“MOUNTAIN COUNTRY COOKING/A GATHERING OF THE BEST RECIPES FROM THE SMOKIES TO THE BLUE RIDGE” is my kind of cookbook—and I had the good fortune to review it for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange back in 1998. So why am I bringing it up now? Well, you may have discovered by now that I like to talk/write about favorite cookbooks in my collection, whether or not they are brand-new. I like to check the usual sources, such as Amazon.com or Alibris.com to see if the book is available, just in case you want to buy a copy for your own.
“Stack pies and stack cakes, shuck beans and soup beans, cushaw* pie and poke sallet: These are Appalachian foods” we read in the introduction to “MOUNTAIN COUNTRY COOKING”. “From Georgia to Maryland and including the Shenandoah, Blue Ridge, Great Smoky, Cumberland and Allegheny Mountains,” writes the author, “the Appalachian Mountain system is a chain with deep valleys, small farms, and rugged people…The food of Appalachia is based on staples—sorghum, dumplings, beans, pork, greens, corn and potatoes. With these staples we prepare specialties such as Corn Bread Salad, Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, Tomato Dumplings, Pinto Bean Pie, and Corn Relish…”
(*Sandy’s Cooknote – Cushaw is a kind of white squash; it is shaped like yellow crookneck summer squash, only larger. They ripen in the fall with pumpkins and can weigh from 10 to 25 lbs. I have never seen one but I sure would love to get my hands on one of these!)
(I’d like to interject that my mother in law came from Blue Ridge, West Virginia to join her husband in Cincinnati, and I, as a new bride in1958, learned how to make Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage gravy, Corn Bread and Beans—my four sons grew up on these foods.)
Mr. Sohn says that some regional dishes of Appalachia are virtually unknown elsewhere in the United states (unless, perhaps, you had a mother in law like mine who grew up in West Virginia?)
Although I have been to the Great Smoky mountains only twice in my life, one of those a brief honeymoon, the region is one I have come to appreciate and love through the books of Janice Holt Giles (also a Kentuckian, like Mark,) whose books “The Enduring Hills”, “Tara’s Healing,” and “Miss Willie” touched my heart. The more contemporary Lee Smith, author of “Oral History”, “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Black Mountain Breakdown” also brought this part of the country to life. Some, like Janice Holt Giles’ novels, were books I began reading and collecting when I was in my twenties. Later on, as I began collecting cookbooks (and specializing in anything I would consider Americana.) I found so much more depth to what we consider regional Americana in cookbooks, such as “Mountain Country Cooking”.
“The recipes and stories here,” writes Mr. Sohn, “are a synthesis of those living, creative and resourceful Appalachian cooks of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s who would not let you leave the kitchen until you had eaten…”
“Appalachia is enjoying a rebirth of its native food legacy,” says the author, “With “Mountain Country Cooking” you can be a part of a fast-moving renaissance of authentic food and honest home cooking…many Appalachian foods are strikingly different from foods of the South. Southern food includes Louisiana Bayou, Creole Plantation, Ozark, Florida-Spanish and low Charleston. Southern coastal regions are as diverse as the Maryland Shore and the Gulf coast. Southern Food also includes the foods of religious groups such as the Kentucky Shakers and North Carolina Moravians. (I wrote about southern cookbooks for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, in 1995, and also about the foods of religious groups, such as the Shakers, for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, in a series of articles titled “The Common Thread” in 1996-97.)
Of “Mountain Country Cooking,” famed cookbook writer John Egerton, author of “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, In History” (who presents us with the Foreword to “Mountain Country Cooking”) points out that one of the great standard cookbooks of the South was “SOUTHERN COOKING” written in 1928 by Henrietta Stanley Dull, who for many years was a food editor for the Atlanta Journal. Mr. Egerton says that Mark Sohn’s “Mountain Country Cooking” reminds him strongly of Mr. Dull’s “Southern Cooking”. He explains that it’s more than a cookbook, it’s an encyclopedia, a wealth of information about food in the Appalachian mountain region. Egerton says it’s one thing to compile a book of recipes and something else to assemble and organize a comprehensive body of knowledge and put it together into a readable and usable form.
I think this is why cookbooks such as Mark Sohn’s “Mountain Country Cooking” are amongst my favorites—not only do you have a comprehensive collection of fine recipes, you also get some fascinating lessons in what makes American cuisine so diverse.
You will love the format of “Mountain Country Cooking” as well as Mr. Sohn’s relaxed style of writing; he introduces recipes in much the same way that I write down recipes for friends and penpals, informally, as you would for a friend of neighbor—but Mr. Sohn also provides healthy choice alternatives and even describes the degree of difficulty in preparing each dish. Ingredients are listed separately along the margin, a nice feature, I think, so you can see at a glance exactly what is needed to make the dish.
Who is Mark Sohn? He is a resident of Pikeville, Kentucky, who grew up in an Oregon family with four brothers, who all learned to cook. Unlike many 90s families, they not only sat down and ate together, but discussed food in detail at every meal. Some years ago, Mark’s family spent some time in France where an ad for a 5- week cooking class caught his eye. A psychology professor at Pikeville College, Sohn was actually looking for a way to serve others in some way, as his wife, son, and daughter acquainted themselves with French culture.
Later on, the editor of Pikeville’s Appalachian News Express asked him to write a food column. Initially, he wrote articles about his family’s German food heritage. His weekly column “Class Cooking” led to his first cookbook “Southern Cooking” and a TV show, “Classic Cooking”.
Mr. Sohn decided to write “Mountain Country Cooking” when he discovered there wasn’t anything else in print that combined recipes of the area with a travelogue of history and geography of the southern Appalachian region.
Perhaps some of the ground-breaking was done when he taught, in the mid 1970s, a Pikeville College course called Appalachian Education. Mr. Sohn says that in these classes, about 500 students joined him in the study of local education history and in the writing of an ethnographic research paper. This work culminated in a jointly written book “Education in Appalachia’s Central Highlands”. As part of the class, students and their families and friends celebrated Appalachian foods with a potluck heritage dinner. Mark Sohn says it was at these dinners that he learned to appreciate Soup Beans – which to Appalachians is pinto beans. While I grew up with German-Hungarian grandparents, thinking of “bean soup” as the one made with great northern white beans and a hambone, to the Smith family I married into, bean soup was pinto beans cooked all day with a hunk of salt pork and then served with cornbread and chopped raw onion. You can’t imagine how dumbfounded I was, the first time I watched my soon-to-become-husband crumble cornbread on a plate, then cover it with scoops of beans and stock—and THEN top it off with chopped onion!
As you can imagine from my frequent references to previous articles written for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange (no longer publishing), “Mountain Country Home” strikes close to home for this cookbook collector/writer. Within its pages are many of the recipe I dearly love, whether pan-fried chicken or cornbread, fried green tomatoes or—oh yes, boiled green beans! I suggest you try Pinto Bean cakes, which is sort of like a croquette, and utterly delectable, or barbequed baby back ribs, Appalachian style.
Another unique feature of “MOUNTAIN COUNTRY COOKING” is a glossary of food terms and expressions, followed by Mail Order sources and for readers who love a bibliography, there is a substantial listing of the books Mr. Sohn used for reference as he wrote Mountain Country Cooking.
“Mountain Country Cooking” was published in 1996 and can be found on Amazon.com (21 pre-owned copies at $10.95 & up, or a new copy is $39.49 and Amazon has four in stock. AbeBooks.com has one copy for $19.75 plus $3.99 shipping while Alibris.com has pre-owned copies starting at $10.95.
Mark F. Sohn, Ph.D., is a food historian, columnist, photographer, recipe developer, and Professor at Pikeville College. He also is the food editor for The Encyclopedia of Appalachia and has written 1,200 published recipes and produced and demonstrated cooking in more than 450 cable-access television shows. In addition to his personal life-long cooking experience, he studied culinary arts at L’École de Cuisine, a school in Paris, France, owned by Pierre Cardin and Maxim’s Restaurant.
Mark F. Sohn is also the author of:
SOUTHERN COUNTRY COOKING, 1992
APPALACHIAN HOME COOKING, HISTORY, CULTURE AND RECIPES published in 1995
HEARTY COUNTRY COOKING, 1998
Happy cooking & Happy cookbook collecting!