In this this interview, Carrie Tippen talks with Elizabeth Engelhardt, co-editor of the new collection The Food We Eat, the Stories We Tell: Contemporary Appalachian Tables (Ohio University Press, 2019), also edited by Lora Smith and published by Ohio University Press. We are also joined by Courtney Balestier who is a contributor to the collection.
Though the collection is diverse in genre – including academic essays alongside poetry, memoir, and illustration – the contents are united around challenging and complicating a notion of a single Appalachia. The editors and many of the contributors are connected to the Appalachian Food Summit, a symposium of foodways scholars, professionals, and enthusiasts who meet for dinners, dialogues, and annual conferences. Engelhardt describes the popular and scholarly attention to Appalachian stereotypes as “a dead end conversation” that the collection tries to avoid and undo by highlighting the creativity and diversity of the region, its people, and its food. As Engelhardt explains in the introduction, the collection’s eclectic mix of genres, topics, and contributors reflects the complexities of the contemporary region by generating cognitive dissonance through the structure of the book.
The collection features the voices of people living in and out of the region from a wide variety of experiences and ethnicities, Like many of the contributors in the collection, Balestier describes her own path toward Appalachian identity through living outside the region. Her essay on the “Hillbilly Highway” and the Kentucky social club of Detroit asks if perhaps a coherent Appalachian identity is most meaningful to people who have left the geographic region of the mountains. The topics of the essays run the gamut from the idealized and organic home-canned chow-chow to the mass produced and capitalized Banquet frozen fried chicken and factory-packed pickle spears. Many of the objects that come to represent Appalachia are a compromise, a negotiation between the local and the global: repurposed Cool Whip containers of leftovers, a mass-marketed cookbook with a life story inside, Blue Ridge tacos and kimchi in soup beans, a store-bought dinner that approximates home-made just closely enough to keep a family’s matriarch as the cultural heart of the family. Engelhardt explains in the interview that these stories are not intended to be a definitive representation of Appalachia; rather, she hopes they will be an invitation to a conversation about the relationships of people to place.
Elizabeth Engelhardt is John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in the department of American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. .
Lora Smith directs the Appalachian Impact Fund, a social impact investment fund focused on economic transition and opportunity in Eastern Kentucky.
Courtney Balestier is a writer whose work focuses on the intersection of place and identity, particularly in her native Appalachia.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.