A LOVE LETTER TO APPALACHIA
Travis Milton first realized the story that he had to tell after a chef threw a copy of White Trash Cooking in his face for suggesting a high-brow version of heirloom beans from his hometown in southwestern Virginia.
After stints in big cities, working in kitchens like Incanto in San Francisco, Equinox in Washington, D.C., and WD-50 in New York, the self-trained chef was no stranger to the stereotypical view of where he comes from, or its cooking roots. But it was this moment, wishing he could get his hands on that rural ingredient, that would set him on a path toward going home again and becoming dubbed the patron saint of Appalachian cuisine.
If you’re not from this stretch of Eastern mountaintop, you might not think that there’s a difference between Appalachian and Southern cooking. But for Milton, born and bred in the heart of it, in a small town called Castlewood, at a verdant crossroads along the Blue Ridge Mountains between North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, it’s a distinction that he knows in his bones.
Note to that other chef: This place is much more than just bluegrass and coal country.
“Appalachia is one of the most diverse regions of not just the south but the United States,” says Milton, who, after moving back to the commonwealth, ran various Virginia kitchens before opening Taste and Hickory, two locally sourced restaurants at Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards in Bristol, just about 40 miles south of Castlewood. “It starts at the base of New York and goes all the way down to the tip of Georgia and Alabama, so there’s a wide swath of different people, terrains, growing conditions…”
As well as a melting pot of cultures that have influenced it over time. Native American tribes like the Cherokee and Iroquois were joined by Germans, Scotch-Irish, English, enslaved people, and freedmen. They brought with them various crops and traditions that would mingle with the natural abundance—native fruits, herbs, nuts, and wild game—of this wide-ranging landscape, from lush rivers and gorges to sprawling foothills, forests, and mountaintops, altogether creating a wholly unique foodway. One that would be preserved for generations, thanks in part to its remote location.
“The common thread is that it’s this beautiful land-based, place-based cuisine born out of subsistence,” says Milton, whose own family grew gardens, tended orchards, saved seeds—many of which he now grows at Nicewonder—and dried, canned, pickled, and jammed what they sowed. “This wonderful creativity comes out of necessity and need, out of something very humble. But if you just consider the humble part, you miss out on the beauty.”
Milton learned about cooking from his grandparents, who owned a greasy spoon in Castlewood, where his mom worked as a waitress and he, as a young boy, would sit in a highchair, peeling potatoes and watching the “old ladies working the line” on dishes like fried chicken and biscuits and gravy.
“Cast iron was everywhere—there were old Griswolds in every kitchen I was ever in, be it at the restaurant, or my great-grandmother’s, or grandmother’s, or my own kitchen at home,” he says, seeing the medium’s role in Appalachian cuisine as just another example of regional resourcefulness, with the pans held onto for both their durability and also their dexterity on the household woodstove—a centerpiece of Appalachian kitchens until not that long ago. Today, they carry an additional weight, with his Grandmother Wheatley’s pans being some of his most prized possessions.
“These were passed down generation to generation in my family,” says Milton. “They’re a touchpoint to my ancestors. They’re something tangible that I still have from these very important people who that I don’t have anymore. A piece of my own past. Now it’s on me to keep them going.”
One of the ways that he does this is through perhaps the most Appalachian Appalachian recipe, claimed by nearly every state of Central Appalachia as their own, in its prime season come mid-winter, when other fresh ingredients are scarce and other resources are limited: the apple stack cake.
When we think of American apples, we often default to New England, but Appalachia was a mecca in its own right, with the region’s climate providing ideal growing conditions for the fruit-bearing trees. Locals crossed Old World cultivars with indigenous crab apples to create hybrids fit for everything from pig feed and pie baking to English-style ciders and brandies. Thousands of distinct varieties are said to have been born here, where Milton’s great-grandfather ran a commercial orchard until the 1950s, and whose grandfather was renowned for his grafting prowess.
Every autumn, the smell of caramelized sugar would fill the valleys and hollers as entire towns cooked and canned freshly harvested sorghum into molasses. This sticky sweet stuff would eventually be combined with dried apples to become apple butter—the crux of the apple stack cake.
“It speaks to the whole idea of creativity through subsistence,” says Milton, whose grandmother would spice her version with Red Hot candies in lieu of expensive and hard-to-find cinnamon.
No one knows the apple stack’s exact origins, but at least five thin, cookie-like cake layers are each cooked in a cast-iron skillet, then cooled and stacked between slathers of apple butter, with the entire thing then set to soften for at least two days. Rumor has it that apple stacks were common wedding desserts in Appalachia, and that the higher the cake, the more popular the bride, with guests each bringing a layer of their own (though due to the requisite cure time, historians now deem this unlikely).
Today, Milton makes his using a 16-inch skillet, pre-heating the pan in a 400-degree oven to ensure extra crisp cake layers with an almost cornbread-like crust to serve as sturdy foundations for this teetering confection. “The key is consistent temperature,” says Milton, which allows the cakes to cook, rise, and fall more evenly, “and cast iron is perfect, not just because of the tradition but the even heat.”
As an homage to the region, each layer is based on a different Appalachian recipe, as apple stack cakes vary widely across the region, working with local growers to source old-school apple varieties, like Arkansas Blacks and Ralls Janets. He has plans to add heirloom apple trees to the farm at Nicewonder, and dreams of one day reviving the old orchard properties that have been otherwise lost to time and history.
“Appalachian food always has story behind it,” says Milton. “The first time I made this cake, it literally made me cry. This is who I am on a plate.”
About Chef Travis Milton
Travis Milton is the executive chef of Hickory and Taste, the two inaugural locally sourced restaurants of the Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards in Bristol, Virginia. Born and raised in Appalachia, he first learned how to cook behind the counter of his grandparents’ greasy spoon, eventually relocating to Richmond where he took his first restaurant job. Before long, he would be working in prestigious kitchens like WD-50 in New York, Consentinos Incantoin in San Francisco, and Todd Grays Equinox in Washington, D.C. Eventually returning to his home state, he teamed up with fellow Virginian Jason Alley to work as chef de cuisine at Comfort in Richmond, where he began to evolve his modern takes on Appalachian dishes. This would bring him to Bristol, where his wood-fired Taste and just-opened fine dining Hickory serve to preserve the region’s unique foodway. Utilizing heritage seeds passed down from generations through his family, he also sources ingredients from the on-site farm at Nicewonder. He also highlights this through his involvement with several non-profits, including the Central Appalachian Food Heritage Project, the Clinch River Valley Initiative, and the Virginia Food Heritage Project.