Posted: December 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm

By Rachel Teter

Appalachian cooking is no longer bound to grandma’s kitchen. The new regional cooking trend has emerged across the East Coast and West Virginia is at the heart of the conversation.

West Virginia native Mike Costello and his wife Amy run Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virgina. On the farm the Costellos grow heritage vegetables, raise rabbits, chickens and run a storytelling, traveling kitchen.

A journalist by training, Costello wants to use his profession to show that not only does West Virginia have a key role in Appalachian cooking and agriculture, but that the state has a diverse, unique story to tell.

“When we are trying to figure out what makes Appalachian food different than anything else, it’s not the ingredients necessarily,” he said. “Within the ingredients, there is a story about our people and about their resilience. People throughout time here may have had it rough, but they have always managed to come up with creative ways to survive.”

After originally planning on attending culinary school, Costello decided to pursue a degree in journalism instead. He is a West Virginia University Perley Isaac School of Journalism graduate–now known as the Reed College of Media. He is passionate about the rich history the culture of West Virginia has to offer and how it can be told through the use of food.

“The way that we have interacted with the land here has defined our culture and the stories behind it are what make Appalachia attractive and trendy.  The rich culture makes me proud tell the stories of farmers here.”

Not only does Costello farm his own Appalachian based food, but he also tells the stories of farmers who participate in old Appalachia traditions, like making sorghum.

“The most rewarding part to me as a journalist and chef are the West Virginia traditions I am able to tell,” Costello said, “Many people themselves don’t realize that what they are doing is special. It’s not until someone calls them up that they realize making sorghum is interesting. They suddenly want someone to share and preserve their stories.”

Photos from Lost Creek Farm’s Instagram. @lostcreekfarm

Costello hopes that the power of these stories will create an open conversation about sustainability between farmers and consumers. He does not want outsiders to see Appalachian food as this gimmick that will just come and go.

“We can use food as a vehicle, or a mechanism, to tell stories about Appalachia,” Costello said. “We need these stories to gain pride internally but also resect externally.”

In the midst of the state’s transition from coal revenue, West Virginia is looking to create jobs in other industries. The State Journal accredited President Trump to having hope that agriculture could be the answer. However, Costello and other farmers do not see it that way.

“It reminds me of every extractive industry that has ever popped up here. It reminds me of coal, it reminds me of timber and it reminds me of gas,” Costello said. “These people from outside of the state come here to take something but we don’t see any of the return on it.”

Brian Young, a senior at West Virginia University, is studying agricultural and extension education. He is a fifth-generation beef and strawberry farmer from the southern part of the state.

Despite the rise in the trend Appalachian cooking, Young has yet to see a rise in his families farm market. His family sells their grass-fed beef to local livestock markets, but he believes the cost per pound is never high enough.

“There is a rise in popularity but it’s only if you are close to a community that first can afford it and secondly needs it,” Young said. “I don’t see farming bringing back jobs to West Virginia because the majority of our state doesn’t have the land to have sustainable farming bring in enough economic value to hire employees–only a few counties in the state have that ability.” 

Not only does Young believe the state can not afford sustainable or economic farming, but Costello believes the residents of the state do not see the value or power agriculture could have for West Virginia.

“If you go to the state’s tourism website they have a list of unique food finds in West Virginia but four out of five of the dishes are seafood, which is funny because we are a landlocked state,” Costello said. “If it looks like our own tourism department doesn’t believe we have anything locally from the state to offer, then it’s hard for us to blame other people for taking from what we lack to realize is great.”

Costello has noticed that other states are jumping in on the trend of Appalachian food, but West Virginia–the only state completely emerged in Appalachia–isn’t offering the same dining experiences.

“You have all these people putting Appalachian food on their menu and even though they may be from Appalachian it doesn’t really matter,” Costello said. “They are still making money off of the name or brand of Appalachia but there is no respect or money being put back into the communities they are taking from.”

Costello hopes that Lost Creek Farm can aid in helping West Virginia realize the worth of their food and culture.

“I want to get West Virginia in a position to say that our food belongs to us and that people should come to West Virginia to truly experience it,” Costello said. “I mean who in their right mind is going to come from another state to eat at a seafood restaurant in West Virginia?”

Ultimately,  Costello believes that this new trend and agriculture could lead to opportunities for the state if the residences allow it to.

“We have a lot of educating to do as chefs, farmers, educators, and journalists for West Virginian’s to realize and  be proud of something that is regionally placed here,” he said.