Looking at the dried green and brown clumps of beans he calls “Leather Britches” is enough to take Mike Costello back to the childhood celebrations his extended West Virginia family and friends always had around the last Monday in May.
Never mind that the holiday by then had been formally changed to Memorial Day. Many of those in attendance still referred to it as Decoration Day.
And the foods they served, the recipes they prepared, also hearkened back to an earlier time.
“The picnic was always full of traditional food, but more iconic was the display of half runner beans. It was a great way for people to show off their canned beans or the pickled beans,” he said.
“My mom said it was like going to a county fair or a state fair where everyone was competing for a prize.”
Listening to him talk about some of those native regional foods is like visiting ancestry.com for Appalachian cuisine.
That bite of harvest corn? It has a story to tell, if only you know how to listen.
“Our ‘Bloody Butcher’ corn, those are originally native ingredients, and that’s something that’s rarely talked about,” he said. “It’s got a distinct flavor for sure, and there are a couple of other varieties of heirloom corn. There’s a variety of blue corn that was found mostly in the Ohio River Valley of West Virginia that’s deep blue, and it’s got its own unique flavor.”
To Costello’s sophisticated palate, each unique flavor tells a story of the place from which it came — and the people who carefully passed those seeds from one generation to the next.
People like Lou Maiuri in Summersville, who — half a century ago — liked some of the bean varieties he tried so much that he’s planted them every year since, carefully saving the harvested seeds for the next season.
“The ‘Logan Giants,’ I’ve had those beans for about 50 years, got ’em from a man in Marmet,” Maiuri said.
The “Fat Horse Pole Beans” came from a lady in Roane County who’d had them herself for quite some time.
“She raised ’em and bragged on ’em and she gave me a start,” he said.
Today, at 90 years of age, he still plants the descendants of those same seeds in his garden every year — and shares them with his friends, Mike Costello and Amy Dawson at Lost Creek Farm.
“These varieties have been stewarded over the years, so people realize they’re not just eating green beans. They may be eating Lou Mairui’s ‘Logan Green Giants’ and they start to understand that green bean is much, much more than that,” Costello said.
Now some of those stories and recipes — some of that rich culinary heritage — will help comprise the very first West Virginia Foodways Course at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins. The course will be taught by Costello and Dawson — he an established chef, she an accomplished baker known for her pastries and salt-rising bread.
The course is part of the arts, crafts and folklore offerings during the intensive summer workshops the center has long hosted to help preserve the Appalachian traditions.
“Traditional music and dance and folklore and crafts all stem from this tradition of passing it on, so you learn from your parents, your grandparents, your community — and cooking is that, too, and somehow it just gets looked over,” said Becky Hill, events coordinator for the Heritage Center and a driving force behind the new course.
Cooking, she said, is even more essential because “it’s like an everyday tradition that gets passed down to people from spending time in the kitchen, sharing recipes, talking to your grandma, getting seeds from your neighbors. All of that is what would be defined as passing it down and that’s a traditional art.”
The weeklong workshop will “explore Appalachia’s rich food from a whole hog perspective”: preserving parts of a whole heritage-breed hog for sausage, using lard in pastries and desserts, and using salt pork for cooking the “Leather Britches” and offals — internal meats — for charcuterie.
“I actually think the foodways course fits perfectly with the programming Augusta has offered with music and storytelling, learning crafts that are unique to place — those are expressions of culture tied to place and that could be said of food, too,” Costello said.
There are plenty of populations that are often overlooked here, he added, including African-American and former immigrant communities, as well as the Native Americans, who used “Bloody Butcher” corn and other foods we still have today.
By highlighting food and recipes handed down through generations of settlers who immigrated from foreign lands, you end up with a far more complete picture of Appalachia, Costello said. By cooking with ingredients like “Bloody Butcher” corn, he hopes to help students better understand Appalachia’s rich food heritage.
West Virginia Foodways with Lost Creek Farm will be offered as part of the Arts, Crafts and Folklore Classes July 21-26 at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College. The cost for the week is $530 plus materials. For more information visit augustaheritagecenter.org/craft or call 304-637-1209.