Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Silas House is the author of five novels, three plays, and one book of nonfiction. He is the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College. He wrote this essay for the Appalachian-themed issue #51 of the SFA's Gravy quarterly.
Dot’s Grocery, owned by my aunt, was the community center of tiny Fariston, Kentucky: a therapist’s office, sometimes a church, and—always—a storytelling school. Everyone gathered there to gossip and to seek the sage kitchen wisdom of Dot. She kept a Virginia Slim permanently perched in her fuchsia-lipsticked mouth and latched her steely blue-eyed gaze on her customers while they spilled their guts and sought her advice. A few times I witnessed prayer services there. The epicenter of a largely Holiness community was hard-pressed to escape that, after all. There were always the big tales, swirling around like the twisting smoke of the regulars’ cigarettes (in my memory, all of them smoked, everyone).
Looking back, the stories are what matter the most. But when I was a child in the 1980s my favorite things were: the cakes-and-candy rack, the old-timey Coke cooler with the silver sliding doors on top, and the huge jar of pickled baloney that sat on the counter next to the cash register. Beside it were a loose roll of paper towels, a box of wax paper, a sleeve or two of Premium saltines, and a large Old Hickory–brand knife.
The Cherokee Indians are preserving the roots of their heritage with a program that allows officially recognized members of the tribe to access seeds that are unique to the Cherokee Nation.
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker explained the seeds' lineage to CNN. "This strain of seeds came with us on the Trail of Tears," he said, referring to the forced migration of Cherokee nation from their land east of the Mississippi to an area that is now Oklahoma. The 15,000-person march took place in 1838 and 1839 under Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4000 Cherokees, due to starvation and sickness.
"They have been preserved and grown every year before that, and they are the basic foods God gave us that we grew long before the contact with Europeans," Baker continued.
CNN photojournalist John Bodnar is a second-generation Slavic-American whose grandparents emigrated from Eastern Slovakia, and his mother’s Carpatho-Rusyn ethnicity is the prominent influence for his cultural and family traditions. Previously, he wrote about haluski, holupki and paska.
I’ve always enjoyed the Slovak food my mother and extended family prepares. We eat these dishes at every family gathering: weddings, funerals and holiday celebrations. We eagerly approach the buffet display to find the holupki and haluski that usually occupy the first few trays, but at the end of the tables are the treats.
Cookies and cakes dominate that section, but the pastry that has always delighted my palate is the kolachi nut roll. Kolachi (sometimes spelled "kolache") is the name often given to a standard type of Slavic dough-filled pastry. Our kolachi is rolled dough filled with a walnut mixture, but other families fill theirs with a poppy seed mixture.
My aunt Eleanor was always celebrated as the one whose recipe held the quality edge over the other family members'. Obviously, this unofficial title has been disputed, but I concede that hers had a slight advantage in my childhood memories.
But Eleanor’s health eventually left her unable to make the delicious kolachi. As her health was failing, she insisted that her daughter Renee learn her kolachi recipe and carry on the tradition and her legacy. My cousin Renee embraced her mother’s challenge, and carries, in my mind, the title for making the best kolachi nut roll.
Good things happen when people gather together around a dinner table - and recent news has given us an awful lot to chew on.
Race has been front and center in the headlines recently. Businesses distanced themselves from celebrity chef Paula Deen after she admitted to using racially charged language. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action and gutted the Voting Rights Act with the admonition to Congress that "things in the South have changed." The Senate passed historic immigration legislation. And the testimony of Rachel Jeantel in the George Zimmerman trial was filled with controversy.
Eatocracy's managing editor Kat Kinsman and Alicia Stewart, who covers issues of identity for CNN, invited a few expert guests to offer insight into some controversy that has arisen around issues of race, identity, food and redemption, and invited commenters to weigh in.
No matter how you slice it, Southern food is complicated. Some detractors dismiss the whole menu as an over-larded, gravy-drenched, carbed-up monolith; they clearly just haven’t been invited to the right homes for supper.
At its core, Southern food is one of the most multilayered, globally-influenced and constantly evolving cuisines on the planet. It’s inextricably and equally tied to the rhythms of the seasons and the lives of the people who cook it the way their grandmother did, and her grandmother before her, and so on.
No one cooks Southern food alone; there’s always a ghost in the corner giving guidance. For millions of people, that’s Paula Deen, a celebrity chef whose sugary, bubbly bonhomie has earned her the moniker “Queen of Southern Cooking” - as well as her share of critics.
Visit Eatocracy’s new home
Don't miss a single new story. Visit us at our (temporary) new home on CNN.com