Lost Creek Farm puts West Virginia cuisine on the map.

Two hundred miles into the heart of West Virginia, a small gravel drive leads to the dinner table at Lost Creek Farm. It’s a series of tables, really, cobbled together outside beneath the old maple trees that look out over the rolling hills of Harrison County in the north-central region of the Mountain state. Before long, a couple dozen strangers will sit down to a meal together, made by husband-and-wife duo Mike Costello and Amy Dawson, who live and farm and cook here, as their family has since her great-great grandfather built the old white farmhouse in the 1880s. 

Yes, there will be cornbread on the menu (made with Lost Creek Farm’s own Bloody Butcher corn, served in an Estee, no less), but this is much more than the country ham and grits so often associated with Appalachian cuisine these days––although you will often enough find those things there, too. Since 2019, their Farm and Forage Supper Club has served as an entrée to the region’s rich history, robust foodways, and deep-rooted sense of place. In the middle of August, one menu included milk-poached salt trout, which told the forgotten story of cured fish to hold local communities over during hard winters. And a chowder that honors the Native American tradition of the “three sisters,” with corn, beans, and squash growing harmoniously in a shared space, and local heirloom varieties of each included in the soup. And a surprise hand pie, stuffed with just-foraged chanterelle mushrooms, elderberry sauce, and ramp powder, that speaks to the terrain’s wild bounty. 

Dinner at Lost Creek Farm; white bean and ramp soup.

It’s the kind of food that could be served with a white tablecloth in New York City, but there you are, watching the very last fireflies and listening to the coyotes howl at the crescent moon. So it’s no surprise that they have garnered attention from the late legendary chef, Anthony Bourdain, who featured them on an episode of Parts Unknown, or The New York Times, or the James Beard Awards, where they earned a semi-finalist nod last year. This year, their dinner series sold out in 15 minutes, with guests hailing from 32 different states, and proceeds are now going toward the construction of their own on-site kitchen and culinary classroom. (In an impressive albeit inconvenient feat, they prep all of their food in a certified commercial space in the nearest city of Clarksburg, some 20 minutes away.)

At the end of summer, we caught up with the couple in their neck of the woods to talk about the power of place, saving seeds, and early memories of cast iron.

Mike and Amy foraging for ramps.

How did you first become intrigued by food?

Amy: I joke that if you grew up on a farm, every day is food prep. Because you’re tending the animals, you’re butchering, you’re doing the garden, you’re canning. I don’t know how many hours I spent stringing beans on the porch, that was our summer vacation. Growing up, cooking was seen as a necessity. Then I met him, and he was so into it, and I realized, oh, food can be good.

Mike: I remember the first time I came to your parents’ house, you were like, “Listen, everything is going to be boiled.” [Laughs.]

Amy: And don’t get me wrong, I love a boiled-ass potato. I’ll eat that any day. But if you do something fun with it, even better.

What about you, Mike? You almost went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales before studying journalism instead.

Mike: I got really into cooking when I was growing up. We didn’t have cable TV, but my grandma did, and I would watch all the cooking shows at her house. They were always talking about faraway places, and as a kid from a small town, you’re so curious about the world out there, and so food suddenly seemed like a way to explore it. I was also really proud to be from West Virginia, but I didn’t really think much about exploring thisplace through food. When I was in high school and started working in restaurants, there was no such thing as the farm-to-table movement yet. It was quite the opposite. There was an exoticism, and the farther away something came from, the more quality it was. Like, the good restaurants, or at least what were touted as good restaurants, would say “our lamb’s from New Zealand” or “our lobster’s from South Africa.” I know that wasn’t only happening in West Virginia, but something about it just didn’t feel right when we have so much to work with here. 

The after-dinner spread in August.

You started doing pop-up chef events before moving to the farm. What sparked the idea to focus on what you call “story-rich mountain cuisine”?

Mike: By the time we were conceptualizing this business, Appalachian food was becoming trendy, but we didn’t see that trend benefiting many people here. A lot of that was happening in big cities, where outside folks with gatekeeper attitudes felt like they got to say what was or wasn’t Appalachian cuisine. That was a huge impetus for us, realizing that there was this need for people here to be able to control the narrative of what Appalachian food was and is. 

Amy: Places in New York or D.C. were serving things like Spam fries or pork and beans that they served in a tin can and called it “Appalachian.” Those ingredients have a history here, but if these dishes come from their ideas about Appalachia, or what they’ve seen on TV, it feels kind of like they’re just putting stereotypes on a plate.

Mike: Yeah, it definitely felt gimmicky at times. We don’t want to say that people outside of Appalachia can never cook with recipes or use ingredients from here. We like it when that happens, at least when it’s sincere. But if you’re not talking to people actually connected to that food, it’s dangerous to say, “I made this dish to represent another place and its people.” I just want folks here to be the ones who get to tell our stories. 

How do you define Appalachian cuisine?

Mike: There’s no one definition. It’s really all of these stories that makes food Appalachian—how it’s of the people who were and are intertwined with this place. And that story can make us appreciate newer traditions and communities. Like in the town of Moorefied, there are Ethiopian and Eritrean communities now, because of the poultry industry. Those folks ended up here as a condition of labor, just like the Italian community here in nearby Clarksburg, who came with the Greeks and Eastern Europeans for the coal industry, and the Spanish for the zinc plants, and the glass industry brought Belgians and French immigrants, like Amy’s ancestors. It’s fun to use stories to challenge people’s perceptions of who deserves to be of this place, and what food deserves to be considered of this place. Just getting people to realize that Appalachia is much bigger and broader and more diverse than you might think is something that we try to accomplish through food.  

Amy: Because a lot of times, people will ask us, “Oh, where can we get good West Virginia food?” And we’re like, in this area, go to the old-style spaghetti houses, like Minard’s. That’s as traditional Appalachian as you can get. 

Mike: And on Sunday mornings, go to the bakeries to get pepperoni rolls. Sometimes people push back and say, “That’s Italian, not Appalachian.” But it is quintessential Appalachian food, too. 

A communion wafer of house bologna and chowchow.

The power of food, and stories, to shift perspectives...

Mike: And sometimes there is a story attached to food, whether we know it or not. You know, that example of the restaurants touting exotic ingredients––that still happens. You can pick up a tourism brochure and the text reads something like, “Appalachian cuisine at its finest” or “mountain flavors you can’t experience anywhere else,” but the pictures are of scallops and lobster or whatever. Now, I should say, I love scallops and I love lobster. It’s nice that we can get those things here, but if that’s what we’re showing off as the things we’re most proud of, it’s like we still don’t feel very good about ourselves. It’s like they know food tells a story, so they’re saying, “Hey, West Virginia is wealthier than you thought it was.” And in some way, that approach just creates more stigma around poverty. We tend to take dishes that people know, and maybe even have experienced some baggage with, and reframe the way we think about them. One perfect example is vinegar pie, which is a dessert that we serve during our dinners, which uses apple cider vinegar and nutmeg to mimic the flavor of lemon. But there’s countless others, too, like chow chow or bologna—food that people associate with hard times and necessity. West Virginia, and Appalachia, have been the poster child for poverty, so some of our most delicious dishes are still considered things we ate because we had to, not because we wanted to. And in this country, we do this thing where we’re like, “Oh, if you’re poor, that’s your fault, not the system’s.” So, if you’re eating vinegar pie, you’re a failure.  

Amy: Or not smart enough. Or didn’t work hard enough. We have people who come to our dinner who say things like, “Oh, my gosh, my grandma used to make the best vinegar pie.” But whenever they invited their friends over, she would never make it for them, because she was embarrassed. So you learn that as a kid, and it becomes multi-generational.

Vinegar pie.

Mike: But for us, the story of those dishes is actually about being so freaking creative to have made magic—to have gone to the pantry and gotten these simple things and put them together in a way that makes the most beautiful food. And it’s really special to then serve that to folks who are from here and flip the script in their minds. Because that was somebody else telling a story about what your life means if you’re eating vinegar pie, right? And when we present this tiny dish, we hope it rubs off on people, that they can be proud of it and take at least some of our narrative back. It’s also just delicious. I mean, eat a piece of our vinegar pie and give me one reason why it shouldn’t be respected just like any other dessert people might consider classier or fancier or whatever. 

When it comes to your recipe development, what comes first—the story, or the ingredient?

Mike: A little bit of both. Our Supper Club meals are very place-based, so it’s really about making what you can with what you have on site. Some elements are decided the day of, just based on what’s available or in the garden or maybe because something else rotted after we had too much rain. One time recently, we had all these mustard greens that were too big to eat fresh anymore, but they were still so bright and spicy. We had all this beautiful honey, so a few hours before service, I thought, we should make a dressing, and we should call it honey mustard, but it wouldn’t be honey mustard as people know it. Folks loved it. Tonight, we’re using some of the first peaches we ever harvested from our orchard. 

The first peach harvest.

How has the terrain informed your cuisine?

Mike: One of the things we have working to our advantage is that West Virginia is not a valuable place for agriculture, at least for mass-scale commercial production. Folks here and there might grow a hundred acres of corn, but you won’t find vast, flat farmland where people are growing endless fields of one kind of grocery-store tomato. Instead the land is bountiful in that you can have a prolific garden, and your neighbor will have a prolific garden, but you’ll be growing completely different things. 

Amy: Even in our little valley, we won’t get cross-contamination in genetics, either. So everybody has their own crops, and they can really cultivate their own diverse varieties. So that’s why it’s fun to go down to the southern part of the state and be like, “What kind of tomatoes are you growing?” 

Mike: And when we get seed from them, it’s up to us to make sure that it’s not just the seed that gets passed on. Like, if we just say, “This bean is purple and speckled and delicious,” it’s not enough. It also has a history and people who cared for it, and that’s what gives it character. So it’s our responsibility to make sure that those stories are passed down, too.

Mike foraging this summer’s chanterelles.

It’s almost a cliché to assume that you grew up with cast iron in your kitchen. But did you? 

Amy: Always. We always had cast iron on the stove. 

Mike: We had cast iron, but it was not a thing we used all the time. I think a lot about the generational gap between our grandparents, who were so self-sufficient, and our parents, who were thrust into the madness and marketing around processed food and cooking for ease and using lots of Teflon. But when I went to college, my mom gave me a cast-iron skillet that had been in our family for a long time, and she probably held onto it just because it was her mom’s. When we moved to the farm, it had been abandoned for 20-some years and there was an oven full of cast-iron pans, including a couple of old Griswolds. We restored those and we cook with them now. 

Amy: My favorite has no marks beyond a ring on the bottom and a groove under the handle.

Our founder used to collect vintage cast iron and probably could ID it for you. What did your family cook in them?

Mike: Cornbread. It’s never as good if you don’t cook it in cast iron.

Amy: My mom used it to fry sausage cakes or make big steaks and beef stroganoff, because you could put it right in the oven, too.

New Year’s Day in good company.

Beyond cast iron, what are you go-to kitchen tools?

Mike: I can’t say enough about the importance of a good set of funnels for different sizes of jars and bottles. I’ve also become very good friends with my immersion blender. And not all mandolins are made equally––a good one will change your life and is worth the investment.  

Amy: I like a good, sturdy rotary cutter. There are so many uses for it. 

What about go-to pantry items?

Mike: A wide variety of vinegars and oils beyond the usual suspects. Splurge for the really good stuff when possible, you’ll notice! I like to dry and powder ingredients in their peak seasons so that I can use them throughout the year—every week, I’m going to the pantry and using at least a few tins from my collection of powdered wild onions, ramps, garden herbs, nasturtium, tomatoes, beets, and wild mushrooms, for dressings, sauces, bologna seasoning, ice cream, and more. You name it, I’ve got a favorite powder for it. 

Photos courtesy of Lost Creek Farm. Read Mike and Amy’s Lost Creek Chili Sauce recipe in Family Receipts.

September 01, 2023 — Dennis Powell