Sapelo’s residents, self-proclaimed Saltwater Geechees, have grown a red pea unique to the island for centuries, ever since their ancestors were forcibly brought here across the Atlantic. Sea island slaves produced long-staple cotton by day but also tended to their own plots of native produce. Okra, red peas, sweet potatoes, and rice provided sustenance and the tastes of home. The protein power combo of peas and rice gave birth to dishes like Reezy Peezy and Hoppin’ John.
Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about Southern country cooking called Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken. In it I cheekily pointed out that I, not Hoosier Harland Sanders, was born in Corbin, Kentucky, so I was the person who could tell you what “Honest Fried Chicken” was all about.
Growing up in New Orleans, I ranked the Fourth of July at the bottom of the holiday totem pole. Big deal. We had Mardi Gras for goodness sake, and in July not having school was holiday enough. For me, the worst part was faking an interest in firecrackers, which I still despise. Not the pretty ones that illuminated the sky but the hostile ones. The ones that whistled, exploded, and landed kids in emergency rooms. No thanks. When I reached a sensible drinking age, however, my pecking order changed, and the Fourth began soaring to the top of my personal queue. I owe this, in part, to the charms of the Mississippi coast and a particular enclave called Pass Christian.
West Virginia is the heart of Appalachia—beautiful mountainous countryside where you can drive mile after mile without spotting any scars of large-scale industry. Residents here have been working and foraging the land for generations. Somewhere along the line, outside perceptions of our state pegged us as isolated or unsophisticated, but that only served to grow our cultural pride, make us kinder to each other, and solidify our culinary heritage.