Activist Wilma Steele on Why Sharing Food is Giving Life
On September 22, 2018, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum held a Strike Supper. This event celebrated the diverse foodways of mine wars-era Appalachia, when African-Americans and Scots-Irish mountaineers lived alongside and organized with immigrants from places like Lebanon, Italy, and Hungary in coal camps and company towns. Wilma Steele—an environmental activist, retired art teacher and one of the founders of the museum—was the catalyst behind the supper. The idea was rooted in memories of her childhood in Mingo County, West Virginia, where she grew up surrounded by different cultures and the delicious dishes, including goulash and a wild green called tangle gut, that they prepared.
I spoke with Steele about the Strike Supper and her belief in sharing food as a way to nurture community and solidarity.
[This is the second in a two-part series. Be sure to check out our interview with Mike Costello of Lost Creek Farm and 100 Days in Appalachia that we ran last week.]
Could you start by sharing a bit about the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum?
We opened in 2015 and I feel like we’ve done a good job of getting at a history that’s an unknown history. I always tell people one of my favorite quotes is, “You can destroy a village and burn it to the ground and they’ll rebuild. But if you take away their culture, their accomplishments and who they are, you destroy ‘em.” I kind of feel like that’s what happened a lot of times in the coalfields because when they put together the history books of West Virginia; the Mine Wars, Blair Mountain, and the Matewan battle, all of these things were left out. So our history was left out, the only thing we had left was stories about the Hatfield-McCoy feud, which the coal company actually exploited in the sense that they would say, “These people down here, you can't do anything with them there, you know, they’re drunken hillbillies, Sid Hatfield is one of those Hatfields from the feud, they’re just unreasonable.” If you make someone sound like they’re inhuman or not somebody you could talk with reasonably, then you justify all the abuses. I think that's exactly what happened. And that part of the history, it's not known and it’s not taught in schools. So that’s what we’ve been very strong on doing, to teach this history. It's a source of pride and understanding.
And things change. You don’t always have to have the same kind of battle. Sometimes the battle can be won with reason—not everybody has to get out their guns to accomplish anything. I think what we’re hoping to do is get the people to see. I really feel like we have a message for the rest of the world in Mingo County, because [the coal companies] brought all the immigrants from all the other places and one of the reasons why they enjoyed doing that was because if you had people that don’t know how to speak the same language, there are different cultures and they don’t know each other, then they’re more likely not to join together in friendship or unions or anything else. As long as they hated each other and fought each other, then it made the coal company stronger in keeping the union out. In our little area, these miners—even though they didn’t speak the same language—they ended up marching together, tying on their bandanas and getting over the differences to unite for a better life. I think that's a message that's important right now in today's divisive world and that's a part of what we do, too.
You’re drawing those connections between the Mine Wars that took place one-hundred years ago and today.
Yes. I think we saw it in the teacher strike—them wearing their bandanas and exploring their history and drawing from that, drawing straight from it. I think that was a fantastic thing.
Awesome. Thank you. How does food play into the history of the Mine Wars?
Having enough to eat for any of us is a major life accomplishment. If you don’t have enough food to even feed your family, then that means the family has less chances to survive, so it was a basic essential.
And the other part of it is, when they brought all the immigrants with all of these differences here together in the Tug Valley of West Virginia or Logan County or any of these other little communities, there was so much diversity. The Italians with spaghetti and those kinds of things, those are not things that would be very easy to take in the coal mine and eat, so they adapted their pizzas to a pizza roll that was convenient to eat. So the food itself adapted to the jobs and the situation, and then the sharing of the differences. Most of the communities, they have little things they borrowed from each other and learned from each other and a lot of times, they don’t even remember where the recipes come from. And then in some families, it was very strong to remember, when they made this dish, that this was from their ancestors. Elijah Hooker, one of our board members at the time [of the Strike Supper], told about how his family from Lebanon, even today, always has a meat dinner that they fix for holiday celebrations.
That’s incredible. And they’ve been here for what, a century?
Yeah. I think they even had the Qur'an they brought with them over across the ocean.
Then I know of other families, the Hungarians that brought the looms to make homemade lace. And they also brought all kinds of new recipes. I remember one of our neighbors at Red Jacket making Hungarian goulash. Of course, they weren’t Hungarian, this family wasn’t. But there was lots of Hungarian families in this area. So this was another tradition they had gotten from some of their neighbors.
One of my favorite neighbors at Red Jacket was a man that was a Hungarian that lived across the road from me. And an old lady that had came from a Pennsylvania Dutch family. Those were rich traditions there in the coalfields, and so much diversity. I remember a friend of mine that, at the time she was probably seventy or close to eighty years old, talking about around the turn of the century. All of these families that moved in here, and her as a little girl growing up in the coalfields of West Virginia. This one family was from Germany and they had brought all of their homemade Christmas ornaments, little wooden mechanical things and they would decorate for Christmas and they’d allow the neighborhood children to come in and see their things they brought with them. She got to go in the house and look at these things when she was little. Things that she’d not seen before.
That's awesome—so many different cultures coming together.
In September, the Mine Wars Museum hosted the Strike Supper. How did the idea come about for the supper?
I grew up there at Red Jacket and I enjoyed those differences in my neighbors. And I remember details, little things that were different. I feel like to lose some of that dilutes the history—we have lost something beautiful of our past if we do that. I thought this would be a good way to bring out stories, and it was.
Our friend Joe Vaggot did his cultural dishes, and he was telling the story of [his grandmother] that I remember from school that owned this little restaurant that we loved. He told how she came here and got married and her husband died in the mines when her children were really young and she had to make a living for these children. So she got a job as a cook in the school and the foods that [Joe] remembered her teaching him how to make—because she cooked with him when he’d come. They'd be in the kitchen together, cooking and sharing stories, and he shared those with us at the Strike Supper. This was what I dreamed would happen, that we’d get more stories and more interest, and we did.
There’s an expression [in the mines], “Dump your buckets, we’re on strike.” What that meant was you had your dinner bucket and you took quite a bit of water in with you for drinking so that you stayed hydrated while you were working. So when they went on strike, [the miners] would dump that water out and say, “We're not working today,” and then go home. So those terms like that, that was a part of the striking tradition. I had put a little basket together and a dinner bucket and all that to set on the table with a sign saying, “Dump your buckets,” so that we remembered some of those things.
That's part of what this museum is about—uncovering history, preserving those things, and also reflecting on why it's relevant today. I don't believe in holding onto the past and trying to duplicate it. I believe in taking the strength of what's good that worked. What was important to learn from that and carry it forward while you make changes in the way you do things.
I feel like the Strike Supper was very successful. We had a packed house.
I saw pictures! There were so many people there.
Yes. One of the teachers from Virginia Tech brought her students, so a whole group of young people was sitting and sharing this dinner with us, and hearing some of the stories—because some of the stories were told during the time that people were having their dinner. We also gave some awards for those people that had been unusually strong in preserving history or those kinds of things that we feel are characteristics that we like to highlight. That was the special part of this, The Red Bandana Awards.
What were some of the dishes that were served at the Strike Supper?
Oh, I wish I had somebody else to tell you about that because I cannot remember the names for anything. I just remember this one Hungarian dish [chicken paprikash] that Krista Martin and Lou brought or were cooking there, and it had some delicious mushrooms. It was so good. And then they did Hungarian crepes, one group did. They had homemade jellies that had been made in the coastal areas and the crepes were lined with these jellies, all kinds of varieties. We had a Romanian dish, something about a rice pudding or a wedding soup. That was very unusual—I had never heard of this.
Are there any other food-related projects in store for the Mine Wars Museum?
While we were planning [the Strike Supper], I got a call from Mike Costello that was doing the Appalachian Food Summit and he asked me if I would talk and share some of the stories. So I did, I went up and talked during the Food Summit and they had a delicious meal and a packed house—this was up close to Clarksburg area.
We just had a board member added to our board and that was Courtney Boyd. Courtney has worked real hard with these different groups doing cultural dishes, and promoting farmers’ markets in West Virginia. She came the night before the supper, and at 10 o’clock was picking up all the pinto beans we were going to be cooking from a farmer where they were grown in West Virginia. That's dedication. We knew we had to keep this girl, she was such a fabulous part of this whole thing. So we asked Courtney to be on our board and she said yes and we're very grateful to have her. She has worked hard with everything from farmers markets to making sure people realize the importance of produce that has been grown here in West Virginia, and sharing that and choosing that as a more healthy choice than the things that you find canned or frozen.
She sounds like a really great addition to the Mine Wars Museum.
You grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia. I’m curious—what dishes do you remember most from your childhood and are there any that you still make today?
One of the things that I couldn't fix for the Strike Supper—it would've been very easy to fix, but it was the wrong season—my mom used to gather what she called tangle gut. It’s a succulent type-plant, very small and turned and twisted and viney, and it has little purple flowers and the purple flowers bloom in the spring. And they would gather this and you fix it just like you’d fix any kind of greens—just some vinegar or salt or seasoning, that kind of thing.
I think all Appalachian families remember pinto beans, cornbread, and gravy and biscuits being a very big part of breakfasts and dinners in the coalfields. Anywhere you went to eat, you would have found those basic things on the table.
And then, of course, there is things like the mushrooms, the morels. There was so many different names for morels. The Native Americans named them ground fish—I don't know how you pronounce their actual word for it. [Editor’s note: much of southern West Virginia is located on occupied Shawnee, Moneton, and Tsalaguwetiyi land.] And then in some of the other traditions it was molly moochers.
I remember molly moochers really well [from when I lived in Appalachia]. They're so delicious. And that's such a fun word for them.
I think it is, too. I like the word groundfish, too, because I think they do have the taste of fish.
That texture, too. Totally.
Well thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really, really appreciate it.
[After our interview, Wilma reached out and asked me to add one last thing to the conversation:
Wren, one thing I forgot to mention: When we share your food, we are sharing our lives. Hoarding vast wealth is unnatural and it drains the wealth of so many, yet the money doesn't support life. It disconnects people from understanding, from compassion, and from nurturing life itself. We are giving life when we share food.]