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A Conversation with Appalachian Chef-Journalist Mike Costello

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Jesse Wright, news director at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, sat down with Mike Costello, food editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, Monday morning for WVPB’s West Virginia Morning program.

The two discussed Costello’s recent appearance on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Sunday, as well as Costello’s upcoming new online food and culture publication with 100 Days called “The Seed Swap.” 

Listen to that discussion or read excerpts from Jesse Wright’s discussion with Mike Costello below.


ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S “PARTS UNKNOWN” AIRED LAST NIGHT (SUNDAY) ON CNN. YOU WERE A PART OF THAT SHOW. YOU WANT TO TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT THAT EXPERIENCE WAS LIKE?

You know, you go through this wide range of feelings and emotions when something like that happens … I’m not going to lie — it’s totally an honor. To just sort of feel like somebody is paying attention to the work you’re doing and you get sought out for something like this. And that’s really a good feeling.

I think it is a testament, not necessarily to my work and to Lost Creek Farm’s work, but to the work of the sort of broader food community that we work with that makes us who we are.

And we really tried to show that off in the show. We tried to make sure that our food community was really well-represented, from the seed saver who have been saving seed for six generations or more, and have given us that seed so that we can keep growing that in our garden, to traditional sausage makers, or traditional bakers, or food justice advocates, or young farmers just like us who kind of end up making a lot of sacrifices to do what they do.

You know, this is the community that we always sort of weave into our stories, and that’s really the story that we wanted to tell on CNN.

But you know, there’s this other side of it, and I think the more accurate answer of how that experience was is that it’s really freaking stressful.

You know, it’s stressful for a few reasons. One of which was just that we’re in the middle of a giant deconstruction, reconstruction project. We’re fixing up an old 1800-era farmhouse that we kind of had to take down to the bones and then build back up.

… And then there were some funny things that happened, like our well ran dry in the middle of the day. It was in middle September — like the driest time of the year — and our well, we’re on an old well farm, and sometimes it’s like you can maybe take a shower or two, and then you go for a couple of hours without water for the rest of the day. So there in the middle of the day, at around 2 p.m., we’ve got a bunch of people cooking in our kitchen. We’ve got a bunch of guests, and we just run out of water

… But even outside the filming and after the film crew left, there’s this stress that comes with the pressure of trying to tell the story accurately — trying to tell your story accurately, trying to tell the state’s story, and trying to tell the region’s story.

WELL, SPEAKING OF YOUR WORK AND YOUR CONNECTION TO MEDIA, YOU’RE NOW CONTRIBUTING EDITOR AT 100 DAYS IN APPALACHIA, WHICH WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING IS A PART OF, ONE OF THE EDITORIAL COLLABORATORS. THERE’S SOME NEW WORK THAT’S COMING OUT WITH THE PROJECT. YOU WANT TO TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT’S ON DECK?

Sure. 100 Days in Appalachia, for those who aren’t familiar with that project, it was sort of a project that was born out of kind of a response to the media coverage surrounding the 2016 election. It was during a time in which Appalachia was portrayed, and further than it already had been, by sort of a sense of homogeneity in our ideology, in our cultural background.

And it was this situation where media was coming to West Virginia day after day to tell this story of these poor, desperate white voters in Trump Country. And it was just this singular narrative that we knew we had to combat somehow.

So 100 Days in Appalachia was conceptualized out of the necessity to provide a rebuttal there, and to provide a counternarrative that provided a more accurate snapshot of the region, and provided a little bit more — actually a lot more — nuance and complexity to the narratives that the national media was putting out each day.

I think that there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the 2016 election coverage of Appalachia and the kind of constant media hype that we’re seeing around Appalachian food as the trend.

When the food media tends to talk about Appalachian food, we’re seeing a lot of Appalachia being pigeonholed and simplified, and all of that nuance and complexity that is so important to our political reporting is also missing from food reporting.

And when you think about food being a mark of culture, of people tied to place, you know you want the stories about food to really reflect all of that deep, complex relationship that we have with the land here. We want it to reflect the great level of diversity that Appalachia has here.

So through 100 Days in Appalachia, with all of this in mind, we’re going to launch an online food publication that’s associated with 100 Days sometime this summer, probably in June.

We already have quite an impressive team of some contributors assembled to really tell that story that we want to tell through food, and to look at this project through 100 Days in Appalachia as something different, as an episode of “Parts Unknown” where people think it’s this one-and-done opportunity to tell a story.

You know, this is a platform that we have, and that we’ve developed knowing that there are so many stories to tell, and so many people who need to be telling those stories. That we’re going to do more than what a single TV episode can provide.

SO MIKE, AS YOU REFLECT ON THE “PARTS UNKNOWN” EXPERIENCE, AS WELL AS CONSIDER THE LAUNCH OF THIS NEW FOOD PROJECT, WHAT DO YOU HOPE THAT YOUR AUDIENCE TAKES AWAY FROM THE WORK THAT YOU’RE DOING?

Well, that’s a good question, and I think that there are different answers to that, depending on whether I consider the sort of internal audience — what’s in West Virginia and what’s in Appalachia — and external audience.

Certainly through both the work that I do as a chef and as a farmer with Lost Creek Farm, and then also as a journalist and an editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, you know we want to tell a story about this place that is more fair and just and accurate than the stories that people are used to hearing. So I’m always thinking about how we can tell a story about diversity and complexity, and food is a great way to do that. So that’s something that I think about when I’m thinking more about an external audience.

And then for an internal audience, I think a lot about my own experience when I grew up and when I was a teenager. When I was about 16 or so, I decided that I wanted to be a chef. And I don’t think I really at the time wanted to be a chef that specialized in regional cuisine so much. I just was sort of drawn by the creativity of being in the kitchen and cooking.

But there were certain things that happened in that experience that connected some dots for me about just the way Appalachian culture and heritage was being valued, both inside and outside the region.

One of those in the restaurant world was just working in restaurants, where the perception of quality had to do with more about how exotic the ingredients were than how locally and how rooted in place they were. And that was a total turn-off to me. I mean, it was like anything that was kind of considered West Virginian or Appalachian was seen as inferior, so we sort of had to create this distance between ourselves and something that was considered Appalachian.

So I think there’s a lot of overlap in the way that I approach cooking and farming, and the way that I approach this journalism project through 100 Days in Appalachia. Because it’s like when you’re talking about food from the region, the story is by far the most important ingredient that there is.

This interview was originally produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Food editor Mike Costello (@costellowv‏) is a chef, farmer and storyteller at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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From Corn Liquor to State Pride – Origins of ‘West by God Virginia’

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Trish Hatfield with her husband Jim and their son Ben. Trish’s question “Where does the phrase, ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” won West Virginia Public Broadcasting's latest Wild, Wondering West Virginia poll. Photo: Courtesy of Trish Hatfield

Here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, we’ve been asking listeners what they wonder most about West Virginia.

The latest question that won out in an online poll came to us from St. Albans resident Trish Hatfield. She asked, “Where does the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ come from?” WVPB reached out to experts across the state and discovered one of the first times the phrase was found in a publication — and we have a good idea why it has stuck around.

“West by God Virginia” is an idiom many West Virginians know well, but its exact origins have traditionally been less well-understood. 

West Virginia University linguistics professor Kirk Hazen did some digging for us into the phrase. The earliest printed version he found was in a Virginia magazine published in 1926 called “The Virginia Spectator.” It reads:

“And it is, we believe, the only way that corn can be mixed and presented to a girl — except the iron plated ones from West (by God) Virginia.”

The article was written by students at the University of Virginia who, in the middle of the prohibition, are likely alluding to making alcohol, Hazen said.

He said the quote is basically saying West Virginia women can hold their liquor.

“And the implication here is that they are accustomed to drinking homemade corn liquor,” he explained. “So, they can handle it without having to mix it up in certain concoctions.”

Hazen discovered this publication with the help from a Google Books application called Ngram Viewer. It’s an online tool that sifts through a massive digital database of millions of publications in several languages.

This screenshot of Google’s Ngram Viewer shows a peak in the published phrase “West by God Virginia” in the early 1960s — perhaps due to the centennial celebration of West Virginia in 1963. Credit: Courtesy of Kirk Hazen

Hazen said the phrase likely appeared in written form earlier than 1926, but to confirm that it would take months of sifting through physical documents, such as newspaper clippings, journals, books and magazines.

Hazen found another early publication of the phrase in 1939 in an academic article published by WVU’s English department. The phrase is found in a footnote written by Harold Wentworth. The quote explores the possible history behind “West by God Virginia.” It reads: 

“Among phrases so formed is the well-known ‘West by God Virginia.’ But the expletive insertion here is more syntactical than morphological. One story of the origin of this phrase, true or not, is that a native West Virginian, irked at being called a Virginian, retorted with an intonation that can only be suggested here, ‘not Virginia, but West by God Virginia.’” — Harold Wentworth, WVU department of English, 1939

The exact origin of “West by God Virginia” as a spoken phrase is difficult to pinpoint.

Hazen points out how most spoken language is almost a living organic thing — not something that’s tracked, monitored, sorted or in databases.

But Hazen and other experts say there’s a good chance the phrase made its first oral appearance sometime after West Virginia became a state in 1863. But they say this is educated guesswork.

WVU Linguistics Professor Kirk Hazen. Hazen found one of the earliest uses of “West by God Virginia” in a publication from 1926 about corn liquor. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We spoke with another expert from West Virginia University. Associate Professor Rosemary Hathaway specializes in American folklore and literature. 

Hathaway has been working on a book that explores the cultural history of the term “Mountaineer.” She points to parallels between the origins of “Mountaineer” and the phrase “West by God Virginia.”

“The first time the term Mountaineer shows up as a synonym for West Virginian is before statehood,” she noted.

Hathaway said before we separated from Virginia, there was a legislator from Harrison County who sent a letter to a newspaper in Richmond expressing annoyance that his region, western Virginia, was not being fairly represented in the Virginia Legislature. 

And when he signed that letter?

“He signed it, not with his name, but as a Mountaineer,” Hathaway explained. “So, I sort of see that as being parallel to the phrase ‘West by God Virginia’ in the sense that it’s just kind of a way of reminding both ourselves and outsiders that we are distinct from Virginia, and we have a unique identity and a unique history as West Virginians.”

WVU Associate English Professor Rosemary Hathaway. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

But none of this answers the underlying question —  why did people start inserting “by God” into the name of West Virginia? 

The use of “by God” in language dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, but it became commonplace in the 1600s, according to Eric Waggoner, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council. Waggoner is also a retired history of English teacher.

Waggoner said “by God” has always been used as a way to emphasize something. He sees the inclusion of it in “West by God Virginia” as an expression of pride, when so much of the world perceives West Virginia in a negative light.

“There’s been a sort of narrative about West Virginia that focuses on illness; it focuses on poverty; it focuses on hard times; it focuses on this sort of thin, cultural and educational infrastructure; a lot of things that are here that need attention and that people who live here know intimately,” Waggoner explained. 

He said many West Virginians are tired and fed up with this negative narrative, and by adding “by God” into our state name, our identity, it allows us to reclaim our image. 

“There’s a kind of expression of pride, not just in place, but in being a person who is from this place, that ‘West by God Virginia’ seems to articulate in a very handy, in a very positive way,” he said.

Even though the exact origin of the spoken phrase may be difficult to find, Waggoner and others said today it’s often used to illustrate West Virginia as unique and separate from Virginia – that, by God, we are here, we exist and we have our own identity as West Virginians.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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How Leaving Home Can Help Appalachia

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This article was originally published by expatalachians.

Appalachian folk have a complicated relationship with leaving. It’s a tension that shows up in regional media all the time: In stories about small towns working to keep their young people, about Appalachian millennials leaving New York to go back home, and, more negatively, about how folks in the region should just pack up and get out of dodge. 

This isn’t one of those stories. As one might surmise from the name expatalachians, I’ve already left Appalachia, and I’m not certain I’ll ever live there again. And although I’m sympathetic to helping young people stay in the region, I also understand why they choose to leave. As I’ve written about elsewhere, folks have moved into and out of Appalachia looking for a better life for over a century, and I won’t begrudge the current generation for doing the same.

Instead, I’m interested in discussing the possibilities leaving presents for Appalachia. Rather than enjoining people to stay or shaming them for going, I would argue conversations about leaving the region should instead focus on how to incorporate the Appalachian diaspora into regional conversations from where they are. Doing so successfully would not only expand our view of the Appalachian experience but also, with millions of Appalachian migrants and their descendants living outside the region, meaning we could better draw on migrants’ diverse backgrounds and resources in addressing Appalachia’s problems.

Doing this properly means wrestling with several fundamental questions. The one I would like to address here is where Appalachian migrants should fit in discussions about the region. Having left the region, to what extent can and should migrants claim a seat at the table in conversations about Appalachia, and when might their voices usefully contribute to discussions of its issues?

This question has gained increased urgency following the publication of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, a descendant of Appalachian migrants raised in Southwest Ohio. I don’t care much for JD Vance’s views on Appalachia, or the solutions he offers to its problems. However, in addition to critiquing Vance’s arguments, a particular line of Hillbilly Elegy criticism has focused on his lack of Appalachian credentials due to his being raised in Middletown, Ohio. 

Wherever you come out on the debate, this line of criticism highlights the ambiguities Appalachian migrants face in trying to address the region. On the one hand, I personally find it hard to deny Vance’s identification as Appalachian. Although not part of Appalachia, the region where he grew up, southwest Ohio, was a major destination for Appalachian migrants in the 20th century, and the Appalachian migrant identity remains relevant there. Furthermore, I fear this kind of territorial gatekeeping threatens to exclude those in the diaspora who sincerely and legitimately identify as Appalachian.

On the other hand, Appalachian migrants, including Vance, must also recognize their unique position in speaking from outside the region. Just as a well-off professor in Morgantown has a different experience from a glassmaker in Clarksburg, so too is an Appalachian migrant’s experience of the region different from someone who stays. Those of us who’ve been outside the region for several years must accept that both we and the region may have changed since our departure, and that our experiences “abroad” mean we can no longer claim to speak as “typical Appalachians,” if we ever could. 

Moreover, while we may strongly identify with the region and its people, we must also accept that, in having left, our stake in the game is different from those who remain. As such, our role and our degree of power in deciding the future of the region should be different.

Of course, this does not mean migrants have nothing to contribute. On the contrary, in return for giving up our claims to being typical Appalachians, we have gained new experiences and insights that can benefit the region if used properly. One of expatalachians’ founding goals was to create a place to share and debate these insights. Almost one year on, I’m proud of the fresh perspectives we’ve been able to inject into conversations about Appalachian historypoliticseconomicsenvironmental issuesliterature, and more. 

What other forms Appalachian migrant organizing may take remains an open question. In the past, migrants have created explicitly “Appalachian” organizations to agitate for better public services, state-specific clubs to commemorate their heritage, and hometown associations to network and reminisce. 

As we are currently undergoing a renaissance in Appalachian organizing, diaspora activists would do well to look back on these experiences and think creatively about what kind of community they hope to create, and to what end. Whatever form it takes, for me Appalachian migrant organizing means prioritizing at least three goals.

First and foremost, in light of the Appalachian identity movement’s uncomfortable relationship with racism and exclusivism, we must strive to build a diverse and cross-sectional movement that includes Appalachian migrants of all backgrounds, regardless of race, class, indigeneity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other factor. 

Secondly, while preserving a personal connection to the region is important in Appalachian migrant organizing, we must also seek to critically address and work toward resolving problems back home, be it through scholarship, donations, economic investment, volunteering, activism, or other endeavors. These problems must include not only pressing issues affecting the region, like the opioid crisis and poverty, but also deeper structural factors that are often ignored, including the present-day realities of racism and colonization. 

Finally, to return to my original point, we must organize in solidarity both with fellow migrants and with folks back home while being cognizant of our different positions. This shouldn’t just be an Appalachian migrant investment fund that seeks to “innovate” Appalachia while maintaining control. Rather, we must strive to build meaningful relationships and organizational structures between migrants and home communities so that, in seeking to promote positive change, we don’t take power away from the region and the people ultimately supposed to benefit from it.

Nicholas Brumfield is a native of Parkersburg, WV currently working in Arlington, VA. He is also a 2007 recipient of the West Virginia Golden Horseshoe for exceptional knowledge of West Virginia history. For more hot takes on Appalachia and Ohio politics, follow him on Twitter: @NickJBrumfield.

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