Food editor Mike Costello shares his vision for Appalachian food. (It's complicated.)

May 1, 2018

“Food is political but not partisan.” This apt perspective came from Mike Costello in a conversation earlier this year as we imagined ways to expand 100 Days in Appalachia beyond political coverage, and he joined the team to lead our reporting on food and culture for the region. Mike has long been one of my favorite Appalachians — a printmaker, fiddler, storyteller, satirist, photographer, square dance caller, restorator, entrepreneur, food historian, gardener, forager, hunter ... and brilliant chef. Mike is co-owner of Lost Creek Farm with his partner, Amy Dawson, and has led pop-up dinners throughout the region as a form of place-based, cultural performance. His storytelling dinners are so much more than meals, and we know his work for 100 Days in Appalachia will be about so much more than food.

The rest of the world will get a glimpse of Mike through Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, when it airs tonight, but as 100 Days in Appalachia likes to remind our readers ... there is always more to the story. Here Mike talks about his experience with “Parts Unknown” and shares his unique vision for what he’s dubbed “The Seed Swap,” a collaborative way to tell Appalachia’s complex economic, political, cultural and human stories through food.

— Dana Coester, Executive Editor

This evening CNN’s “Parts Unknown” airs, and for a few minutes of the show, Anthony Bourdain is at Lost Creek Farm. You have what some might think is a surprising reaction to being featured on the show.

It’s hard to explain, but when something like this happens, you’re not just basking in publicity overnight. Sure, it’s an honor to feel like people are paying attention to your work, but it’s all pretty stressful, actually. When you’re from a place that’s been so consistently misrepresented, you feel a tremendous weight on your shoulders any time you’re picked out to represent the state and the region. In a way it’s kind of silly, because it’s out of your hands. It’s up to the editors and producers to decide how the story is framed, but you still want to do your best to make people here proud. You try really hard to tell a story that’s not just your own, but reflects some of the nuance and complexity that’s typically overlooked. It’s all a very heavy lift.

Lou and Jessie Maiuri, with Anthony Bourdain, at Lost Creek Farm during a taping of CNN’s "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown." A master seed saver, Lou, 88, passed several varieties of pole beans down to Mike Costello to grow at Lost Creek Farm.
Credit Mike Costello / 100 Days in Appalachia

Since September, as I’ve been thinking about this show, I’ve become very much aware of the pressure we put on ourselves when something like this happens. It’s so rare that national media asks us to tell our own stories, rather than showing up with a preconceived narrative and picking out characters to fit. But the reality is, even with a thoughtful, respectful production team, it’s impossible to fit every story that deserves to be told into an hour-long show. “Parts Unknown” gave us an opportunity to tell a few stories we don’t normally get to tell on national television, but it’s still incomplete, and that’s what we should expect. I think sometimes we fall into this trap, feeling like every news story or profile of Appalachia should encompass everything we like and nothing we despise about this place. Obviously that’s not realistic, and it just adds to the pressure we put on ourselves. I guess you could say one of the goals of “The Seed Swap” is to alleviate some of that pressure by providing a consistent outlet for homegrown stories. If there’s an article or video that didn’t include certain people or themes, let’s write another article, let’s shoot another video. Let’s add to the conversation and point to the body of work we’re willing to establish through conversation, rather than looking at each story as a high-pressure, get-it-right-or-else scenario.

What originally spurred this idea of launching a food and culture publication with 100 Days in Appalachia?

Of course 100 Days in Appalachia came from a desire to provide counter-narratives to themes of desperation or small-mindedness among white inhabitants of “Trump Country” following the 2016 election. Obviously, those of us who live here know there’s much more to the story — layers of nuance, complexity and diversity omitted from those tired themes. 100 Days really took off, and at the same time, there was a lot more media hype around Appalachian food. Just like the media coverage around the election, Appalachian food stories are often informed by stereotypical ideas, and stories about food are about much more than ingredients and flavors. Food stories are stories about people. When Appalachian cuisine is portrayed as nothing but biscuits and gravy, deep fried snacks and moonshine, there are potentially some pretty damaging takeaways. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of hype around Appalachian food being “trendy.” That’s certainly given rise to some Appalachian writers, chefs and other food businesses, which is really important. But from time to time it’s also had this pigeonholing effect. If you look outside the region to the way Appalachian or southern food is interpreted, you’ll quickly notice it’s the stereotypical expectation of simple mountain food, not the complete story, people are after. In this regard, there’s a lot of similarity between a D.C. area chef who says “Let’s offer something Appalachian — spam and beans in a tin can, which we’ll call ‘best darn’ something-or-other,” and an editor in New York telling a reporter, “Go to Appalachia and write a story — make it about desperate, jobless white people who still don’t regret voting for Trump.”

Why is storytelling so important to your work with food?

I think to really grasp my passion for storytelling as it relates to food, you have to understand what it’s like to grow up with derogatory portrayals of the region in your face as part of everyday life. I’m not just talking about media, although stereotypes were and still are very much present on television and in the movies. I’d see these things all around me growing up. I remember going to gift shops in or around state parks and seeing trashy kitsch like single toothpicks wrapped up with labels that said “West Virginia Toothbrush” or little figurines of barefoot, toothless moonshiners. Even through these hokey trinkets, we were telling a story about who we are to the outside world. In turn, we’re also telling that story to ourselves about how much we value our own cultural assets.

Jonathan Hall gathers wild paw paws during the "Parts Unknown" shoot at Lost Creek Farm in September 2017.
Credit Mike Costello / 100 Days in Appalachia

We all process these narratives in different ways. There are plenty of people I know who, because of the negative connotations around Appalachian identity, moved away and left every morsel of association with the mountains behind. I can’t really say I blame them. But for me, all of those stories inspired me to chip away at telling different stories, with the hope that one day we might be perceived differently, and that young people in Appalachia won’t have to do a risk/reward analysis over embracing place-based culture and heritage.

There are a lot of us out there now, in organizations like the Appalachian Food Summit — a broad network of chefs, farmers, food writers, food justice advocates and so many others — who are sort of on this mission to flip the narrative, and make the story about Appalachian food is one about strength and resilience, rather than shame. I think there’s a lot of good that’s possible when we take food heritage, something we’ve been conditioned to run away from in some sense, and turn it into a source of pride.

Tell us about the name, “The Seed Swap.”

This is something we put a lot of thought into for months. We wanted something that transcended racial and ethnic lines, which can be tough with food. There are certainly dishes that have more cultural overlap than others, but when we looked at certain dishes, ingredients or cooking and preservation techniques, some of them sounded pretty catchy, but with most of those we felt they left people and communities out. That’s the opposite of what we wanted to do. Somewhere in the brainstorming process, “The Seed Swap” emerged as a candidate and it really just seemed to fit. Seed swaps occur when farmers and gardeners get together to share seeds that have been saved, sometimes for many generations. Whether it’s only two home gardeners or a hundred farmers and homesteaders participating, these events represent a sense of community I’ve always considered a trademark of mountain foodways. But seed swaps really go beyond the sharing of seeds, because folks are also sharing tips and tricks they’ve learned for growing certain varieties, and they’re sharing the rich stories behind the crops themselves. Essentially, a seed swap is an exchange of ideas, opinions, information, stories — and that’s what we wanted our publication to be.

How is the name “The Seed Swap” universal?

If you look at the crops that are most closely associated with Appalachia today, even what we grow on our own farm: Fat Horse and Logan Giant pole beans, Bloody Butcher corn, Cushaw and Candy Roaster squash, they have deep roots in Appalachia and Mesoamerica before that, long before the arrival of white settlers. Throughout history, there’s been a tradition of knowledge sharing here. I think a lot about the waves of immigration into the coalfields. You had people from different backgrounds sharing knowledge and resources over gardening to survive. During the mine wars, African American families who left sharecropping arrangements and former Eastern European farm workers were segregated in many ways, but they came together to share knowledge and resources, including seeds, as an expression of solidarity. They grew and preserved food together. Those gardens really became a tool of empowerment when they had enough food on hand to extend miners’ strikes and achieve historic victories for the labor movement. I’ve also witnessed the way seeds have provided entry points into deep conversations that allow us to discover common ground. Last year, I got to hang out with some folks from Oaxaca. When they saw these varieties of bright red and blue corn we were working with, their eyes just lit up, and they started talking about corn from back home in Mexico that looked identical to the varieties we call Bloody Butcher and Blue Clarage. All of a sudden, what started out as a conversation about seeds became a broader exchange about people and place, and that was very special.

Lorelei Tenney bottles freshly boiled sorghum syrup in Tallmansville, West Virginia. Originally from the Philippines, Lorelei and her husband Donnie, a Tallmansville native, grow and process several acres of sorghum cane each fall.
Credit Mike Costello / 100 Days in Appalachia

  What kind of content can we expect?

Over the past several months we’ve been building a team of incredibly thoughtful, talented contributors who’ll be working to produce content in a variety of media. I love sitting down to read great writing, for sure, but I really want to look at how we can use other media, too. Of course, video and audio make sense, but what are some other ways we can tell stories? We have some ideas. Stay tuned.

In terms of themes, we’re not a public relations magazine, which is often expected from food media. Some readers anticipate boastful profiles of chefs and restaurants, and reviews of products from whiskey to barbecue sauce. There’s a place for that, for sure, so I’m not disparaging existing publications, but we’re just going to be different. Will “The Seed Swap” feature farmers and chefs? Sure, but in doing so, I want to look at broader social issues affecting these individuals and their families. I really don’t care for lists so much, but I hope, if we ever run lists, they’ll look less like “Top five new, hip craft breweries that’ll knock your socks off,” more like “Community leaders share five policy ideas to improve food access in Appalachia”. If such a list comes about, we need to really dig in — to learn about the complexity of the issues and celebrate the people doing the work on the ground. And that idea, that the real heroes of our region’s food stories aren’t in restaurant kitchens, but they’re out there in their own homes and communities, doing incredible, largely unnoticed, work is a central theme to “The Seed Swap.”

Can you give us some examples of what that would look like, to look at broader issues through the stories about food or farmers or chefs?

One of the issues that comes to mind for me is access to affordable healthcare. That’s not always something people connect to food, but there are a lot of farmers and entrepreneurs who are only able to do what they do because health insurance suddenly became affordable within the past five years. Now, when we’re looking at perpetual threats to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, there’s a lot of worry and uncertainty among farmers and independent business owners about where they’ll be next year. Recently, I read an op-ed from a very conservative state official who said we needed more full-time farmers in West Virginia. That would be nice, but unless affordable health care and other facets of a certain social infrastructure are in place, it’s unrealistic to think that’s a possibility.

Another issue I think about a lot, especially this time of year during ramp season, is how extractive industry affects foodways. Right now we’re looking at several major pipeline corridors, some of which will end up in the middle of working family farms, treasured hunting grounds and ramp patches foragers have been frequenting for almost their entire lives. We’re hearing a lot about the economic boost from pipeline construction, but what do farmers and foragers stand to lose? Who’s telling their stories?

Jonathan Hall carries a freshly killed and dressed deer following a hunt at Lost Creek Farm in November 2017. Hall wrote about his experience as a black hunter in West Virginia for "Explore Parts Unknown."
Credit Mike Costello / 100 Days in Appalachia

  “The Seed Swap” will be a publication that largely focuses on Appalachian food, but what, exactly is Appalachian food?

It’s a tough question, and I’m not going to answer it. “The Seed Swap” won’t make an attempt to define it, either. I always say, Appalachian food is up for interpretation, because our experiences as Appalachians vary too widely to arrive at a point of consensus. I know what it means to me, and I know how the people around me have shaped my experience, but Mike Costello's story is not the story of Appalachia. Heck, if you just talk to ten families in North Central West Virginia, you might get ten different answers as to what Appalachian food heritage means, and you’d get another ten answers about how today’s Appalachian food has evolved. It will be interesting to dig in and explore those differences, painting a broader picture of regional identity than many would expect.

Aside from exploring how we each define "Appalachian," I hope we can look at food as more than just a combination of flavors and ingredients. These stories are really about people doing amazing work, whether around diversity and inclusion, economic development, food security and a host of other critical issues facing the region. When people hear "Appalachian food" now, they typically think of dishes they consider to be emblematic of the region's cuisine. I'd like for the associations with Appalachian food to be about the people behind foodways work in the region, just as much as the food itself.

As a chef and journalist, I want to create an outlet that stops short of defining exactly what Appalachian food is, and recognizes that our foodways are constantly evolving with an ongoing shift in social demographics. Most importantly, I want it to legitimize Appalachians as the storytellers of our region. I don’t want to create an environment that discourages others from seeking out stories or discovering our traditions. In fact, some of the most thoughtful, sensitive, community-minded work around Appalachian food and culture is done by folks who came here as outsiders, yet they show this unwavering commitment to the region that deserves recognition. At the same time, I think there’s room to look at certain interpretations of Appalachian identity, especially when they’re commodified for economic gain outside the region, with a critical eye. Going back to the original mission of 100 Days in Appalachia, we’re very much interested in creating an outlet for stories about Appalachians, told by Appalachians.

Food editor Mike Costello (@costellowv‏) is a chef, farmer and storyteller at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.