There's a lot of amateur food sociology around these days noting that the rise in lavish cookbooks, The Food Network and multiple food competition shows is occurring at a time when Americans are less and less likely to actually cook anything -- where "cooking" is defined as something more complicated than making a Tuna Helper. No accident, say the food sociologists. All of that food porn is fulfilling a deep-seated need for the nourishment and nurturing nature of food. We're just consuming it virtually.
In there somewhere is a place for niche cookbooks, that are both sumptuously produced and unassuming enough so that the average home cook might feel like trying some of the recipes. Big plus if someone who does a fair amount of cooking and baking will find recipes that are not run-of-the-mill and found in evry other cookbook. (As an aside, can mac-and-cheese recipes that consist of throwing cheese into hot macaroni be retired? This does not work!)
I've been noodling around with Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly by Joan Aller (Andrews McNeel) since last fall and have found a lot to like. The title at first led me to believe that it was going to concern hardcore locavorism and it would have me in the backyard harvesting weeds. But this book is as likely to showcase a lavish breakfast treat from a modern-day southern bed and breakfast as it is something from the recipe file of Granny Clampitt.
Aller does focus on the culinary culture of southern Appalachia, covering three ethnic heritages -- the Cherokee Indians, the Melungeons (a mixed-race, possibly Moorish immigrant population) and African Americans as well as Europeans.
There are quite a lot of interesting recipes here, for foods that aren't common in the upper Midwest -- southern classics like hush puppies and cornbread, sure, but also "Possum Trot Cowboy Gravy" (no possum needed), made with corned beef hash; burgoo, a stew that can be cooked for up to 30 hours and can include possum (though you can stick with chicken and beef); "hot brown," a kind of country croque-monsieur made with turkey; and so forth.
I was most taken with the dessert section, though. Tennessee Black Walnut cake, a rich Melungeon wedding cake, the fabulous Mountain Molasses Stack cake (folks would each bring a layer, and the pieces would be melded into a cake with apple butter filling, at the site of the gathering), and Raw Apple Cake. Two of my favorites here are both recipes for sweets I'd never heard of before -- the Bakewell Tart, a sweet jam and lemon curd concoction, and a Cherokee recipe for cornmeal raisin cookies. And, while I thought I had exhausted the variations on the bar cookie known as "blondies," here is the "Cherry-Berry" Blondie from the Buckhorn Inn in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that calls for dried cranberries and tart cherries, golden raisins, almonds and bittersweet chocolate.
The surrounding text, about the area's heritage, and the pretty photos, are just enough to set the atmosphere. The color commentary is fun. The recipes are keepers.