By: Jimmy Proffitt
A few years ago, my good friend Lydia encouraged me to write more, and after a little thinking on what I should do, I started a blog called The Appalachian Tale. It gave me a place to gather my thoughts, and I wanted to tell the story of my growing up in Appalachia. It wasn’t long, though, before food became part of those tales, and sometimes it is the tale.
I was asked once what made food, or cooking, Appalachian. Well, sometimes it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, and I wasn’t sure right then how to answer. I grew up on Appalachian food, so I had to think about what that really meant, and it occurred to me that the reason food was the story so many times was because I knew every part of it. From tilling up a garden or butchering a hog to setting the table with plates full of what I’d helped prepare, I was involved.
When I was growing up, my neighbors, Charlie and Mary, played an important role there. I’d help Charlie put the garden out, and then I’d help Mary put it up. Charlie taught me how to lay a row in the garden to get ready to plant, while Mary gave me her best pickle recipe. One fall, I entered a jar [of pickles] in the county fair and won first place. However, being a boy all of 13 years old, I didn’t have much competition in my category. Today, I’m kind of famous among my friends for my bread-and-butter pickles. So, to me, Appalachian food and cooking are having your hands in every part of it. You raised it or caught it, prepared it, and also put it up for later. Appalachian food is about earthy flavors infused with the seasons. It’s about fresh from the garden in the summer and storing up food for a cold winter’s day.
I wanted to write a cookbook, too, so I started gathering family recipes and more tales, and I began testing and developing recipes. After all, if I was to help pass down recipes in the family, I’d better have some of my own to add to them. At the end of last summer, I was given an abundance of sweet potatoes. That’s something else that’s very Appalachian: sharing. Around here, you should never go hungry because we make sure there’s enough to go around. I needed to find ways to use them up, but beyond a baked sweet potato, I really hadn’t done much with them. I had a pineapple upside-down cake recipe that I’d worked on for a couple of years, and it’s one of our favorites for the holidays. So, I got in the kitchen and began playing around. I love fall flavors, and while pumpkin is great, I really only like it as a pie. This Pineapple–Sweet Potato Upside-Down Cake feels like fall and the holidays and is so Appalachian to me with the warm seasonal spices and flavor of sweet potatoes. And, preparing anything in a cast-iron skillet makes me feel connected to my family and the Appalachian ways of life.
Find Jimmy’s recipe for Pineapple-Sweet Potato Upside-Down Cake here.