The charismatic teacher strode onto the dais at Berea College last weekend and held the crowd of scholars, foodists, writers and plain old hill people rapt during his (too short) presentation.
We ran into Alvarez on a conference break at Berea Coffee and Tea where he was stunned at the assessment that he delivered the most compelling speech.
“No, no, no, you’ve got to be kidding me” exclaimed the taco-loving Kentuckian.Unfortunately Alvarez has taken a position at St John’s in New York and will be leaving the Bluegrass state soon.
The Appalachian Food Summit was founded in 2014 and is still in its infancy but you’d never know it if you sat in on the festivities last weekend. We made the 800 mile drive from New Orleans to Berea heavily fantasizing all the while as we were champing at the bit to get a plate of food from Travis Milton, one of the Summit’s founders and a much-celebrated cook who’s opening his own joint in Bristol, Tennessee next year.How was his food? With a full kitchen of helpers including Ouita Michel, a hotshot out of nearby Lexington, we weren’t able to discern which dishes were his so we’ll limit ourselves to discussing a few random plates.
Working within the confines of buffet/groaning board-style service can be tricky for even the most seasoned cooks but Milton and his team pulled off the feast without a hitch. Some dishes were better than others just as at any restaurant: the fried chicken was properly cooked but needed seasoning, the deviled eggs were sublime, perhaps the most perfectly wrought food of the evening, the hushpuppies were leaden and cried out for a stiff dose of baking powder while the accompanying catfish was an old-school throwback dish; catfish has had most of its flavor bred-out over the last 20 years so when we get lucky and get a version that actually has taste we go all in and nearly founder.Supper was good.
Earlier at the conference we sat in on a dual-talk issued from two doyennes of southern foods: Toni-Tipton Martin and Ronni Lundy. They focused on Malinda Russell, a free woman of color who self-published an Appalachian cookbook in the 1800s and was an early exemplar of rural entrepreneurship. The two gals may as well have been having a chat in a kitchen nook such was their familiarity with one another. They’ve clearly been friends forever and their talk was filled with an easy charm that we found satisfying.We’re always on the hunt for additions to our Eastern Kentucky Chili Bun series so on the luncheon break we piloted our way 16 miles up Big Hill to the community of Sandgap to visit the Frosty-Ette, an old curb hamburger joint that opened up back in 1953.
A half-naked boy child, covered in dirt and mosquito welts shifted antsily about as his daddy placed an order for a sack of cheeseburgers. A mountain of a woman in a tent-like UK t-shirt rolled out of an old, dust-covered car to lay in dinner for her attendant brood. Two workmen in boots and torn Wranglers sat off to the side eating chili dogs and drinking pop out of paper cups. A racoon lay dead on the blacktop.We thought of all the Appalachian Food Summit attendees back in Berea eating lunch in the fancy dining room at Boone Tavern and wished we could have carried them out here to Sandgap where mountain folks have kept fed for over 60 years.
After a rough and tumble Friday night drinking whiskey in the old railroad town of Corbin we were not up in time for the Gurney Norman talk that started at the ungodly hour of 9:30 am. Our loss. We’ll scour the internet and try and find a synopsis.
Courtney Balestier provided an early highlight of the conference with her rollicking discussion on the West Virginia pepperoni roll. Balestier, a pea pod pixie of a lass with an excitable demeanor, had the crowd ready to pile into a van and split straight up the highway for the Mountaineer state. We look forward to hearing more from this scribe in the future.After the feast we loiter around for a bit soaking in some atmosphere. A tattooed skinhead fresh out of the penitentiary works on his third plate of food, folks a table over furtively sip on flasks they’ve pirated into the party, cooks race out of the kitchen carrying evermore platters filled with fresh meats and vegetables, other diners step onto the balcony for Pall Malls and storytelling.
We slowly roll out of Berea and point south toward our former Cumberland Highlands home.