Asheville Has Become at Major Food Destination

Hotel Arras

Appalachian food is having a moment and there’s no better place to experience it than Asheville. Chow-chow (a relish made of pickled veggies), cornbread, grits, soup beans, chocolate gravy—these staples of mountain cooking were once considered “coarse food for coarse people,” says Erica Locklear Abrams, a professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville whose book Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People debuted earlier this year. A seventh-generation native of Western North Carolina, Abrams says that Appalachian food and the people who make it defy stereotypes.

The discovery of a handmade cookbook created by her grandmother (born in 1915) revealed unexpected recipes such as pickled figs and several with store-bought ingredients like cake with coconut icing. The surprising evidence of these flavors on a mountain farm didn’t align with long-held narratives tied to mountain cooking. The truth is that the region’s culinary heritage is multifaceted, stemming from what Abrams describes as “creative, resourceful people who know how to put a delicious meal on the table.” Here, she offers a few culinary starting points in Asheville for the uninitiated.

A chef-led roots revival

John Fleer - Rhubarb

Chef John Fleer, a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist (and five-time nominee) and nationally recognized champion of Appalachian cooking, celebrates local cuisine at Rhubarb, his Pack Square restaurant. The menu highlights Appalachia’s “unique indigenous ingredients, both prepared and raw,” and his dishes joyfully express this bounty with a focus on building community and lasting memories. Country ham and greens, stone-ground grits, and hush puppies are all on offer, as well as an array of locally sourced ingredients like trout from Sunburst Trout Farms.

Asheville chef Ashleigh Shanti incorporates ramps into her popular recipes thanks to early childhood memories of canning them with her grandmother. Wild-harvested in the woods around Western North Carolina, this spring-growing member of the allium family is described as something between a leek and garlic. Depending on the time of year, you’ll find them in a variety of recipes, from hot sauce to chermoula (a marinade).

Ramps also make their way into the menu at Cúrate, where chef Katie Button (who was invited to prepare a meal at the White House honoring Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last fall) won the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Hospitality. The menu centers on Spanish tapas prepared with locally sourced ingredients, so ramps show up each spring served in a romesco sauce. At Chestnut, the annual ramp dinner brings local chefs together to present creative interpretations of the area’s favorite allium.

Katie Button serves food to waiter at Curate restaurantAccording to Abrams, sorghum (brought to the United States from Africa in the 19th century) was grown in Appalachia as an alternative to hard-to-get sugar and molasses. Making sorghum syrup is an annual fall tradition in the mountains. At The Market Place on Wall Street, you can taste it in delicious chili sorghum pork ribs or vegetables in spiced sorghum butter, which also appears on the menu at Sovereign Remedies alongside cornbread and sweet potatoes with sorghum-miso glaze.

Back to the land with farms and farmer’s markets

Asheville’s farm-focused chefs rely on their relationships with local growers, many of which can be found at Asheville City Market or North Asheville Tailgate Market on Saturday mornings. Many of the farmers also participate in the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s annual farm tour, a two-day event that invites the public to visit more than 20 farms in the area. If you miss it, other farms open their doors year-round, including Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which is about 20 minutes from downtown. Operated by several generations of the Ager family, it’s a family favorite for farm store visits; seasonal events such as the corn maze, pony rides, and barn dances; and outdoor play spaces.

Farmers MarketsIn the Turkey Creek community, around 25 minutes outside Asheville, a visit to Montgomery Sky Farm can include a tour of the 50-acre farm with its vegetable plots, Highland cattle, and Valois blacknose sheep, pigs, and goats—with the possibility of a custom picnic. Taylor Montgomery, who owns the farm with wife Fran Montgomery, is a James Beard Award–nominated chef who offers private dinners and tastings demonstrating his seed-to-table philosophy.

The Utopian Seed Project is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting regional biodiversity in Western North Carolina and regularly holds Trial to Table dinners that pair local chefs with the project’s produce, grown by a diverse collective of farmers committed to creating resilient food systems.

Appalachian originals

Benne on Eagle2_Credit Johnny AutryAccording to Abrams, no discussion of Appalachian food is complete without including the original Appalachians, the Cherokee people who cultivated the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) in the mountains. “Leather britches”—wide beans preserved by stringing on thread and hung to dry—are the consummate traditional bean, she says. Considering the time-consuming process, it’s rare to find leather britches on a menu, but you might catch a locally sourced alternative at Table or Moose Café in late summer.   

Benne on Eagle celebrates the food story of its location, a historically Black business neighborhood known as The Block. With ingredients such as okra, collard greens, red pepper jelly, and benne (the eponymous sesame-like seed), the menu ensures that the African-American culinary traditions that thrive in the neighborhood will continue to do so for many years to come.

The delectable, layered story of Appalachian food is now “being celebrated in really exciting ways,” says Abrams. With new chefs reviving and reinterpreting traditional recipes and ingredients, there’s never been a better time to get a taste of Asheville.

Updated May 24, 2024