This is a transcription of Episode 37 — Appalachia.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Four, Episode 37 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Appalachia. We discovered something when we were doing research for Appalachia.
Melissa: We did.
David: Something that was news to both of us, rocked our world a little bit.
Melissa: Completely changed everything I understand about myself.
David: And your family. Mel is Appalachian.
Melissa: And the way I found out is because you yelled from the other room of our flat: Hey, I think you’re Appalachian.
David: It’s true. I was looking at the site for the Appalachian Regional Commission and they had a map, and I was looking at the map and your county is in the map. It is one of the easternmost counties that are part of Appalachia. The county right next to you is not. And similarly, I grew up in Cincinnati. Cincinnati is not in Appalachia, but the county right next door, Clermont, Appalachian.
Melissa: We’ll put that link in Shownotes in case you want to check your county.
David: Mel, are you ready to give us the Appalachia 101?
Melissa: Indeed. Now that I am officially Appalachian.
David: I know! Now that you’re an expert.
Melissa: Okay. First, let’s talk about that pronunciation.
Melissa: I actually grew up pronouncing it AppalAchia. Yeah, but I’ve since learned that Appalachia is the preferred way to say it. We got a good number of emails from our audience urging us to make sure we pronounced it correctly before we did this episode.
David: Yeah, somebody said they were going to throw an apple at us. If you don’t pronounce it right, I’ll throw an apple atcha. It’s good.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s a good meme. I found an excellent video by the author Sharyn McCrumb that explains why this pronunciation is so important. She says that AppalAchia is the pronunciation of condescension and imperialists and of people who don’t want to be associated with the place.
Melissa: Appalachia is how people from there say the name of their home, and that is good enough for me. Appalachia it is. No throwing of apples necessary. Second, there are lots of stereotypes about Appalachia. That it’s all uneducated white people, drinking moonshine, smoking corncob pipes, and feuding with their neighbors.
David: Yeah, I grew up with the old syndicated show Hee Haw.
David: Hee Haw did not do any good for the South or Appalachia as far as those stereotypes go.
Melissa: Neither did the movie Deliverance.
David: Oh, no. With the dueling banjos. Yeah. Burt Reynolds going down the river, running into that kid with a banjo.
Melissa: Bad scene.
David: It went poorly after that.
Melissa: Would it surprise you to learn that this image of Appalachians was created mostly by 20th century yellow journalism?
Melissa: We do not trade in stereotypes on this show, so we are going to do our best to dispel this nonsense today. Appalachia is a geographical and sort of cultural region in the eastern United States. It is named after the Appalachian Mountains that stretch from Canada in the north to Alabama in the south.
David: It is a long walk down the Appalachian.
Melissa: It is a very long walk. The region known as Appalachia, includes 13 states, which I will now list off as quickly and eloquently as possible. We’ve got all of West Virginia.
David: The only state that is entirely in Appalachia.
Melissa: Correct. And then parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Did it all in one breath. It’s home to more than 25 million people. Almost half of them live in rural areas. The population is predominantly of Scots-Irish and German descent and white, ab: . Native Americans and enslaved Africans. So let’s just tear off the Band-Aid.
Melissa: This area belonged to Native Americans first. Cherokee, Iroquois, Powhatan, and Shawnee people started making their homes in the Appalachian Mountains about 16,000 years ago.
David: Hmm. I bet it was nice.
Melissa: But in the 1700s, European immigration started. And that brought bloody battles, broken treaties, and laws like the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that relocated Native Americans, mostly against their will, to the West.
Melissa: Enslaved Africans started arriving in the area in the 16th century, and by 1860 about 10% of the region’s population was black. That leaves the 80 to 90% of the settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries who were German and Scots-Irish. The Scots-Irish were descendants of Ulster Protestants, so they had a healthy distrust of government and Catholicism. And this is where that stereotypical characterization of family loyalty, disdain for authority, and self reliance gets its start.
Melissa: But there was a period when this area would have blended the experiences of white people, black people, and Native American people. And that is evident in the food. Natural remedies, music, folklore, and storytelling traditions.
David: Which are strong.
Melissa: And that’s basically all the really good stuff.
Melissa: The Native American reverence for Nature had a very practical side that was shared with the new settlers, the white settlers. So they learned how native plants had all kinds of practical uses beyond just eating them. They could be used as dyes for fabric, to make tinctures and balms to cure ailments and to make household tools like buckets, brooms, and baskets. Nothing makes hard housework more tolerable than good music.
Melissa: In Appalachia, the fiddle music, ballads and hymns from the British Isles were kind of mashed up with the instrumentation, percussion, and bluesy scales from Africa. Did you know that the banjo originated in Africa?
David: It didn’t. That’s cool.
Melissa: Yeah. Mix all that together with a little Appalachian attitude and you get country music that makes you want to dance. The heartbreak of story ballads. And the sweet high sounds of bluegrass.
Melissa: There’s also a strong storytelling tradition in Appalachia, which is not really a surprise because we also saw that in Scotland. And there’s a strong connection between those two places. I mean, why not tell a tall tale while you’re sewing a quilt or carving something from a chunk of wood? I think a lot of us probably grew up with the larger-than-life folk tales about American frontier heroes like Daniel Boone, who is best known for settling Kentucky. Davy Crockett. We got a lot of data points on Davy Crockett. He was called the King of the Wild Frontier. He wore the coonskin cap and according to the song, he killed him a bear when he was only three. And then there, the two Johns: Johnny Appleseed, who brought apples to the area, and John Henry, the steel driving man who was stronger than a machine.
David: Yeah. I always felt bad for John Henry.
Melissa: I know. It’s a sad story.
Melissa: There’s also an oral tradition, and this is right up my alley for scary stories called Booger Tales. These are stories about witches, panthers, ghosts, and haints.
Melissa: Haints. It’s an alternate spelling of haunt, and it means ghost or spirit. So the family might gather around the fireplace on a cold winter evening to hear a scary tale of the haints in the woods around the homestead.
David: That’s fun.
Melissa: No matter how friendly and beautiful the forest was during the day. At night? Yeah. It was deep and dark and there were lots of mysterious noises.
Melissa: According to folklore, you can keep haints away by painting the porch ceiling blue because the blue looks like water, and the spirits don’t want to cross that. When someone dies, it’s very important to cover the mirrors so their spirits won’t be trapped in the mirror.
David: I’ve heard that one.
Melissa: And never, ever leave a rocking chair rocking. That just invites the spirit to take a seat and stay a while.
David: I still don’t like to do that.
Melissa: I do not like rocking chairs. They are scary. They rock on their own. Who wants that?
Melissa: On the page? Yes. In my life, no. Hard pass. So let’s banish all those ghosts by talking about the reasons you might want to visit Appalachia.
Melissa: This is such a softball. What I’m going to say. The mountains are really beautiful.
David: Yeah, they are.
Melissa: There are stunning. Waterfalls and carpets of colorful wildflowers. There are high peaks where you can climb up into the clouds and caves underground with amazing crystal formations. The area is dotted with picturesque small towns that are great for a weekend getaway. And if you’re up for a longer trip and a much bigger challenge, you can hike the Appalachian Trail.
Melissa: My number one reason for wanting to go to Appalachia right now is five words: sweet and savory banana pudding.
Melissa: I’ll be telling you more about that when we get to books.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
David: Today we are going to talk about the world’s most famous Appalachian. You know who it is.
Melissa: Is it not Davy Crockett?
David: It’s not Davy Crockett. It’s not Daniel Boone. It’s not Belle Star. The world’s most famous Appalachian is Dolly Parton.
Melissa: Oh, of course, Dolly.
David: Yeah. She grew up dirt poor, one of 12 children. She went on to write ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘9 to 5.’ She has sold 100 million records. She also starred in 9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias. She has an amusement park in Tennessee called Dollywood. She is worth an estimated half a billion dollars.
Melissa: Good for her.
David: Yeah. And she’s been honored in at least 14 halls of fame, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and soon, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dolly has done all right for herself. So I’m going to say three statements. Two of these are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie.
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: First, Dolly Parton once came in second in a Dolly Parton look alike contest. Two: An airplane was once forced to make an emergency landing because a woman would not stop singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ in midair.
Melissa: That’s a hard song, too. You do not want to hear someone sing that poorly.
David: Accurate. And three: Dolly Parton is directly responsible for a global increase in literacy.
Melissa: Once again, they all sound true.
David: So let’s do them in order. First one: Dolly Parton once came in second and a Dolly Parton look alike contest.
David: That is the lie.
Melissa: Oh, no! I failed already.
David: Dolly Parton once saw that there was going to be a drag queen celebrity impersonator contest in Santa Monica. That’s close to where she lives. In an interview with ABC, she said she went back to her house and overexaggerated her look.
Melissa: What does that look like?
David: That’s exactly where I went with that. She said she made her eyes bigger and her beauty mark bigger and pumped up her hair. And she went out that night to the contest with a bunch of friends. She didn’t tell anybody who she was. She waited her turn. She walked out onto the stage and nothing. It was the most silence Dolly Parton has walked out to in probably 50 years.
David: Yeah. Dolly said she got a big kick out of it. She came in dead last.
David: Dolly isn’t the only celebrity who wasn’t able to pass as themselves. It’s said that Charlie Chaplin did not make the second round and a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. And Hugh Jackman once went to Comic-Con as Wolverine and got noticed by two people, and only two people. One of them looked at him and said, Whoa, way too tall, buddy.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: The second statement was: An airplane was once forced to make an emergency landing because a woman would not stop singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ in mid-air.
Melissa: That means that’s true.
David: It’s true. So first we need to talk about that song. When I was researching this online, a lot of people think that’s a Whitney Houston song. That is a song that Dolly Parton wrote when she was young, 21 or so. This was 1967. She was taken under the wing of Porter Wagoner, who was a big country star at the time. Together, they made a bunch of records and played together on his weekly syndicated TV show. They went on to have a six-year streak of top ten singles. I imagine Porter felt like he fell out of the lucky tree and hit every branch on the way down. But Dolly got to a point where she wanted to go out on her own. Porter, understandably, was not keen on this idea, so Dolly came in one day after they’d had a blow up and she said, I want to play this for you. Just listen. And then she sat down with her guitar and sang him ‘I Will Always Love You.’
Melissa: Oh, my gosh. I just got tears in my eyes.
David: I know! She’d written it the day before. And that’s how Dolly Parton orchestrated the greatest breakup of all time.
David: Yeah. It’s also worth noting that on the day she wrote ‘I Will Always Love You,’ she also wrote ‘Jolene.’
Melissa: That’s just showing off.
David: Her most covered song. Dolly would later describe that as a good writing day. But back to the event. In 2013, there was an American Airlines flight from LA to New York. It was diverted to Kansas City because of what was described as a very unruly passenger. She refused to stop singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ until the crew and fellow passengers couldn’t take it. Finally, they put her in cuffs and took her off the plane. There’s a video of this event. In my head, I wanted that to be a lovesick woman, leaving L.A. brokenhearted and sad and just singing away until the rest of the airplane was too blue to go on. The video does not support that version of the story. I’ll let you get to that on your own.
David: So the third statement is: Dolly Parton is directly responsible for a global increase in literacy. And that is true.
Melissa: And that is my favorite one. Good job, Dolly.
David: Yeah. In 1995, Dolly Parton founded and launched a project called The Imagination Library. The library’s goal was to send every child in Severe County, Tennessee, a book once a month from birth until they turn five. Severe County is where Dolly was born. Dolly did that because of her father. Her father was an intelligent man, but she felt that his inability to read kept him from fulfilling all of his dreams. She’s written about it and said he was always a little ashamed that he never learned to read.
Melissa: So sad.
David: The program did well and it kept growing. It is now expanded through the US and into Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. They ship 1 million books a month.
Melissa: A million books a month!
David: In 2020, they shipped their 150,000,000th book and in 2021 they got an award from the Library of Congress for their work. Hundreds of thousands of children worldwide know Dolly Parton not as a singer or a movie star or a millionaire, but as the book lady. Dolly’s dad died in 2000. She says that before he died, he told Dolly that the Imagination Library was the most important thing she’d ever done.
Melissa: Again. Tears in my eyes.
David: All right. There’s a video from PBS NewsHour on Dolly’s Imagination Library. If you like seeing cute kids talking about how much they enjoy reading, it’s worth 5 minutes. Oh, I wanted to mention, if you like the song ‘Islands in the Stream,’ you could do worse than go over to YouTube and spend a half hour watching different couples cover it. Many of them are super cute. There’s something about watching two people sing to each other, particularly when they’ve got lines like, ‘this could be the year for the real thing.’ That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want to talk about books?
Melissa: Always. I feel like I just got infused with the spirit of Dolly.
David: It’s a good feeling.
Melissa: My first recommendation is The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michelle Richardson. I have to thank all of our audience members who emailed me and encouraged me to read this book. I loved it. It’s a historical novel set in 1930s, Kentucky, and it’s a pretty simple story. Our heroine, Cussy Mary, is a librarian in a mountainous community in eastern Kentucky. But there are two things that set her apart. One, she’s a horseback librarian.
Melissa: Yes. And two, she’s blue.
David: Like sad, long, and lonesome?
Melissa: No, like the color blue.
David: Like her skin is blue.
Melissa: Her skin is blue. Our heroine is a blue woman. And this is not a fantasy novel. So let’s take those things one at a time.
David: She’s a Smurf.
Melissa: She’s not a Smurf, Dave. What I’m about to tell you is all true. In 1820, a French orphan named Martin Fugate moved to Kentucky to claim a land grant on the banks of Troublesome Creek. He married a local girl named Elizabeth Smith. She was full-blooded, red-headed, pale-skinned lass from the wilderness. They got down to the business of making a family. And when all was said and done, they had seven children and four of them were blue. It turns out both parents carried a recessive gene that causes a condition called Methemoglobinemia.
David: So let’s talk about how blue they are for a second. Or were.
Melissa: There are no photographs.
Melissa: They were researched by a doctor in the sixties. My impression is that some of them, some of the members of the family looked pretty blue. And I know from reading this book and from research that when they got agitated, upset, or happy in a way that like a pale person would blush, they turned deeper blue, and their lips and fingernails were quite dark, sometimes purple. In people with this condition, their blood is missing an enzyme. And that means there’s less oxygen in their blood. That makes their blood chocolate brown instead of red, and when it’s seen through their skin, it appears blue instead of white. The Fugates were isolated in the mountains and they married within the family and produced many blue offspring.
Melissa: The last known Blue Fugate was born in 1975.
David: Wow. So the last blue person is still walking with us?
Melissa: Yes. I will put lots of links in show notes. This is fascinating stuff. The second amazing thing in this novel is the Kentucky Packhorse Library Project. It was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to help combat the poverty and despair of the Great Depression. In real life, between 1935 and 1943 a team of women known as Book Women, Book Ladies, and Pack Saddle librarians delivered books to their neighbors living in the remote areas of the Kentucky mountains. In 1930, up to 31% of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read, but they wanted to learn. So this program not only increased literacy, it also connected them to the community and opened up their world a little bit.
Melissa: They were physically isolated, but now they had newspapers and magazines and books coming in and that connected them to the larger world.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: It’s really nice. And again, I’ll have lots of links in show notes because that, too, is really fascinating. So back to our story. Our heroine, Cussy Mary, is blue. She’s a pack horse librarian. She is ashamed of the former, but she loves the latter and she faces two major challenges. Her Pa is hell bent on marrying her off, so she’ll have someone to take care of her.
Melissa: Which is not an easy thing to do because she’s blue. And she’s basically being stalked by a preacher who has a sick fascination with the color of her skin. All she wants to do is live in peace and ride the trails of her delivery route. She doesn’t need a husband to take care of her, and she is not all that interested in the notion of falling in love. She is way too busy with her job and with trying to get through the day without being harassed by the more bigoted members of their community. Because of her blue skin, she’s hated and feared in equal amounts by the small-minded people in their very small town. She’s ridiculed, and she’s ostracized. They have the nerve to ban her from the pie bake dance. Everyone should be allowed to go to the pie bake dance.
Melissa: And even at the library office, she faces blatant discrimination and sometimes violence. But. The people on her delivery route, the readers in the mountains? They are full of gratitude and admiration for her, and a special few of them not only accept the things that make her different, they encourage her to celebrate them. One of her patrons tells her about Picasso’s painting of a pretty blue lady that he saw once. And this is what he says to her: ‘You remind me of her, your fine color. My woman always said, God save that best color for his home. And then he points at the sky and he says. Guess he must have had himself a little left over.’
David: Ah, that’s nice.
Melissa: It’s really nice. And that’s the first time ever that someone referred to her being blue as not just okay, but better than okay, that this was somehow something that made her special instead of something to be ashamed of.
Melissa: This story is rich with details that firmly ground it in place and time. As Cussy Mary goes about her day to day activities, we’re getting the story in her voice — it’s first person — and we learn all about the courting customs of the thirties. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a courting candle.
David: No, no.
Melissa: That was a candle that was a particular length. And when the candle burned down, your suitor had to leave.
Melissa: I also learned a lot about the social hierarchy of rural life. Even in an area that someone from outside would just kind of lump everyone together. There were social strata. The medical practices at the time were really interesting, particularly when a doctor takes an interest in Cussy Mary. And there was this really inside look at the grinding experience of working in the coal mines and how the tragedies associated with that were just kind of accepted as ‘that’s life.’ You work in the coal mine, you get sick, you die the end.
Melissa: Cussy is fierce and kind, brave and frightened, and through all of her many trials, she never lets go of the idea that knowledge and humanity found inside books is the path to our best selves. That’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michelle Richardson.
David: My first book is The Animators. This is a novel from Kayla Rae Whittaker. This is a book about a relationship between two women, one of them Sharon Kisses which is a lovely name. Sharon Kisses is a quiet, observant introvert from the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. And the other, Mel Vaught, is a fast talking Florida girl with a wicked sense of humor. She reminds everyone of Lori Petty from Tank Girl, all thin and edgy and ready to get into mischief. They meet as design students at a fancy art school on the East Coast, and they instantly like each other. They have a bonding evening while they’re watching cartoons, and then they go on to be animators. They get a flat in Brooklyn where they spend years figuring out their craft and they make shorts and movies. They finally break through. Life doesn’t get easier then really, it just kind of gets different.
David: For me, this is a book about three different threads. The first is the life of a young, successful, creative person and what that’s like. It is challenging and bracing and full of surprises, good and bad. It’s about finding family and telling your story and subverting the expectations of old people. This would be an excellent book to put into the hands of an older teen who wants to be in the arts. The second is the intense relationship the two main characters have and what it means to be friends these days, particularly for women. I think the relationship between Sharon and Mel is really well drawn. I am not a woman in my twenties, but it felt real to me.
David: It’s true. And the third is going to take a minute. So this book resonated with me, but it resonated with me for many personal reasons, so I’m not sure how it’s going to hit anyone else, but let’s walk through it. The main character, Sharon, is from Kentucky. I grew up across the river from Kentucky in Cincinnati. I have full-on Appalachian relatives, so I have a sense of what she’s talking about. The main character went to a fancy school out East. I also went to a fancy school out East. So I’ve got a sense of what it’s like to feel alone in the crowd like Sharon does here. Sharon has a well-developed relationship with her creative partner. They go through good times and bad. I know what that’s like, and she has a challenging and complex family life. Can relate; I bet a whole bunch of people can. But then the author kind of weaves all of those things together and starts talking about feeling outside in one’s own family. Whitaker writes a scene about Sharon going home, and she has this line: I am a spectator here, a spectator to my own family like I’ve always been.
Melissa: I have definitely felt that way, too. And I feel part of my family. But also when we’re all together, I do feel sometimes like I’m observing, and I wonder if that is a function of being a writer. Creative artists need to separate from people a little bit in order to observe them. To write about them. To draw them. To film them.
David: Yeah. I wonder which comes first, right? Do you do you start observing the people around you and that leads you to be an artist?
Melissa: Does the observation separate you or are you separated and you start observing?
David: But at the same time, she’s almost an entirely a creation of her own family, like most of us are, one way or another. Your family makes a good chunk of you. And how much that’s true for her in particular resonates throughout the rest of this book, and particularly because they are telling their stories in their work.
David: I have a theory. My theory is that some people are positive models of their parents and some are negative. And by that I mean that some people become who they are trying to be like their parents or just happening into it, and other people become who they are by running hard the other way. And I think a lot of people are fortunate when it comes to that. But I think that other group, the runners, my group, it leaves a particular mark. This book does an excellent job of looking at that mark in two different characters. The writing in this book is lovely and descriptive. The dialogue in particular is great. I miss hearing Sharon and Mel talk to each other. The those characters are fictional, but the author does such a great job of making it sound like real dialogue from two people, from two different backgrounds who have different ways of thinking about things, talking to each other, sometimes collaboratively. Sometimes they argue, sometimes they’re commenting on something else. It just works really well. NPR chose this as one of the best books of 2017 for reasons. If you are interested in the lives of artists and particularly young artists, I think you should read this book. It is funny and it’s insightful and it will take you from Kentucky to Brooklyn and about a million places in between. That’s The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker.
Melissa: If you’ve been wondering when I would get the banana pudding book, we have arrived.
David: I’m very excited to be at the banana pudding part of the show.
Melissa: As you should be.
Melissa: My second recommendation is the travelogue and cookbook Victuals by Ronnie Lundy. The author was born in the tiny railroad town of Corbin, Kentucky, but her family moved to the big city of Louisville a few years later. She says, they thought of Corbin as ‘up home,’ and she says she didn’t grow up in the mountains, but she is of the mountains. Food was an essential part of their family bonding, she wrote in the book: ‘I had a little rocking chair out on the porch where I joined the women on summer afternoons as they taught me how to properly string a bean while they told stories. I sat next to Johnny in the swing as she sliced sourish June apples for drying, my mouth watering as I dreamed of the crisp fried apple pies my Aunt Minnie would make come fall. I was urged to eat my fill at the tables teeming with summer squash, sliced cucumbers, simmered beans of many kinds, and corn cut straight from the cob only moments before it landed in a bacon-scented skillet.’
David: Yes. To all of that.
Melissa: So it makes sense that she’s the founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and has written 10 books on Southern food and culture. To write this book, she drove more than 400 miles of Appalachian backroads in a Chevy Astro and visited home cooks, chefs, farmers, and other foodies. This is one of those books you’ll wish you could jump into. The photos in particular are very beautiful, and I found them surprisingly moving. The food and scenery looks gorgeous, but the photos are not beauty shots. They’re not fussy or over-styled. Authentic, I think, is an overused word, but it’s the one that kept coming to me. The food looks like something you would want to eat right now, but it also looks the way a real person would serve it to you. And the people look like someone who would be interesting to sit down on the porch and talk to. The recipes and the stories are organized around keystone ingredients like salt or corn or beans. Each section opens with a profile of someone who shares the author’s passion for Appalachian ingredients and recipes. So you meet a farmer whose cornmeal and grits are so sublime, people drive hours to stock up. You learn about Ian Boden. He’s the chef and founder of a restaurant called The Shack. It’s in Staunton, Virginia, and it combines local ingredients with his Jewish Eastern European roots.
Melissa: You’ll be excited to know that he is the chef that contributed the recipe for Sweet and Savory Banana Pudding. You’ll be even more excited to know there’s a link to it and show notes. There are also charming essays sprinkled in between the recipes. One is about a chef named Travis whose arms are covered in food-related tattoos.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: He has one of those butcher’s illustrations that show the cuts of a pig, and he has a garden of fruits and vegetables and explains why each one of them is there. Another favorite essay of mine was an ode to Chili Buns.
David: What’s a Chili Bun?
Melissa: Yeah, I grew up calling them Coney dogs.
David: Oh, sure.
Melissa: They’re hot dogs topped with a thin, meaty chili sauce. And the author lays out rules for cooking and eating them, starting with: Buns should be soft, not toasted. She says that hot sauce may be liberally applied by those who wish for more heat. But jalapeños? ‘Now you’re talking schisms.’
Melissa: Happily, the book includes a recipe for chili bun chili so you can follow her rules for your own summertime bliss. I personally love the flavor of corn a ridiculous amount, so I was very happy to see her recipes for cornbread and for skillet corn, which is just corn that’s fried and bacon drippings and then seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little cream.
David: That sounds fantastic.
Melissa: I mean. Yes.
Melissa: Which brings me to another one of the lovely things about this cookbook. The ingredients are simple and can probably be found at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. It’s the attention to detail and the freshness of the ingredients that makes the magic. So something like Spiced Pickled Peaches has just the right touch of ginger and cinnamon and a recipe called Delicious Pork Chops. Why faff about with a more complicated title? Delicious Pork Chops calls for a little bit of lemon pepper. So these are recipes that don’t really require fancy cooking skills. But it’s food that’s so good when you’re eating it, you’re saying ‘this is so good’ while it’s still in your mouth. Finally, I’m going to leave you with this. There’s a recipe called King Daddy’s Cracklin Waffles with Candied Candy Roaster.
David: What’s candied candy roaster?
Melissa: Right? So candy roaster is a kind of squash that is similar to butternut squash. And in this recipe, you crumble bacon into your waffle batter, and then you top the waffles with candied roasted squash and a sprinkle of Cajun salt. It’s sweet, salty, spicy, chewy, crispy. It has everything.
David: Guess we know what we’re doing this weekend.
Melissa: I guess we do. That is Victuals by Ronni Lundy.
David: My second book has a title that you cannot say on a family friendly pod. Asked. The printed title is F*ckface by Leah Hampton.
David: We’re just going to go with F-face. I think the author said about the title, quote, ‘If I’m going to be 46 years old when my first book comes out, you all are going to know the name.’
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: Isn’t that great? This was a recommendation from one of our listeners. Vivé, thank you so much for letting us know about it. F-Face is a short story collection. There are 12 stories about sex and death and being human and the collapse of the environment all set in post-coal Appalachia. Her characters are park rangers and GameStop employees and rural firefighters. They wrestle with family trouble and health issues and loneliness and desire. There are details in this book that stopped me cold.
David: One that stayed with me is in the very first story, the title story. The narrator is a young queer woman, maybe 19, and living a sheltered life in a small town. She works at a grocery store there. Her name is Pretty. She’s got a crush on her friend Jamie. Jamie is leaving town for Asheville, which they call hippie town. Jamie wants pretty to move with her. Here’s the bit:
“You could even move there, Pretty,” she said in a nice way. “You’d fit right in.” She smiled at me, nudged my arm. “Girl, you could be out and proud.” The waitress came over, and Jamie ordered some banana pudding to go for her papaw. I picked at a scab on my fat knuckle and shrugged. “Proud of what?”
David: I know! Some of the stories are funny. Most of them will make you wince at least once they are really well written. And a lot of them will take you directly to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I will now attempt to get you to read this book by giving you a few of the starting lines from three stories.
Melissa: Oh, exciting.
David: Yep. The story called ‘Sparkle’ starts: Inside the cotton-candy-pink ticket booth, Mavis — that’s what her name tag said — shifted her ample, cardiganed breasts off the counter and looked out the customer window to see if there was anybody behind us. // “Now, it’s not her usual thing,” said Mavis when she’d decided we were alone. “But.” // Behind me, James tensed. I figured it was going to be some kind of sales pitch for Splash Country, the water park next to Dollywood. James and I did not want to go to Splash Country. It was November, and it was raining. Mavis looked me square in the face. // “Bu-ut” — Mavis dropped her twang to an emphysemal whisper — “Dolly … is in the park today.” She twitched her mouth and pursed it to the side, satisfied with herself, then placed her hands primly on the cotton candy windowsill. // “No shit,” I said. // “Oh, yes, ma’m,” said Mavis. Her hands went pat, pat, softly.
David: Isn’t that great? Yeah. The story ‘Saint’ starts: Your brother is going to die in twelve years. It is winter. Lake Huron has frozen, and the family is staying in a cabin near the shore. These cabins are cheap in winter; nobody even bothers to ice fish around here. It is so cold. You are eight. Your brother is eleven and demands that you accompany him on a walk by the lakside. // “We might see bears,” he says, “but don’t be scared.” Your brother is eleven. He knows where the bears are.
Melissa: So good.
David: And then the title story of this collection starts with this line: Nothing will ever fix what’s broken in this town. But it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at food company.’ It’s got to be one of the greatest opening lines ever.
Melissa: It’s really good.
David: Yeah. The book was named a Best Book of 2020 by the Paris Review, the New York Public Library, Slate, and others. It is easy to see why, if you like, short stories at all, or if you’re interested in the modern world and the mountains of Appalachia. This is a solid recommendation. Its F-face by Leah Hampton.
Melissa: My last recommendation is She Walks These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb. This is a big, old, moody slice of Southern Gothic with a dollop of true-crime whipped cream on top. The author, Sharyn McCrumb, was born in North Carolina. Her great grandfathers were circuit preachers in the Smoky Mountains in the 1920s.
David: My great grandfather was a circuit preacher.
Melissa: In Canada, right?
Melissa: Her great grandfathers rode horseback to preach in a different community each week.
David: Yeah, so did mine.
Melissa: She says that’s where she gets her ability to weave a tale and her love for the Appalachian Mountains.
Melissa: Since 1990, she’s written 12 books that are collectively called the Ballad Novels, all set in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. This one, She Walks These Hills, is my favorite. I first read it when it came out in 1994, and I’ve returned to it several times since. It’s set in the 1990s with threads into the past, and the story hinges on a legend. In 1779, a local girl named Katie was kidnapped and taken away into the wilderness by the Shawnee. After her escape, she trekked hundreds of miles through the mountains to return to her family, only for tragedy to strike again. And now her ghost walks these hills.
Melissa: Yes. So this is a character driven mystery that’s drenched in folkloric mountain atmosphere. All of the characters have some kind of connection to the legend of Katie. There’s an elderly lady named Nora Bonesteel.
David: Nora Bonesteel!
Melissa: You can just picture her with that name, right?
David: You can, yeah. It’s Dickensian.
Melissa: Yes. She has the gift of the sight, and she regularly feels Katie’s presence in the woods around her mountaintop home. And she’s fine with it. There’s a history professor who sets out on an epic hike to trace Katie the ghost’s footsteps. Forget the Appalachian Trail. Why make it easy on himself? He’s going to plod through the wilderness alone, just like Katie did.
David: Looking for a ghost.
Melissa: Even though he’s never hiked anywhere before.
David: That seems like a poor choice, then.
Melissa: A little bit of pride getting in the way there.
Melissa: And then there’s Harm. He’s an elderly man serving 99 years for a murder committed in the sixties. His mind is trapped in 1967, and after he escapes from prison, he makes his own journey back to his mountain home, thinking it’s 1967 and he’s going to go home and see his wife and children there.
Melissa: With Harm out of prison, it’s all hands on deck to find this escaped convict. So we also meet Martha. She’s a lady police dispatcher who’s been turned into an emergency deputy, and she is on a mission to prove she can do more than answer the phones. And it’s a good thing, too, because in addition to Harm being out, there are multiple deaths, arson, and other illegal mayhem happening in the hollers and the mountaintops.
David: There’s a lot going on.
Melissa: There’s a lot going on. The narrative is helped along by a talk radio host named Hank the Yank. He’s a transplant from Connecticut, and he’s smitten with the romance of Harm escaping from prison. If this book was written now, his radio reporting would be like a true crime podcast instead of a radio show. He adds both levity and pathos to the story of a convict on the run. As you astutely pointed out, this sounds like a lot.
Melissa: But Sharyn McCrumb is really good at weaving all of the threads together, and at the end, they’re all tied up in a very satisfying way. It’s very cathartic. But there is some hope that kind of grows out of the sorrow. I re-read this book again to prepare for the episode, and again I was moved by the descriptions of the mountains and what they mean to the people who live there. They’re so connected to the land that death or memory loss, poverty or heartbreak cannot keep them from returning home. And we’ve talked about this before. I often envy people who feel that grounded and connected to one place, because I’ve always had the urge to wander and see what it’s like over there. And what’s it like over there?
David: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone to find out that two expats who live in Prague like moving. But I have a lot of respect for people who have a home who found their place.
Melissa: This curiosity and desire to live elsewhere is a blessing and a curse because sometimes we don’t feel very grounded. So I’m very attracted to this narrative about people who are held by roots in one place. All of McCrumb’s Ballard Novels take their titles from songs. And this one is from the country ballad ‘Long Black Veil.’
David: Which is a great song that’s been recorded by Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash. And your favorite, Mike Ness.
Melissa: Mike Ness from Social Distortion.
Melissa: The song tells the story of a man accused of murder. And when the judge asks for his alibi, he says, I spoke not a word, though it meant my life, for I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.
David: And there’s three verses of build up to that. You’re not sure why you won’t tell. And then that bit drops
Melissa: The revelation. The chorus of the song describes his heartbroken lover walking the hills and visiting his grave in a long black veil. It’s very eerie and awesome. While we’re talking about Mike Ness, his album, Cheating at Solitaire would make a fine soundtrack for all of these Appalachia books.
Melissa: Sharyn McCrumb has said she likes to think of her books as ‘quilts made of scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life and local tragedy.’ Basically, all of your yummy gothic tropes set in Appalachia. If that’s your kind of thing. I strongly recommend her Ballad Novels. This one is She Walks These Hills, and it’s by Sharyn McCrumb.
David: Those are five books we love set in Appalachia. Visit our show notes at StrongSenseofPlace.com for links and details. I expect this group will be particularly rich.
Melissa: Lots of really good videos for this one.
David: So every Friday Mel writes a newsletter for our subscribers.
Melissa: I do. It’s one of my favorite things I get to write each week.
David: There are always beautiful photos and book recommendations and behind the scenes stuff from our travels and secret recipes and cool stuff we hear from our audience members and a whole lot more.
Melissa: Sometimes there are silly animal videos.
David: Yeah, there are. I’m always happy to see it land in my inbox. It is a surprise to me what’s coming, and it’s a nice way to celebrate a Friday afternoon. Even though I sit in the next room, I never know what’s going to be in there.
Melissa: I like to surprise everyone. Including you.
Melissa: When you sign up for our newsletter, in addition to getting my love letters straight from the heart every Friday, you also get our free Reading Atlas and that has tons of inspiring travel photos and so many good book recommendations, like ‘Travel around the World in 13 books.’
David: If you are interested in the free newsletter and the Reading Atlas. Hit us up. Visit https://strongsenseofplace.com/signup. Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re off to Johannesburg and Cape Town and interesting spots in between in South Africa.
David: We will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock.
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