The Secret Lives of Dried Apples, Biscuits, and Other Appalachian Foods

This story is part of a package celebrating Appalachian food and culture. We asked three writers with Appalachian roots to describe a food that embodies their family and heritage.

For pastry chef Lisa Donovan, dried apples represent her family’s lineage of moonshiners and apple pickers in Check, Virginia.

“Lay them out in the sun on some old screen doors; they can touch each other. Don’t overthink it.”

This was what my 97-year-old Aunt Ruby told me a decade or so ago when I asked her, in my fussy chef way, how best to dry apples.

“You can also do it in the back of your station wagon, if you got one,” she continued. “The sun hits a car window just right during harvest time.”

I had neither a station wagon nor discarded screen doors—still don’t. But her advice on apples, from drying to baking them, remains some of the most pragmatic and useful material I have received to this day.

The lively conversation in our family home in Check, Virginia where Great Uncle Hobe and Great Aunt Annie raised my daddy (as much a farm boy as they come) centered around the tangled stories of moonshiners and apple pickers. Nearly a hundred years ago, Ruby and Annie started picking bushels of apples from the family orchard and with pinched fingers painstakingly placed them, thin slice by thin slice, over screen doors laid out on sawhorses in the backyard. Those were the days my great uncles were stilling illegal spirits across the field and stashing the bottles in the hide-a-hole floorboard cabinets that are still there today.

I come from a lineage of makers, farmers and, as it were, criminals. What a life we no longer live as Americans, all our dexterity, focus, and handiwork benched or nearly abandoned in favor of efficiency. What a life my own family no longer lives. I’m often overcome by the desire to simply take myself out to the woods and make as many usable things as I can with just what I find with my own hands.

These days, I’m looking to take time. I want the stillness that comes from laying out apples as the sun rises, all the while thinking—long thoughts, short thoughts, and questions with no answers. Come nightfall, I’ll lay a bed sheet over the screens so the bugs don’t get them. And later, when I carry the screens onto the porch, I’ll want to sit and think some more. I’ll aim to listen to the crickets for too long and pet the cat for even longer. In the morning, I’ll pinch the apple slices to see if they’re ready (dried, but still supple enough to absorb cooking juices) or if they need one more go under the sun. Then, I’ll hang them high in my kitchen in paper bags all winter long, grabbing what I need as I go, adding them to pies and breads and apple butter and braised pork. And maybe I’ll get that station wagon.

Or maybe I’ll use what I’ve got.

illustration of a biscuit

biscuit-appalachia-Artboard 1.png

illustration of a biscuit
Illustration by Michael Hill

In northern Alabama, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Rick Bragg recalls biscuits and memories of sharing them with his late brother.

I think, sometimes, the best thing I ever ate came from a creased, brown paper sack, folded over and left to keep warm on the dashboard of a late-model Chevrolet pickup. They held a certain kind of biscuit my mother made, though you could also find them at truck stops and fast food chains where Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee meet.

“Park in the sun,” my mother told my big brother, Sam, “and they’ll still be good at supper.” To the rest of the world, that meant lunchtime, but we didn’t care much about the world we could not see through our cracked windshield.

We drove, just Sam and me, over twisting ribbons of asphalt and red-dirt pulpwood roads, into the quiet heart of the Appalachian foothills. We were not old enough for a driver’s license, but we were old enough to drive. We kept going till we were out of earshot of the landowners and game wardens, till the sound of our chainsaws would drift down into the hollers and never rise out again.

It was not stealing, really. We only cut up the trees felled by age or disease or tornadoes, as firewood for our little wood-frame house. We cut all morning. At noon Sam sent me to the truck to get our lunch, and when I swung open the door, that smell flooded out—an ambrosia of thick-cut bacon, scrambled eggs and government cheese, wedged into a buttery cathead biscuit. There were four of them in that sack. Two would have been just a tease. Three would have caused a fistfight.

We sat with our backs against the fallen trunks of ancient trees, eating quietly. He was quiet by nature, then. I was quiet, too, so as not to disappoint him. Brothers are like that, here.

We picked at the crumbs, careful not to let one get away. My mother called them “traveling biscuits,” which made me think of the hot dogs that danced across the screen during intermission at the Midway Drive-In Theater. They always made me laugh.

And I laughed again, in the quiet woods, like a loon.

“You chucklehead,” my brother said, and he tried to be mean about it, but it wasn’t in him. It never was.

He is gone now. Along with those biscuits, and stolen trees—all left adrift down in the hollers, to never rise out again.

<h1 class="title">chestnuts-appalachia.png</h1><cite class="credit">Illustration by Michael Hill</cite>


Illustration by Michael Hill

In Cherokee, North Carolina, author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle has spoken (and unspoken) chestnut traditions.

I will not tell you where the chestnut tree grows on our Cherokee land or how to out-forage deer in early fall. Or how the trees burst with white surrender-flag-flowers, only to give way to spiny, bright green husks.

I should not tell you to wear thick-soled boots as you grind and loosen the nettled hulls underfoot, or to use rawhide gloves to pry apart each carapace. I should not tell you of the chestnut’s sweetness either, or how we covet them in their brief season every year. A canker blight from overseas nearly wiped them all from these Smoky Mountains—not the first foreign invader that has stripped life from Cherokee land. These are the reasons I will not tell you all the secrets of this place.

So instead I’ll tell you of our bread, which bears the texture of a tamale and the smoothness of a dumpling. My father’s grist mill, Saunooke’s Mill, borrows the Oconaluftee River’s energy to grind corn into meal, which we use for the base of the dough. We add chopped chestnuts, mold the mix into fat, palm-sized ovals, and boil them in water until dense and tender.

Then, at the Cherokee Fall Festival, select families will open their booths to lines already forming on the fairgrounds. We’ll sit at long folding tables and peel back the warming hickory leaves or corn blades wrapped around each loaf, like turning worn pages of a sacred text. And let me tell you of the first bite: how the leaves lend their subtle savoriness to the buttery chestnuts, or how the taste of fine-milled maize lingers before melting away.

<h1 class="title">beans-appalachia.png</h1><cite class="credit">Illustration by Michael Hill</cite>


Illustration by Michael Hill

In North Georgia, pastry chef Lisa Donovan unexpectedly discovers pinto beans that remind her of her mother and abuelita.

When I crack open my window in Dalton, I get whacked by a strong scent of mole negro, likely mashed deep with coffee and bread before it even hit the stove (my nose never betrays me). This town, so far north in Georgia it almost hits Tennessee, happens to boast a 52.5 percent Latinx population. It’s nothing like I remembered, when I used to kick around here in my youth, rarely seeing a soul who looked or acted like my mother’s side of the family. Now taquerías, panaderías, and food trucks sit among the brick and white columned buildings common to small town squares throughout the South. Not a 1990s Chi-Chi’s-style cultural eyesore in sight.

The group of friends I’m with are ravenous, fresh off our long hike to scatter a beloved uncle’s ashes at a lake in the Cherokee forest, toasting and toking in his honor. So we follow the mole scent to Tacos Beto, marked by a hand-painted sign with a phone number, no area code. No mole either, my server tells me. “Where do I get that?” I ask. “Oh, anywhere,” she says, “but not here, not today.”

The menu reads like a fantasy: huaraches con chorizo, tacos de lengua, even some very good-looking nachos, which appealed to us greatly after our hike. I get a burrito con frijoles and add rajas y queso as a treat, the way my abuelita would have eaten it. She always added extra shredded iceberg lettuce and fresh jalapeños on the side (the perfect combination of molten interior and cold spicy exterior). Salsa roja only, never green.

After a few intimate moments with the burrito, I stop and inspect a single pinto bean, which has a bite you might like to know at least once in your life, full of a flavor I know in my bones. These are not some tossed-around beans. These are cared-for beans, thrice boiled and rinsed, then simmered, I think, a bit of fat, garlic, and salt added at the end, to keep the texture. I had eaten these beans growing up, the way my mother and abuelita had too and the women before them. And there they were, on a plate off a side road in Dalton, Georgia. Time is funny that way. Suddenly the landscape where you never made sense might one day welcome you back.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit