible ways in terms of ingredients themselves. Amy and I have gone out in the past and made sorghum for instance, and we've written about sorghum and we've talked about what the process was like for us—not just walking through the motions of what it takes to grow and to make sorghum, but also the stories behind sorghum and those community building aspects of what the sorghum pressing every Fall really means to the community that comes together and does this. Two years ago, in our part of West Virginia, nobody was really using sorghum. I'm not trying to take credit for it so much, but it just demonstrates to me that it only took an article that I wrote and a bunch of pictures on Instagram for maybe four other chefs in our circle to start using sorghum and to start buying it from this particular farmer that we were working with. The same thing with bloody butcher corn. I get really excited when people start to use these ingredients like bloody butcher and sorghum, because they’re specialty crops somewhat unique to the region, and it creates opportunities for our farmers in West Virginia.
There are chefs that I've seen who are starting to dig in more to their own family or community heritage and really embrace stories of hunting season or specific recipes that people are finding in recipe boxes or specific kinds of heirloom seeds that people are growing. For most restaurants, they're not going to be able to stay true to Appalachian food as much as they might want to be because the truth is that, in West Virginia especially, we don't really have any large scale farms. It's really hard to meet the necessary volume for a restaurant that's open five or six days a week with this kind of hodgepodge of small farmers. That's why we [at Lost Creek Farm] don't own a restaurant, because it would be impossible for us to do what we do. There are these restaurants that are always going to have their seafood specials and menu items that you can get anywhere in the country, but even if they put a special on the menu each week that reflects this desire to embrace place-based heritage and our cultural assets, I think it’s a good sign and it represents change to me.
Thank you! I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the work you're doing with 100 Days in Appalachia.
100 Days in Appalachia is a project that I'm involved in as a contributing editor. It was born out of this pervasive parachute journalism that we saw leading up to the 2016 election. There was so much emphasis on what the white conservative coal miners in West Virginia were up to and how they were thinking. And there was this desire to use this one-note story of a region and its people as a way to define this political phenomenon. People in Appalachia are used to being pigeon holed and blamed for something like this, that by itself wasn't really so new, but it was certainly kind of frustrating. We’ve certainly seen similar phenomena before, but with the amount of media and social media coverage involved, I think the extent to election coverage was so reduced to a simplistic narrative about a people and a particular place was somewhat unprecedented.
There were all these layers to the story that were missing and there was all this nuance and all this complexity that people outside the region did not get to hear about Appalachia. So it was decided that it was something that had to be taken into our own hands. 100 Days in Appalachia was quite literally started to become one-hundred days of a counter narrative to those canned narratives that we saw in the media. It wasn’t like we were always going to provide a liberal story—we’ll also run narratives of conservative coal miners in Logan County because those voices are also important to provide the whole picture—but we wanted to something that wasn't happening in the national media and that was to let people tell these stories in their own words.
For the first hundred days it had a little bit of a political flavor to it because it was a bit of a response to the electoral coverage, but then there was a lot of interest in seeing 100 Days go on and expand to include more things like food and religion and environmental issues. These are all very important topics that we are trying to have these rich discussions about inside the region and they're being talked about differently outside of Appalachia. So November or so of last year I started on 100 Days in Appalachia working with people inside the region to empower them and to figure out where they have a voice to talk about food.
It still is a little bit of a fledgling project for us—part of it is everybody who works at a 100 Days does this as a side job, so we try to make a lot happen with limited capacity and resources. It's really incredible what we're able to put out, considering how little time everybody has. And a lot of the work that we're doing now is aimed at building that foundation for something that's more robust and something that people are a little bit more used to participating in. Even with 100 Days in Appalachia, there's such a distrust in media that people run into here, that people have here—and rightfully so. So sometimes it's a matter of letting people either on an individual level or sort of as a community and as a region figure out that there is an outlet where we have a voice together, in our own words. I'm really looking forward to seeing where we can take this.
There are a lot of issues that I want to use food to talk about. Those include environmental ethics; those include history, certainly; those include economic development and what it means to run an economy after coal partially based on food. Immigration and workers' rights and the agriculture industry. Some of these things that maybe you don't think about as food issues that when you do think about as food issues, you tend to think about a lot differently.
Immigration is one of those stories that I think about a lot with regard to food. You don't really get to hear about the way that we can look at different waves of immigration through food, going back more than a century, and use that as a way to talk about our differences, but also the commonalities we share.
For instance, I like to talk about and interview people from the former Spanish immigrant community that existed in and around Clarksburg. They have these rich Spanish sausage-making traditions that are carried on and you know, at the time they [arrived], they were stereotyped, they were put into environmentally compromising situations and they were shoved into these company camps and they were discriminated against in so many ways. And now they're not so much anymore because they can be seen as part of a majority, as white people, but for some people that sausage kind of became a tool of diplomacy, something that could be shared and appreciated. It was a piece of cultural identity that could be shared across lines to garner respect and build community. Now we've got this new wave of Latin American immigrants in Appalachia that don’t have the same privileges as white Appalachians, but food can be an effective way for us to welcome people and to make them feel at home. A recognition and celebration of food is a recognition and celebration of people and their culture, so it’s great when we see chorizo on the shelves of the grocery store now, and appreciate that it's there because we have this new layer to our community that we didn't have before. And to get people thinking about why their ancestors came to this region—is that really all that much different than the reasons that these people are here now? There's no reason that those who just moved here two years ago are any less Appalachian than the people who came here two-hundred years ago. There's something special about sitting down at the table and eating food and thinking about traditions, for us to be able to establish this common ground and be able to see eye-to-eye and to be able to celebrate things together that are really special to us.
Last year, Amy and I were working in a kitchen alongside a couple from Oaxaca. We were using that bloody butcher corn, which is so important to us. And we broke out that red corn and their eyes just lit up. They were like, “Wow, we know that corn. There's a red corn from Oaxaca and it’s that corn.” It’s not, of course, at this point the very same varietal, but they're distant cousins. That corn meant so much to them like it means so much to us, and you could feel a bond taking shape over that food.
You know, you walk into a situation and maybe you don't have so much in common with somebody, but then you can start talking about the way that your mom made chicken and dumplings or the way that you went hunting with your dad and the way that they butchered a deer or something. There are all these things that people have in common that you don't really find out about so much, especially in this day and age where we're so used to labeling people based on their political persuasion first and foremost.
There are a lot of lessons and a lot of opportunities to look at food in a different way. It’s fitting because this conversation is about the solidarity that was established during the Mine Wars and this is what I'm talking about. That set of conditions that required us to work together in solidarity back in the Mine Wars has maybe changed a little bit, but it hasn’t totally disappeared. It’s really special to be able to work on that stuff with 100 Days and the work that we do in the kitchen and out teaching in communities and whatnot.
I have just one more question: what's your favorite Appalachian dish to either make or eat right now?
This is always a tough question to answer, because it always does change for me. Right now, I have to say it's Fabada, this hearty soup that's made with this Spanish sausage. I actually just had some today in DC and I'll probably have some again really soon. My friend that lives in DC, he and I, we both work for 100 Days in Appalachia and are working on a podcast together and he came out last week and we spent a couple of days with our audio recorders hanging out with a family whose ancestors came here from Spain and they still make this traditional Spanish blood sausage. We followed the whole process of them going out and slaughtering this cow and collecting the blood to the multi-day process that it takes to make the sausage, stuff the sausage, smoke the sausage.
They use this blood sausage primarily to make this soup that's a kale and white bean potato soup that's full of all these Spanish spices. One of the guys said last week when were recording, “This is like the quintessential wintertime food.” It really is. I mean, it's perfect. So today we were out and about in DC and walking, it was really cold and windy and it was really nice to go back to this warm place and have this hearty soup just days after we were there with these people as they were showing us every bit of the process and telling us all these stories about what this sausage means to them in terms of culture and identity and place and tradition. So, you know, it wasn't the same as just a soup that we threw together with an ingredient from a recipe that we found online or something like that. It was one of the most meaningful dishes that you could imagine.
Mike Costello’s Turnip and Ramp Greens Chow Chow
If there’s one dish that means the most to me as a cook from West Virginia, it might be chow chow. Sure, chow chow isn’t found only in Appalachia, but it embodies so much of what we talk about when we discuss food from the mountains reflecting a place-based culture. I’ve heard from so many of my dinner guests that chow chow is strongly symbolic, representing hard times, of which they’d rather not be reminded. Yet when you open a jar of this fermented or vinegar pickled relish, you’re exposed to layers of saltiness, sweetness, a sharp tang with subtle bitter, sometimes smoky notes. Its unexpected layers of complexity bring out reactions of surprise, similar in a way to those I’ve witnessed when people hear unfamiliar stories about the mountains at the dinner table, when shameful narratives about desperation and poverty become proud stories of creativity, thrift and ingenuity.
Chow chow is a product of a gardener’s various seasons of abundance. It’s often made with cabbage as a base, and some recipes, like the one in my grandmother’s recipe box, is made almost entirely of green tomatoes. It depends on the season though— the chow chow I make with excess spring crops in May will look very different than a batch comprised of late-summer’s green tomato harvest. I’ve developed a strong preference for employing root vegetables, especially turnips. They’re available most of the year, and the turnip’s natural sweetness and spicy kick lends itself perfectly to chow chow’s complex flavor profile.
There’s so much variation among Appalachian chow chow recipes—I’ve certainly made plenty of adaptations over the years, with tart apples, wild pears, smoked pepper flakes, ramps and wild ginger—so the best advice I can give is to play around and experiment with different combinations of vegetables and spices throughout the year. Use this recipe as a basic template and make adjustments for your next batch.
6 large turnips, peeled and shredded or grated
6 green tomatoes, finely chopped
4 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
2 large green bell peppers, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ cups ramp greens, chopped (outside of ramp season, use green onions)
1 small jalapeno or other hot chile pepper, minced
2 tablespoons ginger, grated
1 tablespoon mustard seed
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon red pepper flake (I prefer smoky varieties)
½ cup kosher salt
For the pickling liquid
1 pint water
1 pint apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
In a large mixing bowl, combine processed vegetables, then cover with kosher salt. Mix thoroughly by hand. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, drain the liquid from the bowl, rinse vegetables and drain again.
Fill a large pot with enough water to cover four pint jars, then bring to a boil. Boil jars to sterilize.
In a medium pot, combine water, vinegar and sugar, then bring to a boil. Add vegetables and spices, then reduce heat. Let simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Using a colander or large strainer, drain pickling liquid into another pot or mixing bowl. Reserve the liquid.
Carefully remove the empty jars from the boiling water and set aside on a towel. Keep the warm water for the final step in the process.
Pack vegetables into the hot, sterilized jars, then top off with the reserved pickling liquid, leaving about ½ inch space to the top of the jar.
Place lids on jars and twist rings on until finger tight—as tight as they’ll naturally go without additional force.
To seal the lids, place in pot with the hot water bath for 30 minutes. You can leave these in the water to cool once the heat is turned off, but if you’re processing more jars and need to remove them, do so with caution. Do not attempt to cool jars with cold water or otherwise expose them to cold surfaces.
The chow chow can be eaten right away, but for the best flavor, store in a cabinet or other dark area for a few weeks.