Combing Appalachia for the native foods that give it its flavor

Darrin Nordahl.
Darrin Nordahl. Scott Sporleder

Darrin Nordahl’s East Bay home is less than a few hours drive from California farms that grow much of the food eaten in America. But to get a taste of true native flavors, Nordahl set off for the hills of Appalachia. Trained as an urban designer, Nordahl, 45, wanted to learn how food and places connect. “It’s very interesting to me that you can really create a strong sense of place through your sense of taste, especially by using native foods,” he says.

To research his book, “Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors,” Nordahl traveled from West Virginia to North Carolina tasting indigenous fruits, nuts, and animals, many of which are eaten infrequently even by locals. Among his many discoveries was pawpaw, a native fruit that looks like a chartreuse potato. Its homely exterior belies a custardy, tropical interior that he describes as tasting of banana, pineapple, and vanilla. “I talked to people throughout Appalachia about pawpaw and I would say only about 50 percent had heard of it. About one in four had tasted it, and not recently,” he says. In the book, Nordahl collects stories of his native food finds, along with recipes such as persimmon-hickory nut bread, braised elk stew, and pan-fried squirrel with squirrel gravy.


Q. How did you make the leap from urban planning to native foods?

A. Food has always been front and center. When I became the city designer for the City of Davenport [Iowa], we started planting fruits and vegetables and nuts and herbs in public spaces. Someone said to me, “I’m glad to see that you’re trying to make the public landscape more productive for people. Have you ever thought of growing native foods?” I asked, do you mean corn? This is Iowa, corn is everywhere. He said he was talking about pawpaw and American persimmon and hickory nuts.


Q. What got you to Appalachia?

A. For one, you just don’t think of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western North Carolina as places for exciting food. It was also the diversity. You can’t find anything that compares to Appalachia outside of the tropics. For the temperate climes, this is it. Their broadleaf forest covers an amazing amount of diversity of plant and animal species. And fungus too.

Q. Why have native foods largely disappeared from our diets?

A. The stories are myriad, but I guess they’re all connected by how we produce and supply food today. The pawpaw has zero marketability for supermarkets because it’s very thin skinned. You can’t pick a pawpaw when it’s unripe and ripen it with gas like you can with other fruits. They have a very short shelf life — about three days. I met with breeders and farmers in Appalachia who realized that they had something great here. But unless you’re in the Appalachian woods, you won’t get a good taste of it. We’re now only buying our produce from what we’re seeing in the grocery store. If it’s not in the grocery store, you have no idea what it is.

Q. What other native Appalachia foods are overlooked?

A. Sassafras was something that I found immensely interesting because it grows all over Appalachia and beyond. Everyone knows root beer, but everyone’s kind of forgotten that the main ingredient is sassafras because the FDA made it illegal about 50 years ago. I loved researching elk. I think of elk as a Rocky Mountain animal. I had no idea that they were native to Appalachia too. The American persimmon is everywhere, but I think we’re now more familiar with the Japanese varieties. It’s small and we’re now a culture that prizes bigger fruit. Personally, I think the flavor of American persimmon is better than the Japanese variety.


Q. Describe what squirrel gravy tastes like.

A. Squirrel meat itself when done properly can be really, really good. But there’s always more reverence for the fat that can be rendered from the meat to make gravy. The fat is just so sweet. I think it’s different because of all the kinds of nuts the squirrels eat. It doesn’t taste heavy like other fats do. I know it can’t be good for you, but to me it has this lightness and flavor, like a heart-healthy olive oil.

Q. Did you have a favorite discovery?

A. I really get into the people who are trying to champion these lost foods. I met this guy Gene Stafford in western North Carolina who became the “American Persimmon King.” He started a persimmon festival as a way to heal from the loss of his mother and thank his neighbors for rebuilding the family farm. Yes, he likes persimmons, but it’s a way to strengthen and build community. He and I share a lot of the same values. Here is where food transcends just flavor. This is something that really can be a marker of place and a binder of community. I was glad to see that it was a native fruit that could do that.


Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.