Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Appalachian Chicken and Waffles: Countering Southern Food Fetishism

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Appalachian Chicken and Waffles: Countering Southern Food Fetishism

Article excerpt

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In the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1970s and early 1980s, summer Saturday nights brought out square dancers and doggers. Absent of specialized shoes or frilly petticoated outfits, the dancers only needed an empty barn, a bluegrass band, a caller, and an even number of couples to take the floor. A young Belgian man from Wisconsin discovered the region's barn dances that night. He had grown up on polkas and had come to the mountains as an engineer for a new industrial plant. The band learned "Roll Out the Barrel" for him and the man learned every complicated figure the caller sang out. He met a woman there whose family had lived in the mountains since the 1780s. They married, had a daughter, and together they attended the dances each summer. Returning home at one in the morning, they arrived at their 1960s suburban house located one mile up a steep mountain. Everyone put on pajamas while he pulled out his chrome-plated electric waffle maker, and before bed he made a breakfast feast for all. Too late for dinner, too early for breakfast, exhausted and energized from music, dancing, and late night adventures, the family added scrambled eggs, syrup, bacon and leftovers to the waffle supper. Were they Appalachian waffles? Does such a thing exist in the popular consciousness? Were they Belgian waffles? They were not what is marketed under the name today--not thick, not covered with whipped cream, not made on a machine stamped with the word. Buttermilk, some cornmeal, and fresh butter turned out crispy, light, and perfectly thin waffles that restored body and soul after a long night of Appalachian dancing and music. The satisfied family tumbled into bed in the wee hours of the night.

For Christmas mornings, the same family crawled out of bed well before dawn, in the dark of the cold night. They had to get ready to go to the woman's mother's house for country breakfast. Some years there was a pretense of calling it "Christmas brunch," but the fancy phrase obscured the fact that if you were not there in line with your plate by 7:45 a.m., you missed out. For the family that lived more than thirty minutes away from their destination, quickly exploring a few treasures from Santa, packing gifts, and donning Christmas finery under warm winter coats before piling into the car for the long drive meant early mornings indeed. Upon reaching the bright lights of the house and navigating the driveway packed with relatives' vehicles, the sleepy family piled into the kitchen. Heat wafting from the stove collided with cold mountain air streaming from the porch. The stove had cast iron skillets and dutch ovens covering every eye--eggs scrambling, bacon crackling, grits simmering, and chicken frying. Gravy was nearby; biscuits were in the oven; ham was already on the table. Family members brought homemade jellies, jams, honey, and cane syrup. Coconut cakes, fruitcakes, divinity, fudge, and other holiday candies and desserts sat ready. The chickens were store-bought and the stove was electric in the 1970s, but little else had changed in the preparation of the fried chicken. Was it Appalachian fried chicken? It was not thickly coated in crunchy layers, not always divided into perfectly sized pieces, not what one finds in restaurants or cookbooks today. Yet buttermilk, a little cornmeal, and lard turned out crispy, juicy, and perfectly cooked pieces that celebrated the season as thoroughly as the tree, stockings, and hymns.

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Recently, I was asked to join a discussion on authenticity and nostalgia in southern food studies. My task was to talk about Appalachian chicken and waffles. The previous two paragraphs are as close as I can come to a personal engagement with the dish; my father is the Belgian polka/square dance aficionado, and my grandmother on my mother's side hosted those Christmas feasts, though try as I might I cannot conjure a night where the post-square dance waffles and the pre-dawn chicken trek coincided to make a single dish. …

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