A New Look at Appalachian Food With Mike Costello of Lost Creek Farm
Video & Photos by Kerrin Sheldon | Story by Courtney Balestier
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Mike Costello and I have been friends for a few years, but my first dinner at Lost Creek Farm — the Appalachian farming and cooking outfit he runs with his partner, Amy Dawson, in West Virginia — wasn’t until last month.
It was an informal supper, just a few friends around the wooden table on the farmhouse’s tiny back deck, lights strung overhead. Mike made rabbit and dumplings (the rabbit raised on the farm), sautéed kale and summer squash and salad, all passed around with homemade chow-chow. After dinner, Mike said he’d improvised dessert: a farmer’s cheese tart with a crust made from leftover communion wafers. Because the idea of leftover communion wafers seemed so absurd and because I tend to fall for Mike’s jokes anyway — I’d just believed him a couple days prior when he said there was a sound studio in the farm’s sauna — I thought he was messing around, but it turned out he wasn’t. The crust was actually made from communion wafers.
The wafers, Mike told me a few weeks later, go back to his grandmother, who would hand-make them with the other elders of Emmanuel Baptist Church on Friday mornings, often with young Mike and his brother in tow.
“There was something about it that was so beautiful,” he said. “It would’ve been a lot easier to buy crackers, but it was about getting together and doing it.”
That simple act of cooking made a big impact on his culinary makeup, even though Mike is not religious. His parents didn’t raise him in the church, he said — and then he added he was, however, an honorary member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, turning the conversation into an appropriate metaphor for Mike’s approach to Appalachian cuisine: irreverence, and reverence.
Ask any of us who write, cook, think, and make about Appalachia: The mountains are their own spirituality. And so, to talk about Appalachian food is, ultimately, to talk about communion. Mike understands this. A native of Elkview, West Virginia, who backed out of Johnson & Wales at the last minute to study journalism at West Virginia University, Mike cooks with a deep understanding of the power of storytelling and a deep respect for the story of Appalachia. Even as a teenager working in restaurants kitchens in Charleston, he was frustrated by the intentional distancing from anything West Virginian or Appalachian — that the mark of sophistication or quality was cooking bistro or French food with imported ingredients.
“Even though I didn't set out to be an Appalachian chef, I was really proud of this place, and I was incredibly turned off by that mentality that nothing good that can come from West Virginia,” Mike said.
Hometown pride, traceable ingredients, farm-to-table menus: None of this is new anymore. For the past few years, American chefs have been embracing a culinary patriotism with hyper-localized storytelling.
But in a place like Appalachia — a region known for its extractive economy and its poverty, for its stereotypes and its elegies — the story behind the food isn’t about a well-intentioned farmer or a cherished family recipe; it’s about sovereignty. For a people used to being told about ourselves — that we are poor, stupid, uncultured — the crucial piece isn’t the narrative. It’s our ownership over it.
Mike's first encounter with this idea was in college, when he did a year-long series of projects about ramp season, spending time with people who hosted community ramp suppers and pensioners who supplemented their income by selling ramps on roadsides two months a year. Those projects got him interested in exploring a place through food, and Mike still works this way today, sowing heirloom seeds from old-timers and apprenticing with heritage sausage-makers and other culinary tradition-bearers whose crafts might hide in plain sight in rural communities around West Virginia. Sometimes, Mike said, they don’t even see why he’s interested.
“And then they start talking about the story behind [the food], and you witness this visible change in their faces, the way they start to speak,” Mike said. “The level of enthusiasm starts to change when they start to realize that, ‘Oh yeah, I don't just do it for the sake of making bread or sausage. I do it because there's this story behind it that really means something to me and maybe I didn't really think about what that meant until somebody made me talk about it.’”
When Mike and Amy take their Lost Creek Farm dinners to places like J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Charleston, they re-contextualize Appalachian food for Appalachians — often people of our parents’ generation, who reacted to their own rural, often poor upbringings by living middle-class lives in which they didn’t need to grow or preserve food.
“Mike’s knowledge for local ingredients and the history behind their use is incredible,” said Nancy Bruns, co-founder and CEO of J.Q. Dickinson. “He is preserving Appalachian food culture unlike anyone else.”
One night at a JQD dinner, several guests began crying over their plates of tomato aspic, a dish that brought back strong childhood memories of poverty and lack.
“They said, ‘You know, I ate it because we had to, and when I went to college, I swore I would never eat tomato aspic again in my life,’” Mike said.
Appalachian cuisine is full of foods like this. By glorifying them, we can reclaim them as the small miracles they are, “to feel proud of the way we navigated that period and that challenge, rather than being ashamed that we existed in it,” Mike said.
“It changes the way people think about their past and their heritage and their identity,” he continued. “There's been so much shame around food, and all the other aspects of our culture, that people have gone far out of the way to get the hell away from it. But when you start telling stories about pride and making these connections through food … it’s a lot to be proud of, the way your grandma made tomato aspic or the way your Aunt Maude was so fucking resourceful that the chow-chow that she made was actually pretty impressive and not something you should be ashamed of.”
Mike said such emotional reactions tell him a lot about why Appalachians might have stepped away from their food traditions, “but it also tells a lot about how, even if you tried to leave it behind, you can't get totally separated from it.”
We can’t separate ourselves from our past, but we can’t remain trapped in it, either. I think perhaps mine and Mike’s generation of Appalachians, a degree farther removed from the days of tomato aspic, has a new perspective on this, on how we might make these mountains our own, now. It’s not a coincidence Mike worked in West Virginia land conservation before turning to food, or that he and Amy took on the challenge of Lost Creek Farm, a frazzled family property with an abandoned barn and a neglected 1880s farmhouse. Engaging with the past is an act of selective reclamation, of keeping what serves you and leaving the rest, whether it’s a plot of land or a plate of beans.
How Mike bridges that gap is part of what appealed to the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” team when they filmed in West Virginia, said director Morgan Fallon.
“Especially in a place where what food traditions remain intact have largely been usurped by hipster elite elements in major East Coast cities, Mike is doing indigenous Appalachian food and stories in Appalachia,” Fallon said. “It’s really beautiful and takes out the one missing step in terms of connection to the ingredients and the traditions.”
Mike treats Appalachian food as a precious thing, but he is not precious about your definitions of “Appalachianness.” (He loves, when Lost Creek pops up in those East Coast cities, to subvert expectations with dishes like kibbe in the style of Charleston’s Lebanese community.) He is more interested in the narrative power of food in Appalachia, as a means of pride, community, and economic development, and in the ability of Appalachians to tell that story themselves and finally be heard.
“I do feel that this is a piece of that puzzle that transcends all the issues we're trying to work on, whether it's health or economic development,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said for the power of a narrative that makes people feel empowered, rather than a narrative, that people are so used to, that strips power from them.”