Preserving Appalachia: One Meal at a Time
August 18, 2017|
By Blair Dowler
Nestled in the southern part of Harrison County, WV, a winding stream runs through a 180-acre piece of land known as Lost Creek Farm. For more than 150 years and six generations, Lost Creek Farm was a full-scale, highly productive vegetable, poultry and cattle farm cared for by the family of Amy Dawson. Today, Dawson and her partner, Mike Costello, are working to reinvigorate the land and restore it to a fully operational farm.
In addition to re-opening the farm, the duo has also launched an Appalachian-inspired traveling food business. The mission of this new business is to tell stories of the people and food in Appalachia, preserve the Appalachian heritage and build the economic landscape of West Virginia and the surrounding region.
A Live Food Performance
Costello, the head chef, describes their new traveling kitchen concept as the food version of being in a band.
“We travel to different venues throughout the region to hold events, which generally sell out before we get there,” he says. “We show up, perform for a night and then pack up and head to another venue.”
Stimulating local economies, Lost Creek Farm holds culinary workshops, pop-up dinners and special events about once a week both throughout West Virginia and outside the state. The Appalachian dishes created at each event vary depending on the season and the recent local harvest. Overall, the style of both events is the same, but each venue and location garners a different reaction from guests. For West Virginians attending these events, it’s all about pride.
“We have a lot of people come up to us after the events to talk about food traditions or the stories we share about those foods because it reflects where we all came from, our relationship to the land and the way we connect to the landscape here,” says Costello. “When we go outside the state, we’re telling a different story about West Virginia to a different audience.”
A Farming and Foraging Hybrid
With the farm not quite fully functional yet, Costello describes Lost Creek Farm’s current sourcing style as a farming and foraging hybrid, which utilizes the wildlands surrounding their property.
“For every event we do, every menu item has something wild that’s harvested from our forests,” he says. “Foraging allows us to adapt our menus. When sourcing from local farms, we might think it’s going to be the prime time of the year for chanterelle mushrooms, for instance, but if it turns out to be way too dry, maybe we can’t harvest as many as we thought so we have to allow ourselves to adapt, and that’s what people in the mountains have always done.”
For ingredients they do not have on the farm, Costello and Dawson find it important to purchase items from local farmers near their event venues, which encourages local sourcing and local food to be an economic driver in those agricultural areas.
“We have a goal of growing at least half of the ingredients we use on our farm,” he says. “Right now, we work with several farmers mostly in West Virginia, but when we travel out of state, we buy from local farmers so it is local to that area. These places could have very robust farm economies, and with this business, we want to see that happen.”
Diversification Through Food
Appalachia is graced with an abundance of natural resources, but with the decline in the coal industry, the people of this area must diversify the economy in order to grow and maintain. With the state’s natural beauty and terrain for adventure, the tourism industry is one to capitalize on, but people are not just looking for entertainment. They want to experience something new. Lost Creek Farm is providing that experience through Appalachian food while helping develop the tourism industry in places like Spencer, WV.
“The town of Spencer has really strong agricultural roots, but it does not have much of a tourism economy. It still has a bit of agriculture, and it’s got people in the community who are really interested in figuring out how to use food to draw visitors to the community,” says Costello. “It’s fun to team up with people in communities like Spencer because we’re able to help them walk through some of the steps it will take to connect a restaurant with farmers. It’s just a matter of putting an event on for a night and gathering people in the community to start visualizing what it would be like to have a restaurant selling local food in the town.”
Harvesting a Social Enterprise
Locally sourced food is just the tip of the iceberg for Lost Creek Farm’s vision to rebuild the economy. Costello and Dawson are building a commercial kitchen to host events at the farm with the future of West Virginia in mind. Like the rest of the state, Costello and Dawson noticed the mass exodus of young West Virginians. Many of these young folks want to stay in the state and put their agricultural backgrounds to good use, but they do not have the resources to turn these dreams into reality.
“Part of our whole story here in building the commercial kitchen and using the land that has been handed down to us through the family is to build a business incubator based on heritage foods and West Virginia-specific heirloom crops,” says Costello. “We want to open up our facility to people who want to start businesses in traditional foods but do not have the resources to open their own bakeries, butcher shops or creameries. Part of our mission is to be able to use this model to build the economy through this shared space and build communities around small businesses.”
Painting the Real Appalachian Picture
For Lost Creek Farm, their work is about more than just food. It’s the people behind the food. Throughout the state, there are stories of people worth sharing and preserving—and Lost Creek Farm is doing just that through their pop-up dinners and culinary workshops.
“We try to develop menus for each location that really reflect the people in certain communities,” says Costello. “When we’re on the road, we talk about the Greek community in Clarksburg that has its own food festival, the people making traditional Spanish sausages just down the road from our farm and the big Italian community in Harrison County. That’s the story I think is important when we’re talking about Appalachian food—the way so many different cultures influence what West Virginian and Appalachian food actually is.”
These brilliant dishes and their histories are also helping change the narrative that currently exists around West Virginia and giving Appalachia the voice it deserves.
“We have a long-standing pattern of people trying to tell our story for us. We’ve not been proactive in the past about taking our story into our own hands and telling it in a more positive way,” he says. “Part of that is possibly due to this idea that we don’t feel like what we have here, at least marketing-wise, is all that special, which isn’t true.”
In reality, the culture—the food, the stories and the connection to the land—in Appalachia, specifically in West Virginia, is special, and as Costello attests, it’s well worth the effort of preserving for future generations and showcasing to the world.