Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes. By Mark F. Sohn. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005. Pp. xviii + 346, foreword, preface, acknowledgments, map, photographs, appendices, bibliography, index. $26.00 paper)
Mark F. Sohn's Appalachian Home Cooking is a compendium of recipes, historical notes, ethnography, tips on cooking, and cultural commentary. Sohn, a professor of educational psychology at Pikeville College in Kentucky for over twenty years, is also trained as a chef; he writes food columns for the local paper and teaches culinary arts at community workshops. Although he intends this book to be a cultural history and an ethnography of Appalachian food, his primary interest is in the creative use of recipes and foods associated with the Appalachian region. As he states in his preface, the book is "both a search for the past and an attempt to extend that past into the future" (xiii). While the two purposes are not necessarily contradictory, the duality does create confusion in reading the book as a scholarly text.
Some of the problems reflect larger issues of how to define regional cultures and foods in general. Are regions best approached as a geographically bounded space or as a state of mind, a shared culture, a common sense of identity? Is everyone who lives in the mountains stretching from Alabama to Ohio an Appalachian? How do we acknowledge and mediate diversity with a unified cultural region? Sohn struggles with these issues, but does not, to my mind, dig deeply enough and does not clearly spell out his own answers.
The book is divided into two main parts: "Appalachian Foodways" and "Appalachian Food," followed by an annotated listing of festivals and mail-order food companies along with a glossary of food terms. The first part offers a cultural history of the food traditions of Appalachia. Such a history is sorely needed but unfortunately is not done well here. Historical information is not consistently supported by references, and Sohn implies a continuity of food traditions going back 12,000 years, overlooking changes in cultural identity.
To his credit, Sohn acknowledges the diversity of cultures that have settled Appalachia, although he does not distinguish between pockets of ethnic groups and the cultural identities that shaped the region as a whole. He briefly mentions race in a discussion of soul food, but overlooks the many parallels between southern blacks and Appalachian mountain residents as poorer southerners who had to make do with whatever resources were available. Some statements are misleading: the Cherokee are the only Native Americans mentioned (Chapter 1). Irish immigrants from the potato famine of 1846-1850 were not the ScotsIrish who originally settled the Appalachian region (Chapter 5). German settlement in the 1700s is ignored, and there is no discussion of German influence still seen in foods such as sauerkraut, applebutter, and fried meats. The discussion of traditions also tends to bounce around from contemporary Appalachia to generic pioneer America to a specific locale in Kentucky. Overall, the first part leaves many questions unanswered while offering somewhat questionable histories of Appalachian food. …