LOST CREEK, W. Va. — At the dinners hosted by Lost Creek Farm, each dish tells a different story about Appalachian identity.
Three varieties of corn served in a sweet chowder at an October dinner were grown from kernels saved by generations of Shawnee, Osage and other Native Americans who were long ago forced off the land. Kilt dandelion greens, foraged from the surrounding fields for a wild apple salad, have been harvested and cooked in times of scarcity by generations of women here on the farm.
The recipe for rabbit empanadas, a main course served with garden peppers, came from Spanish immigrants who worked for generations in nearby zinc smelters, extracting metal from mined ores.
“Every time someone puts food on a plate, there’s a story being told,” said Mike Costello, the chef.
Mr. Costello, 36, and his wife, Amy Dawson, 35, have lived here on Lost Creek Farm in northern West Virginia for five years, growing heritage seeds on land that has been in her family for six generations. Since 2017, they have hosted seasonal dinners at the farm and other places around the area.
As Appalachian cooking grows increasingly popular outside the region, the couple are navigating a paradox. Chefs in cities like Washington, Nashville and Asheville, N.C., are treating the cuisine as an undiscovered gem. Still, stereotypes persist that Appalachian food and culture are primitive and backward.
The dinner series at Lost Creek Farm walks a different path, using seeds and old recipes to celebrate the state’s foodways while acknowledging the region’s often painful history. Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson believe that changing the way Appalachians think about their food heritage can change how they think about the region’s poverty: not as a failure of individuals, but as a systemic result of industries like coal and logging.
“The story about culture and identity as it relates to place can be empowering. But here, it’s not,” said Ms. Dawson, the farm manager.
The two work with the Appalachian Food Summit, a gathering that happens every other year where scholars, chefs and farmers share traditional techniques and discuss issues of food justice. Frustrated that West Virginia hasn’t always benefited economically from its natural resources, Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson have joined the growing fight for Appalachian food sovereignty, a movement to promote local farming and safeguard culinary heritage.
“What returns are people getting, based on celebrity chefs selling our stories up the river?” said Joshua Lohnes, the food policy director at the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University, who has attended dinners and brought students to the farm.
Take the wild onions known as ramps. Once disdained as a smelly food for poor people, they are now a coveted delicacy in fancy restaurants, like Appalachian truffles.
In a scramble to gather ramps to sell to distributors, West Virginians sometimes overharvest their patches.
“If people don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll destroy a whole hillside to make a quick buck,” said John Pierson, 37, a local forager who teaches others how to pick ramps so they can regenerate: slicing off the roots and returning them to the soil. The time- and labor-intensive process ensures future crops and could bring more money to foragers.
“If we let ramps be sold for $2 a pound to someone who will sell them for $30 a pound?” Ms. Dawson said. “That’s the definition of an extractive industry.”
At their dinners, which they cook at a commercial kitchen in nearby Clarksburg, she and Mr. Costello point out the underrepresented histories hidden in familiar tastes as guests try each course.
The buttermilk-poached salt trout, a main course in the October dinner hosted at the farm, tells of a tradition lost to industry. Fathers, uncles and sons used to set out on days-long treks in summer and fall to catch the fish for their wives to salt in preparation for cold winters. But that ritual largely ended after logging polluted streams in the early 20th century.
“If something is no longer in practice, I think, ‘O.K. it’s no longer relevant,’ ” said Emily Hilliard, the state folklorist, who is on the board of the Appalachian Food Summit. “But at the same time, there are forces of capitalism, extraction and marginalization that cause traditions to die.”
At $30 to $100 per person, the dinners can be too expensive for many people in West Virginia, one of the most impoverished states in the country. When the couple host at the farm, they regularly invite farmers and foragers who have contributed to the meal to eat for free and share their stories and memories with guests.
“I’ve tried to carry on family recipes,” said Mr. Pierson, whose mother taught Mr. Costello how to make the empanadas served at the dinner in October. “Foodways are living history.”
With an audio recorder and a camera, Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson have crisscrossed West Virginia to meet farmers, many in their 80s and 90s, who share seeds their families have planted for decades.
“More so than a piece of furniture, an heirloom vegetable is something that’s alive and can be passed down from generation to generation,” Mr. Costello said as he drove to meet his friend and fellow seed saver Charlie Radabaugh, 67.
In the greenhouses at Radabaugh Farm in Buckhannon, about 40 minutes east of Lost Creek, vines of heirloom tomatoes hang over sturdy hanovers, root vegetables similar to rutabagas. His family, who immigrated from what is now Germany, have planted hanovers on the farm since 1785. Many immigrants coming from Europe sewed the seeds into their clothes when they came to work in mines or logging camps.
“If I lost those seeds, I’d be heartbroken,” said Ellen Radabaugh, Mr. Radabaugh’s wife.
A few years ago, the Radabaughs were among only a few farmers in the state growing sorghum, a sugar canelike stalk that entire communities used to gather to press into syrup every year. As a little girl, Ms. Radabaugh recalls, she went to such events, where horses turned the crank on the press, men stoked the fire and women skimmed green foam off the simmering juice. During World War II, when sugar rations were short, sorghum sweetened her family’s birthday cakes and Christmas cookies.
The Radabaughs gave Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson sorghum seeds two years ago. With a friend, the two couples turn the sorghum into syrup using a traditional press. They have also been working together to popularize the crop and teach people how to cook with it.
In the bright open kitchen at Lost Creek Farm, jars of seeds line one wall, each labeled in capital letters, a tapestry of state lineage. Coal Camp beans are brown and smooth, like river pebbles. Bloody Butcher corn is burgundy, kernels crammed against the glass. Bernice Morrison’s Old-Time Lima Beans are big and white, with a spray of ebony.
When the tomatoes came in at the end of the summer, Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson sorted them into bowls, each labeled with the names of the seed savers who shared them. Next spring, they will plant those seeds, and next fall, they will share the vegetables at dinners, telling about the Italian immigrants who stewarded the plants for generations.
“They’re living monuments, those seeds,” Mr. Costello said. “They’re like dialects of a language.”
Four big companies — Bayer, which owns Monsanto; Corteva, which owns DuPont and Dow Chemical; ChemChina; and BASF — control more than 60 percent of the global market for seeds.
“As much as our food system is broken, our seed system is also broken,” said Mehmet Oztan, who co-owns a small seed company in West Virginia and started a seed preservation library. “The protection of these seeds basically means the protection of present food sources and future food sources.”
Farmers who buy the corporate seeds are prohibited by patent law from replanting them. Even if they did, they would have an unreliable crop, as hybrid seeds are usually good for only one growth cycle.
“You can’t save a hybrid seed,” said Lou Maiuri, 91, a local seed saver. “It’s kind of like trying to breed a mule.” His centuries-old Fat Horse beans were served in a main course. He got them from a friend’s aunt in 1960s.
“That’s an excellent tasting bean,” said Mr. Maiuri, who stopped by the farm on his way to call a square dance. “They go by two or three names, but they always have a ‘Fat’ in front of them. Don’t ask me how, but that’s what they call them.”
These farmers see their work as a way to circumvent an annual seed purchase from large corporations. Once a farmer has a saved, heritage seed, she can replant the crop every year. Farmers buy or barter for one another’s saved seeds, which helps keep financial resources within a community.
Mr. Costello and Ms. Dawson say that using food to resist corporate agriculture continues a tradition of rebellion in West Virginia. When they served pickled garden vegetables as part of an appetizer, they discussed the 1920s mine wars, one of the most violent episodes in American labor history, when food preservation tactics like pickling helped the state’s striking miners survive the winter.
When Mr. Costello speaks to students around the state, as he did when Anthony Bourdain came to the farm to film an episode on West Virginia for “Parts Unknown” after the 2016 election, he makes a point to celebrate the resilience of their ancestors.
“If we start to establish food as a thing we can have some pride in, then we have more power to legitimize ourselves,” Mr. Costello said.
In a recent Skype session with high school students, Mr. Costello turned one of their questions — “What’s your favorite dish?” — into an opportunity.
Vinegar pie, he answered, without missing a beat. A traditional recipe from times of scarcity, it uses fermented apple cider and nutmeg to mimic the flavor of lemon.
Once, it was called “desperation pie.” But the recipe is less a product of desperation, Mr. Costello told the students, than innovation.
“Say you want a lemon pie, but you don’t have any lemons?” he said. “You do a very creative thing, a very Appalachian thing. You figure it out.”