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Almost Heaven Cooking in West Virginia

Travel distances, conditions, and poor roads limited most early settlements to only foods that could be produced locally.  For farmers, pigs and chickens were the primary source of meat, with many farmers maintaining their own smokehouses to produce a variety of hams, bacons, and sausages.

Amost Heaven  Cooking RecipesSeafood, beyond the occasionally locally caught fish (pan-fried catfish is much loved) and crawdads, were unavailable until modern times.  However, West Virginia did offer a wide variety of wild game, with venison and squirrel particularly common, thus helping compensate for distance from major cities and transportation networks.

As wheat flour and baking powder/baking soda became available in the late 19th century, buttermilk biscuits became immensely popular. Salt was primarily available from Saltville, Virginia, but until black pepper appeared, few other seasonings were used.

Women were often herbalists, and used local plants like spicebush in seasoning.  Chicory, which can be grown or gathered locally, was historically used as a coffee substitute during times when coffee was not freely available, such as during the American Civil War and World War 2.  The two primary sweeteners in West Virginia were sorghum and honey--the sugar cane molasses of the lowland South never was a dominant sweetener.

Today, a breakfast of buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy is also very common throughout the region, as well as places Appalachian people have migrated.  Pork drippings from frying sausage, bacon, and other types of pan-fried pork are typically collected and used for making gravy and in greasing cast-iron cookware.  Chicken and dumplings and fried chicken remain much-loved dishes.

Cornbread, corn pone, hominy grits, mush, cornbread pudding and hominy stew are very common foods, as corn is the primary grain grown in the West Virginia hills and mountains.  Fruits that tend to be more popular in this area are apple, pears, and berries.  Sweetened fried apples remain a common side-dish. Maple syrup and maple sugar is occasionally made in the higher elevations where sugar maple grows.

Wild morel mushrooms and ramps (similar to green onions and leeks) are often collected. In West Virginia one may find festivals dedicated to the ramp plant.  Home canning is a strong tradition here as well. Dried pinto beans are a major staple food during the winter months, used to make the ubiquitous ham-flavored bean soup usually called soup beans.

Canning included green beans (half-runners, snaps) as well as shelly beans (green beans that were more mature and had ripe beans along with the green husks). Kieffer pears and apple varieties are used to make pear butter and apple butter.  Also popular are bread and butter pickles, fried mustard greens with vinegar, pickled beets, chow-chow (commonly called "chow") and a relish called corn ketchup.

Tomatoes are canned in large numbers, and fried green tomatoes are common.  Along with sausage gravy, tomato gravy, a roux thinned with tomatoes, is very popular.  A variety of wild fruits like pawpaws, wild blackberries, and persimmons are also commonly available in West Virginia.


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