Mike Costello: The Lessons of Lost Creek
Reshaping Appalachian cuisine and agriculture on a West Virginia farm.
When life doesn’t give you lemons, make lemon pie. That’s the moral, I guess, of my two days at Lost Creek Farm in West Virginia, the Harrison County farmstead that dates back in Amy Dawson’s family to the 1880s. She and her partner Mike Costello are revitalizing that farm, and, they hope, helping shape the notion of what Appalachian agriculture and cuisine can be. It’s kind of an agriculture Shangri-la up there. They’ve stocked the place with that breed of chickens that looks like it’s wearing pants, they’ve planted regional heirloom crops like Fat Horse beans and Bloody Butcher corn, and they’ve added a bunch of meat rabbits, who meet their end in a nifty little pair of mounted shears attached to a tree out front.
Now, I had gotten a sense from afar of the life that Amy and Mike were building for themselves. They hosted Bourdain at Lost Creek farm for the Parts Unknown episode in West Virginia. Mike had written for us after that. I find his presence on social media to be one of my favorite things on the internet—he isn’t above posting the occasional farmporn of cattle on the rolling hills of Lost Creek, but he’s at his best when he’s skewering the stories that outsiders tell about Appalachia, and sometimes the stories Appalachians are telling about themselves.
But screw social media. To really get a sense of what Mike is about, you have to come to Lost Creek and see how he puts those ideas on the plate. In my time with him, we went up into the hills above the farm, found morel mushrooms, wild ramps, violets and yarrow and sweet, citric wood sorrel, and Mike cooked it all up with venison and trout and this lemonless lemon curd they used to make in the days before supermarkets. It was ingenious, inventive, delicious, all the things that Appalachia has always been and should always be.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Mike. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Nathan Thornburgh: Alright, what are we drinking here?
Mike Costello: So this is some cider, some traditional cider from Hawk Knob Cidery in Lewisburg. Really good friends of ours. We’ve known these guys for a long time. The Cidery is probably only four years old, but these guys have been making cider for a long time. And we went to college with him, hung out a log at potlucks, and just at each other’s houses doing a lot of home brew, and a lot of cooking together. And we always talked a lot about our dreams of either getting back into food or doing cider commercially. Somehow the stars aligned and we both ended up doing these things.
Thornburgh: You’re in food, he’s in cider.
Costello: We’re in food, he’s in cider. They’re really one of the only other businesses that fully embrace this place-based tradition when it comes to food and beverage. They make this old-world style of cider that was pretty prevalent in Appalachia before prohibition.
Thornburgh: Define old world cider?
Costello: It’s much drier. Most of the cider that’s on the American market right now is pretty sweet. I feel like this is kind of a challenge for these guys, because there’s this perception of cider in America being a little bit too sweet. The ones that are widely available commercially, like Angry Orchard, is not very drinkable to me or to other people who like their stuff on the drier side. This is their classic, and then we’re also going to drink their traditional dry hard cider, which is bourbon barrel-aged.
Thornburgh: So this is Hawk Knob Appalachian classic dry hard cider. Thank you.
Thornburgh: Cheers. Shit that’s good.
Costello: It’s good huh? Yeah.
Thornburgh: I mean it’s no Angry Orchard, which is basically like a sweet iced tea with some sort of alcoholic component.
Costello: Just a little less angry. It’s like Mott’s apple juice with a little splash of rubbing alcohol.
Thornburgh: You heard that? We’re coming for you Angry Orchard, you and your oversweet corporate bullshit. This is super fucking good. So what is the cider tradition of Appalachia? I mean you said old world, are we talking about the Spaniards who’d come up here?
Costello: Well, the Spanish wave of immigration was either during or after Prohibition. But this is an early European-style cider. It’s traditional in Appalachia because it was made with ingredients that you could grow here. So we used to have a lot more variety, a lot more abundance of apple trees in West Virginia, partially because of the cider industry in the 1800s or early 1900s. When these guys opened up a couple years ago they were the only cidery in West Virginia. There’s since been one other cidery that’s opened, but still considering how traditional a product it actually is, there’s virtually nothing. Just these guys, and then one other shop.
West Virginia is a shitty place to grow grapes
Costello: But there are a bunch of wineries in West Virginia. I can’t really tell you why, because this is a shitty place to grow grapes. And most of the wine that’s actually produced in West Virginia is not made with grapes that are grown in West Virginia, it’s concentrate from grapes that are grown in California and shipped over.
Thornburgh: It’s Mott’s apple juice turned into wine.
Costello: It is.
Thornburgh: Yeah that’s crazy, because we have seen a lot of wines in some pretty unlikely places. So you look at that and you’re fairly confounded as to why you’re not actually making something that does sell as a category pretty well, and is something that’s actually indigenous to this place.
Costello: Right. And these guys are so supportive of the growing community around cider, and craft beverage, and traditional food. And we team up with them so much because we’re so aligned in our mission as a place-based traditional food and beverage business. But they’re trying to get the cider industry going, and encouraging new cideries to open up. That’s been really nice to see, because in some other industries—I’ve seen this in wineries for instance, or even in the earlier days with the craft brewing scene here—it was so territorial and there was a lot of animosity when a new business would open up. But when we create a community, and we create a scene that people can seek out, we’re much better off than just a stand-alone business that is the only game in town.
It all comes down to the power of story telling, and the story being told by us, or about us by somebody else.
Thornburgh: Yeah. Let’s talk about that scene, because obviously that’s a big part of your evangelism about the region, and it starts I think with what it used to be like. I would love to hear from you what growing up in Appalachia was like for you in the sense of how did you perceive your culture? How did you see other people perceiving it?
Costello: It’s a really good question, and I think because that backstory defines every single thing that we do. I think for me, I have a little bit of a unique perspective, being from Appalachia, but my dad actually moved here when he was about my age now from New Hampshire. I think that I have to acknowledge that contrast in perspective whenever I was growing up because if it weren’t for this appreciation for West Virginia that my dad had as an outsider, I can’t say for sure that I would’ve appreciated this place as much, because I know a lot of people who, they’re from there, their family is all from here, and without being able to contrast it to anything on the outside, there’s not as much reverence for anything that comes from this place because it’s just like, “Oh yeah this is just what happens here and it’s what has always happened.”
Thornburgh: So they don’t have the new eyes on the good stuff, but they’re still eating all the shit that they’re being fed from the larger culture about what it means to be Appalachian, right?
Costello: Right. So my dad moved down here from New Hampshire and fell in love with the place, and that’s why he stuck around. I grew up being really proud of being from West Virginia. There’s a really strong sense of state pride here. But I also grew up seeing the media portrayals, and seeing all the stereotypes, and all the tropes played out in either the movies, or in journalism. It wasn’t that infrequent that 20/20 or Diane Sawyer, or whoever would show up in Appalachia and have this dismal portrayal of mountain people. A lot of the times the intentions behind those stories were good, it was like, we’re going to tell the story and we’re going to raise awareness around the issue.
But I think what ends up happening is you just reinforce the stereotype, and then despite these really good intentions that some of these outside journalists have, I think there’s such a damaging effect when it comes to morale. And I think it all comes down to the power of storytelling, and the story being told by us, or about us by somebody else. And I think that we’re so used to having that story told by somebody else, and rarely is it an accurate story.
The idea that your culture becomes linked with poverty is a special curse in America because here poverty isn’t just a condition, but a personal moral failing
Thornburgh: We’ve seen it with other cultures, certainly other countries, but the idea that your culture becomes inextricably linked with poverty, is a special curse in America because poverty isn’t just a condition, or a wrong to be righted, but it’s a personal moral failing. You know it’s one of the things that America has really invented that’s a total shit sandwich in history is this idea that poor people are somehow lesser than, and have got themselves into that mess. And Appalachia’s to bear the brunt of that judgment.
Costello: Right. I should say, because I talk about this stuff so much, sometimes I think I leave people with the wrong impression. I’m okay with there being French restaurants in West Virginia. I just think it’s such a shame when we’re telling the rest of the world like, this is the West Virginia cuisine that you should come experience. And it’s steak au poivre—
Thornburgh: With a lovely West Virginian Beaujolais.
Costello: To this day there’s a page on the West Virginia Division of Tourism website that it says the five best dishes in West Virginia, and four out of the five are fucking seafood dishes.
Thornburgh: Oh my.
Costello: Right. Oh my.
Thornburgh: Alright, well this cider is so easy drinking it’s gone, and we need to get some more.
Costello: It’s easy drinking, and it’s also 10 percent alcohol, so one of the things that you have to be careful about with this Hawk Knob cider is just like your level of consumption in a short amount of time because I’ve seen this happen. Their opening kick off night was at this bar in Lewisburg, and it’s sort of packaged in a bottle that looks like a beer bottle, it’s really easy to drink. Everybody’s just downing these things, and within an hour it was like somebody hit a switch and the whole bar just started to flop over.
Thornburgh: Okay, well-known side effects, podcasting while blotto. Alright, well let’s run the risk. Cheers. Crab spring roll, man. Right, so they’ve got scallops, and ceviche, and other French recipes on West Virginia’s tourism site. But what’s the Mike Costello definition of, at least what we call, indigenous Appalachian food? What is it?
Costello: Well, indigenous Appalachian food was food prepared from people who were here—
Thornburgh: Before the Europeans.
Costello: The story of Appalachia is just complicated. And I think that this is one of the layers that we talk about a lot because it gets left out of the narrative of a place that’s often considered this place where the white Scots-Irish are the natives. But we talk about ourselves being this place-based culture, and it’s impossible for us to tell the fair and just story without at least acknowledging that piece of it, and is why we’re able to live on a 180-acre farm. Even though we inherited it and didn’t have money to do much with it, it still is this tremendous privilege from this horrific legacy of—
Thornburgh: Of land theft and so on.
Costello: But the Appalachian food that we work with is hard to define. It’s defined by that really complicated legacy, and it’s defined by all these layers and layers of waves of immigration and layers of perceptions both form the outside and from the inside. It’s defined by how people made it through hard times. I think that when we talk about defining Appalachian food we really don’t like to put a definition on it, because I think it’s so open to interpretation based on who you are and what your experiences as an Appalachian. But we definitely have this theme that I think shows up more than anything else in the food that we prepare and the stories that we tell—and that’s about the resourceful nature of the people in getting through those times, and it’s about the stories and the narratives associated with those times. And how that shows up in food is that there are certain foods that were prepared that were born out of necessity. And that shows up in all cultures around the world, but in most places there isn’t this negative association with that food and poverty and shame.
Thornburgh: Right. People will eat pizza without spiraling into guilt about their own poverty and what has brought them to this low moment of putting cheese on flatbread or something.
Costello: And a lot of this comes from that history of media portrayals and the way that Appalachia has always been seen from the outside, and in turn how we’ve seen ourselves, and how we’ve sort of grappled with this perception issue. And how when it comes to food that was originally designed to solve the problem of a lack of refrigeration. Just like the millions of other foods that we eat that are fermented or preserved in a way that could be stored, because there was no refrigeration.
We tend to shy away from these things here because we’re so sensitive about the perceptions around how we navigated those hard times. We see so much of people coming up to us after we’ve done a dinner event and they come up and sometimes they have these tears in their eyes over some of these foods that they will tell us, “When I became an adult I decided I was never going to eat this thing again.” And just because my grandma used to make it for me, and I liked it when I was a kid, but to me it represented this hard time that I felt like we moved past, and I never wanted to revisit it. So they’re ashamed of the poverty.
Thornburgh: And then you show up. The food events that you do are high ticket, they’re well presented, they’re presented with pride and this superb execution. You show up and put this on a plate in a place of pride I guess, that is that where the emotional switch is for them?
Costello: It’s a combination of things. That’s part of it, being served this food in a different context.
Thornburgh: And you said there were two foods that had done that most of all.
Costello: Yeah. And these are the ones that are the most consistent, is chow chow and tomato aspic.
Thornburgh: You have some chow chow here right?
Costello: I do. yeah right behind you.
Thornburgh: So this is chow chow from October 17, 2017. It looks to me like kind of a relish-type thing. What is this?
Costello: Yeah exactly. It’s a pickled relish.
Thornburgh: And why is this the thing that brings people to tears?
Costello: Chow chow is just one of those many foods that people would make at a time when they didn’t have much money. They’d gather the leftover vegetables at the end of the harvest season, and throw them all together in this way that makes something. And it’s delicious, and it’s beautiful, and the flavors are bright and complex. I flavored this chow chow with sorghum, so it’s got these sweet notes, and a little bit of smoky flavor, and a little bit of bitterness. But the way that all of these flavors really come together is really, really beautiful, and it’s a product that we should be really fucking proud of.
Chow chow can be lots of different things. There’s a lot of debate over what chow chow really is, because there are different versions of it. And I think the common thread is that it’s made with the leftover ingredients. So say you’re growing crops of turnips, and cabbage, and green tomatoes, and green peppers, and in October when it’s harvest season you’ll pull all those out and you’ll harvest all those things. And you see up on that same shelf where you got the chow chow we have these jars of green tomatoes, and we have jars of peppers. So you process your batches of these things, and let’s say we have a few green tomatoes left over, and a few green peppers, and few turnips, but not really enough to make a whole batch. You throw all those things together and flavor it, and pickle it, and can it up and put it on the shelf. And then a couple years later, or later that year, you know dig in.
Thornburgh: Right. And so you’re showing the ingenuity behind it in a way that’s getting people to rethink about some of this crap, their psychic baggage they’ve been carrying around in their head about these dishes.
Costello: We’re so used to carrying around that baggage with us and having all of those associations, and all these stories in our minds about this chow chow being about how poor we are. And if we can get people to think differently about this, and to get people to think that chow chow’s not about how poor we are, it’s about how creative we have always been, that changes the game. And it gets people to look at food differently, and it gets people to be willing to embrace their place based heritage. And it gets the West Virginia Tourism Bureau maybe to start marketing shit a little bit differently.
You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.