A John Deere Publication
restaurant chef in apron with fingers interlocked and arm tattoos

Travis Milton believes food is both a heritage of Appalachia and a path to its economic future. He is dedicated to creating opportunities for local chefs.

Specialty/Niche   April 01, 2023

Adding a Chapter


Chef Travis Milton brings the Appalachian foodways of his youth into the spotlight.

A tour through the kitchen of Hickory with chef Travis Milton is like a trip to a museum. Milton's enthusiasm glows through his quiet demeanor as he reveals the pencil notes on a strip of paper in a baggie of dried beans: Crota Cornfield Beans. He pulls out another bag, then another. Variety after variety—brown, white, shriveled, plump—traced back to the '90s, the '30s, to who-knows-when.

Every bag tells a story of resourcefulness and resilience, of short growing seasons and hard winters, of families and history and Appalachia. Milton knows the stories. He's lived them all his life, even when he left rural Virginia to work in Michelin-noted kitchens in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., even when he moved from shucking beans in the kitchen with his great-great-grandmother to the wizardry of molecular gastronomy and high-fashion haute cuisine.

Ultimately, the beans—and the stories, and the foodways of Appalachia—helped draw Milton back to Virginia. Take leather britches, beans strung up and slowly dried in their husks.

"The fact that you pick all these beans, you take the strings off the beans, you snap the beans, then you string them up like popcorn on a Christmas tree, you hang them up and wait a month, then you put them up and don't eat them—it just blows my mind, the amount of creativity and patience that goes into the food I grew up eating here," he says. "It took me a long time to come back and see that everything I was looking for in haute cuisine, everything I was learning, was actually right here to begin with."

He celebrates that love and those foodways—and the ingredients of Appalachia—at Hickory, the centerpiece of the posh hotel at Nicewonder Farm and Vineyards in Bristol, Virginia.

The 480-acre property includes a farm packed full of heirloom plants. Milton works closely with farmers Dan and Heather Huard at Nicewonder, and others around the region, to zero in on ingredients to showcase in Hickory's kitchen.

Above. At Hickory, the restaurant at Nicewonder Farm and Vineyards, heirloom vegetables and fruits—fresh and preserved in traditional styles—celebrate Appalachian foodways.


Staples. Many of the hottest foodie trends—heirloom varieties, celebrating ingredients by putting them in the spotlight, preserving food through canning or fermentation—are staples of the cooking Milton learned as a child on the farm.

"Just the fact that we have a shorter growing season than the rest of the South, you're going to have to preserve these things," Milton notes.

There's canning. And drying. And sour corn, lacto-fermented in a technique likely brought over with immigrants from Germany. Lush apple stack cake that probably hearkens back to a Hungarian recipe. And huge Candy Roaster squash stacked in the cellar, holding onto its deep sweetness well into winter.

There's ham from Mulefoot pigs, whose non-cloven hooves grip the slopes. The citrusy tang of sumac. The smile that comes with the rich flavor and colorful names of tomatoes like Mortgage Lifter and Rattlesnake Preacher and Lazy Wife.

There's a lot of tradition in Appalachia. There's also a lot of nostalgia, especially among folks whose images of the region were shaped by Depression-era Life Magazine photos or the pages of Hillbilly Elegy.

For a while, Milton was crowned a "patron saint" of Appalachian cuisine, a "savior" of a fading heritage. He looked the part, with his Waylon Jennings beard and outlaw scowl, and he talked a lot about leather britches and growing up in coal country. But uneasy is the head that wears the trucker hat—Milton was getting hemmed in by other people's nostalgia and fascination with "authenticity."

"The term 'authenticity' has always irked me," he says. "I hate looking at it as this thing that's stuck in the past that we're trying to honor, this tiny thought that someone has of what Appalachian food is. The term 'Appalachian cuisine' is not a box. It's the opposite. It's ever-evolving. It can be a polygon, it can be a box, it can be a triangle, it can be whatever, but it goes back to thinking on your feet, to being creative, and thinking about the ingredient. That's what we are trying to honor."

The subject of Appalachian culture fading away came up last summer at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Virginia, where Milton shared the stage with Kentucky-born, James Beard Award-winning author Ronni Lundy.

"We have never been on the verge of having an extinct culture," Lundy said. "What we do with our contemporary lives with Appalachian food is we interpret it, we share it, we adapt it. We are not saving it."

That's how Milton sees it, too.

"I knew five generations of my family on one side and four on the other, seeing what each generation brought and what was handed down," he says. "They all learned down this generational path, but each one added their own different spin. I'm not here to tell each one of those stories. I'm here to showcase the fact that those stories are there, and this is my story that wouldn't be here if not for those chapters that came before. That's what I would leave with: hopefully I just added another chapter and left it open for the next story." ‡

Above. Hickory's rich cornbread, made from South Carolina Blue corn, complements deep, dark sorghum butter. Rows at Nicewonder Farm and Vineyards are planted thick with heirloom fruits and vegetables adapted to the region's short growing season. Author Ronni Lundy's books dive deep into Appalachia's vibrant food culture.


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