On a cool Friday night, Miss Bessie Harrill ushered in the eager attendees of the second annual Appalachian Food Summit, on the second floor of the Harvest Table Restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia. Preserved in story and passed from the memory of food writer Sheri Castle to the ears and imagination of artist Amy C. Evans, the generous lunch lady from Appalachian Elementary was resurrected in acrylic along with eleven other women– Virgie, Marie, Thelma, Elizabeth, Iona, Roberta, Ruby, Gertrude, Sarah, Bertha and Leota.
“Miss Harill wore a white nurses’ uniform and baked fresh yeast rolls for the children,” says Castle, one of the event organizers and a former student at Appalachian Elementary. “She made sure every child, even those without a nickel, were given four yeast rolls on a white napkin and a half-pint of milk.”
Inspired by stories collected inside the Saltville Centennial Cookbook (a book introduced to her by food summit founder and author, Ronni Lundy), Evans revived the stories of women from Saltville, Virginia and the special story of Miss Bessie Harrill in a rich interpretation of history and place. Evans’ piece on Harrill entitled “ Bessie celebrated her 25th year at Appalachian Elementary” set the tone for an intimate gathering of minds centered around the theme of revival in Appalachia.
During the all-day conference held at Heartwood in Abingdon, Virginia, artisans, scholars, food advocates, food enthusiasts and writers discussed the revival of local communities through agricultural economy and shared on the importance of preserving traditional Appalachian ingredients. Attendees heard from the likes of Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, Nancy Bruns of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, Kathlyn Terry, Executive Director of Appalachian Sustainable Development and many more working for progress in Appalachian communities long affected by industrial interests.
“Story is how we continue to know who we are, “ said Ronni Lundy during the final panel presentation of the day.
Discussions ripe with story were brought to life through the varied projects of each presenter and the synergistic summit culminated in a special cafeteria style meal curated by chef Travis Milton of the forthcoming Shovel & Pick, dubbed by him, a “fancy ass Picadilly”.
Plastic trays in hand, dinner guests moved through the line for a Thanksgiving-sized meal doled out by a stunning lineup of accomplished “lunch ladies.” At the helm was Milton in his trademark striped apron and cap, followed by chefs Jassen Campbell (Bristol, Tennessee), Shelley Cooper (TerraMae Appalachian Bistro, Chattanooga) and the inimitable John Fleer (Rhubarb, Asheville). Music floated through the air while guests reveled in the mountain of beans, greens, ham, casseroles and apple stack cake. The joyful communion, with old friends and new, felt more like family than anything else.
The weekend was an amalgam of heart interests, layered with stories from the past, connections made in the present and eyes looking ahead to the future. The rich celebration of a treasured and complicated region brought people together in a genuine display of community.
“Nostalgia can take you no farther than yesterday,” said Castle. “I am delighted that the people here are motivated by nostalgia enough to see what comes next. These are some of the finest people I’ve ever got to pretend to be related to.”