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At Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia, husband-and-wife duo Mike Costello and Amy Dawson hone in on the stories behind recipes served at their famed farm-to-table dinners. The foods served are rooted in Appalachian traditions.
Recently semi-finalists for the prestigious James Beard Award, Lost Creek Farm was an outlier in a category typically reserved for conventional restaurants.
Lost Creek Farm isn’t a restaurant. Costello and Dawson aren’t hosts and waiters as much as they are stewards and storytellers.
Folks come from all over for a taste of their cuisine and knowledge, including Yo-Yo Ma and the late Anthony Bourdain. But it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from because dinners at Lost Creek Farm are about connecting with community.
In fact, two community experiences from Costello and Dawson’s childhood inspire their work at Lost Creek Farm. Costello and Dawson typically kick off dinner events with a curious appetizer that’s a mashup of two unassuming food traditions from their childhoods: communion wafers topped with apple butter. The combo is symbolic of the farm-to-table dinners themselves.
Memories Of Making Food As A Community
As I arrived at Lost Creek Farm the birds were chirping and the sun was shining over the rolling meadows. After being greeted by Costello and Dawson, they took me on a tour of the farm.
While visiting the chickens, Costello told me about some of the projects they’re working on.
“We’re building a fruit orchard,” Costello said. “There were some apple trees here on the farm when we moved in, some pear trees. A lot of wild fruit. A lot of wild blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, those kinds of things.”
Costello and Dawson have lived on this land for six years. But it has been in Dawson’s family for close to 150 years. Dawson learned a lot about working a farm when she visited her grandparents.
“Growing up, my family always had a big garden. And we always would can. And so most of my summers were spent essentially doing food prep,” Dawson said. “If you live on a farm, you just do food prep all the time, and food preservation.”
When Costello and Dawson inherited the farm, it had been neglected for years. They devoted themselves to getting the farm back in working order. The couple raise meat rabbits and laying hens. They forage for foods in the surrounding woods. They raise vegetables from heirloom seeds entrusted to them by community members. And they’ve got their fruit orchard.
Costello took me below the vegetable garden and chicken yard to the orchard. “A lot of these trees that we have down here are regional varieties,” Costello said. “Apples we grafted yesterday — we grafted 21 trees that will go into the orchard — we’ll plant them later this year.”
The couple will use these apples for a few different things, including apple butter. Dawson described the apple butter as caramelized and tastes sweet. Costello likes to play around with flavors and often adds bourbon and sage to hit some fiery and herby notes.
For Dawson, making apple butter takes her back to her childhood. “Apple butter is one of the first memories that I had, like, as a family — it being kind of a community, like it wasn’t just my family that did it,” Dawson said. “It was friends and, you know, extended family would come and make the apple butter in the fall.”
The seasonal ritual of making apple butter helped Dawson understand the connection between food and community. It’s a daunting task to peel, core, and chop bushels of apples, and then stir them for hours over heat before canning.
If ever an event called for community effort, it is one like this one. Time spent cooking with large groups of neighbors and friends is as social as it is productive.
Dawson isn’t the only one of the couple to grow up with memories of cooking in community.
Costello grew up in Elkview, West Virginia, and he often accompanied his grandmother to Emmanuel Baptist Church to make communion wafers. “I have a lot of fond memories of when I was a kid, my grandmother and the other elderly women in the church making communion wafers on Thursday and Friday mornings for Sunday service,” Costello said. “She would take my brother and I down there on those mornings, and we would sort of watch all these women rolling out these big sheets of dough and making these communion wafers.”
As an adult, Costello had put the wafers out of his mind, until he discovered his grandmother’s recipe. “When my grandma died, I got her recipe collection. And I found this recipe in there for those communion wafers,” Costello said.
For him, the significance of this recipe has little to do with religion. “We did not go to church with my grandma on Sundays,” Costello said. “I never had any sort of idea of the religious significance of them, I just thought they were this tasty kind of snack. I kind of had forgotten about them.”
Discovering the recipe brought back memories for Costello. “What came to mind for me was, you know, that image of all those women making those communion wafers, and how it sort of represented to me, the first memory that I have of people, here or anywhere else, making food as a community,” Costello said.
Two Food Traditions Merge
In their work today, Costello and Dawson have merged these two traditions and are sharing them with others. Last year, they made an online video tutorial of how to make the wafers. In a playful exchange, they note how curious people think it is that the two snack on communion wafers.
But the wafers are more than a simple snack. In the video, Costello and Dawson explain the significance of the wafers.
“People who know us or are familiar with our work know we like to hone in on the stories behind the food that we make. That’s what makes these communion wafers so special to us,” Dawson said in the video.
In the recipes for both the apple butter and wafers, there is one ingredient that isn’t tangible but is just as important as the others.
It’s the group effort aspect of these recipes — the shared ritual of making food together. For Costello, this is especially true for the communion wafers. “I love to put those crackers on a plate, to open our events,” Costello said as we walked. He later explained more as we wrapped up the farm tour.
“When you can consume that at the dinner table and can consume the story that goes along with it, you know… you’re connecting with people,” he said. “And you’re connecting with thousands of years of history of that being in all the hands and all of the communities that it has passed through to get to that point.”
Lost Creek Farm Inspires And Creates Community
The apple butter and communion wafers are symbolic of the dinner events themselves, a place where people come together around Appalachian foods and traditions.
Arriving at the farm, guests are greeted with music and a warm fire burning outside. Under string lights and bright stars, folks are seated around the communal table, some meeting for the first time. Some of the foods served are simple, like apple butter and communion wafers. But there is more to it than that.
“If you just look at the ingredients, you look at the recipes, apple butter and crackers, not that big of a deal, right? But, there’s so much meaning packed into it,” Costello said.
Part of that meaning is the communities of people who have shaped these two food traditions. And the new communities Costello and Dawson are creating at Lost Creek Farm.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.