For Elizabeth Sims, the decision to bring Tupelo Honey Café to Raleigh this fall could not have been better timed. The iconic Asheville eatery has opened several outposts in recent years, including Charlotte, Chattanooga, Greenville (S.C.) and Knoxville. Another will open next week in Johnson City, Tenn.
The Blue Ridge branch of Appalachian comfort food that Tupelo Honey celebrates has only recently been acknowledged as having comparable historic importance —and commercial potential—as the fare popularized throughout the mossy Deep South and across the humid Low Country. In fact, it was the topic last month of the first Appalachian Food Summit, held at the historic Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Ky.
"It was amazing," Sims says by phone from Tupelo Honey in Asheville, which is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. "It was such a validating experience. We're part of the South but we haven't been acknowledged as our own place, except in negative ways. It's real proof that Appalachian food's time has come to be recognized as a distinct cuisine."
Sims says a Raleigh café has long been part of the expansion plans; she jokes that it's an excuse to spend more time with one of her best friends, Chapel Hill cookbook writer and Blue Ridge native Sheri Castle. The ideal location finally presented itself at Cameron Village. They hope to open by October.
Triangle diners can expect moderately-priced, scratch-made comfort food in hearty portions, always started with warm biscuits and blueberry preserves. In addition to plump mountain berries, Blue Ridge cooking prominently features humble beans, wild and farm-raised trout and, of course, sweet potatoes.
Sims says communities like Hindman, where the summit was held, are using Appalachian foodways as part of a process of creating new jobs and keeping dining dollars in town. It recalls how Chef Vivian Howard's focus on honoring farmers and locally-grown ingredients at Chef and the Farmer has not only brought her personal success, but also an economic boon for related businesses in Kinston and Eastern North Carolina.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm for making that work, and we're working hard so Tupelo Honey can be part of it," Sims says. "It's time that Appalachian food gets its due."
Another way Sims is spreading the good word about mountain cooking is through a second book of recipes from the restaurant. Co-written with Executive Chef Brian Sonoskus, Tupelo Honey Café: New Southern Flavors from the Blue Ridge Mountains was published in April. (See recipe below for Cornmeal-Fried Black-Eyed Peas.)
"Brian and Elizabeth are pointing toward what's really important in our food culture," writes John Fleer, former executive chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., who now cooks at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, N.C. "The Appalachian table is the humble intersection of families and their food. The stories that precede this intersection and, just as important, the chatting and chewing generated by this meeting, are the fabric of our human connection."
While many of the 125 recipes focus on ingredients readily available in the mountains, they also reflect Sonoskus' early kitchen experiences.
"People always ask if he's from the South. He says, 'Yes, South Jersey'," Sims chuckles. "His family is a combination of Welsh, German, Pennsylvania Dutch, which has certainly had a great influence on the mountains here."
Sims and Sonokus' style is especially well expressed in dishes like rabbit pierogi, which he learned to make in his grandmother's kitchen.
"She sounds like wonderful lady. She had a couch and television in her kitchen," Sims says. "I kind of want that myself. I'd never have to leave."
From Tupelo Honey Cafe: New Southern Flavors from the Blue Ridge Mountains by Elizabeth Sims and Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014).
Makes 4 servings
1 (15-oz.) can black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup yellow cornmeal mix
1/2 cup Bisquick or other baking mix
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil, for frying
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 Tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
Soak the black-eyed peas in the buttermilk for 10 minutes. Drain in a colander.
Mix the cornmeal mix, baking mix, cumin, salt and pepper on a plate.
Pour several inches of canola oil in a large saucepan and heat to 375 degrees over medium-high heat. Working with a third of the black-eyed peas at a time, dredge them in the cornmeal mixture. Add to the oil and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels and repeat the process until all of the peas are cooked.
Transfer the fried black-eyed peas to a dish and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle the peas with the lemon zest and cilantro and serve.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Appalachia finds its place in cuisine."