Food and Health

West Virginia food favorites

By , MS, RD, LD, WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Programs youth specialist

As a native West Virginian, I’ve spent my entire life admiring and enjoying our state’s natural beauty. From the awe-inspiring expanse of the New River Gorge to autumn-hued maples bursting with fiery colors across the mountain highlands, West Virginia’s grandeur really is “almost heaven.” canned

The roots of our culture run as deep as our coal mines. West Virginians have an abiding love for family and friends. Most of us grew up going to church on Sundays, which was often followed by a big dinner at Grandma’s house.

During Saturdays in the fall, most of our state is clad in old gold and blue. Every November we head into the woods to hunt deer, squirrel and wild turkey. Winters can be rough, but spring brings dogwood blooms and apple blossoms. Fragrant honeysuckle sweetens our river banks and meadows in June. Summer means camping, mason jars filled with lightning bugs and backyard gardens full of delicious fruits and vegetables.

We are passionate people; not afraid of a hard day’s work. But even on our sesquicentennial birthday, we remain slow to change, especially when it comes to food and health. Our foods are unpretentious and served with love. Historically however, we do not choose foods based on what’s best for our health, but rather what’s available in our region and what we’ve grown up eating.

Garden grown favorites

One hundred fifty years after we first became a state, many of our residents still grow a big backyard garden. For years, fresh food was hard to come by during the cold winter months. This fact, coupled with our history of limited financial resources, means we do not like to waste. So many of us still preserve what we’ve grown by canning, pickling and drying our foods.

For years, we seasoned food with what we had on hand. Exotic spices were a rare treat. We learned to cook mostly with salt, and it’s a flavor many of us still enjoy today. Bacon grease and lard added a savory taste to our vegetables. Today, it is recommended we season with healthier options.

Dried beans like pinto, navy and lima beans store easily. When slow-cooked over low heat, these legumes make a delicious and nutritious dinner that is healthy and inexpensive. Many folks serve vegetables like kale or turnip greens, with beans for some added flavor and nutritional value.

Ramps, our version of a wild onion, give beans a rich, strong flavor. Growing wild across our mountains, some of us are so enamored with the ramp’s pungent taste that we celebrate the spring harvest with festivals and community dinners. Ramps are also added to another of our favorite foods ̶ fried potatoes. A steaming bowl of pinto beans, fried potatoes and cornbread with West Virginia honey is often considered the perfect evening meal.

Traditional favorites

Pepperoni rolls, another Mountain State treat, were born of the need for a filling and non-perishable food to pack in a miner’s lunch bucket. Italian immigrants who came here to work in coal mines in the early 20th century brought their version of cured, spicy pork with them. When combined with homemade bread, the pepperoni roll was born. The combination of the soft roll and slightly greasy pepperoni makes a delicious “sandwich” that even the most refined palate can’t resist. In today’s health-conscious environment, some folks substitute turkey pepperoni for the pork variety to help lower the fat and calorie content.

Fresh Fruits apples

While our love of meat and potatoes might overshadow many of our other native foods, it’s important to recognize the beautiful variety of fruit that is grown in the Mountain State. Blackberries and raspberries grow wild. During the late summer months, these delicate berries grow thick with juice and are bursting with flavor when picked at peak ripeness. Traditionally, we preserve these delicate gems by turning them into flavorful jam and jelly. It is also common to turn today’s pickings into a fresh blackberry cobbler or homemade pie for dessert.

A wide variety of apples, peaches and nectarines grow in our state’s Eastern Panhandle. Apples are commonly stewed or fried and served with butter, cinnamon and brown sugar. They can also be made into a delicious apple crisp dessert. Canned applesauce preserves the fresh flavor so we enjoy the summer sweetness throughout the winter. October brings the state’s well-known Apple Butter Festival in Berkley Springs, where some of the best apple butter in the region is on display. In August, fruit trees become heavy with tender, juicy peaches. We freeze them, can them or turn them into pie and crisp. Occasionally, we’ll even serve fresh peaches with a dollop of sweetened cream.

There are countless other foods that are grown and served in the 55 counties of West Virginia. Through time, Appalachian food has become as important to our culture as our slogan “Mountaineers are always free.” Our sesquicentennial birthday is a special time to celebrate our food heritage and consider how this might change as our state becomes more ingrained in the 21st century. Regardless of what the future brings, we are guaranteed one thing ̶ our food will always be served with love and best enjoyed during long meals with family and friends.

For healthy recipes and other nutrition ideas, visit www.fh.ext.wvu.edu, or contact your local county office of the WVU Extension Service.