Jason Vance’s Sounds, Stories & Suppers of Appalachia

This Cultures Capsule is based on an event held in March 2019, when more than 30 people braved the unseasonably cold weather in Brooklyn to attend ‘Jason Vance’s Sounds, Stories and Suppers of Appalachia.’ 
 
Attendees were taken on an immersive, virtual journey to Bradshaw Mountain, engaging all of our senses to have a deeper experience of the stories Jason shared.  We were treated to five courses of tasty food from the Vance family cookbook prepared by MK (per the taste specifications of Jason), served alongside many stories and songs, several of which were original song.  And Jason also taught us how to play spoons and how to flat-foot (dance).  
 
Jason expanded our appreciation of the rich culture Appalachia prides itself on, and we were left wanting to both to attend their next family reunion on Bradshaw Mountain (and we all and we’d be welcomed as family if we did), and tell others about the misrepresentation of the people from that region, and how that misunderstanding hurts us as a country. 

A selection of the songs, recipes, stories are included here, along with a fun lesson in playing the spoons so that you can take yourself and your guests on this immersive cultural journey tonight!

We came to know Jason Vance via Brooklyn Music Factory when my son and I took our respective music lessons.  Jason would talk about his big, amazing family reunions in the mountains of West Virginia that he looked forward to each summer, and gush about the music and the food that was such a bit part of these celebrations. I tried to imagine what it was like down on his ma-maw’s porch, eating potato soup and bopping to the music and energy all around me.
Unable to travel down to West Virginia, I did the next best thing: I invited him to collaborate on an event here in Brooklyn, bringing the rich tastes, tunes and tales of Bradshaw Mountain to Ditmas Park, as only a descendant of the Vance family could. 
 
Over the course of two hours, Jason had us on the edge or our seats listening, laughing, learning, and even shedding a tear with him.
and also out of our seats, trying out some flat footing, and how to play the spoons.
Jason told us so many small tales that all came together to paint the picture of his family and his upbringing in West Virginia, and these stories brought us through a wide range of emotions.  We laughed so hard from his stories like that of his grandma’s “PTA shower,” and how not to make the same mistake as him when jamming on spoons with Appalachian musicians. We grew sad at tales of loss, frustrated at the fraught history that maligned people like his family and continues to be an issue in this country today, but also joyous from the stories that exuded love. The songs he sang (while simultaneously playing played banjo, suitcase percussion, and harmonica), were deeply felt – both in our hearts and our bodies – as we bopped our heads and clapped along.

We were also educated.  Jason provided a brief history of how misconceptions and divisions arose, a classic divide-and-conquer in our own backyard that has devastating repercussions even today. 

“When you grow up in Appalachia, long, long, long ago, at the Southern aristocratic urgings, Southern poor whites and mountain whites became “white” in this ;divide and conquer strategy.’ And then you become white.
So then, the force is you have your own culture that is pure and beautiful as it is, but your culture is a lesser version of this culture that is ‘uber’ white and this forced assimilation is always present.” – Jason Vance
So instead of taking the news media’s word for it, step into the experience of a family that has been thriving on Bradshaw Mountains for more than 160 years, by listening to the music of these playlists, cooking some of his family recipes, sharing the stories and of course, how to play the spoons!  Then maybe you can tell your friends, and the misconceptions about the people and rich culture of Appalachia can be overcome.

It’s your lucky day: a two-for-one special for this Cultures Capsule!

This first, free Spotify playlist captures the essence of that cold night in March.  It includes some of the songs he played that night, plus some extra songs to continue the grooves.  He chose to end the evening in the same way the Vance Family reunions do: with all attendees in a circle, singing lively versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”  Not included are some very moving original songs that you will have to experience the next time we host this show.

Following “Will the Circle be Unbroken” are some songs he recommended to keep the vibe going for your recreation of this experience.  Generally, he also recommends these albums for further listening pleasure: Genuine Negro Jig and Leaving Eden, and Dona got a Ramblin’ Mind, all by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Cold Mountain Soundtrack; and O.C.M.S. by Old Crow Medicine Show

 

Next up is the playlist Jason provided to accompany the cooking for our recipe testing cooking.  I hadn’t had these dishes before, never mind tasted his family’s versions, so he and I, and some lucky friends of his got to enjoy the fruits of our delicious testing, with this playlist on, helping to give the flavor of Appalachia all the while, of course.  

 

 

“Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky.*”
* Chorus of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” an old standard hymn, a high-energy version of which is played following “Amazing Grace” at the conclusion of Vance family reunions each year.

 

The infamous cheeseball!
On that cold March night in 2019, the below dishes were served:
  • Appetizers:  Cheeseball, Salami & Crackers, and Ma-Maw’s punch
  • Entrees:  Potato Soup, Cornbread Salad
  • Desserts:  Banana Pudding, Dirt Pudding
Below we have shared the recipes for the famous cheeseball, potato soup and banana pudding.  Enjoy and let us know how it goes! @culturescapules #culturescapsules.

Cheeseball!

No gathering of Jason’s family is complete without a cheesball

Cheeseball!

For Jason, there was no question that a Cheeseball had to be part of the appetizers for this event, because it would always be on the table at Vance family gatherings, accompanied by two types of salami, as well as crackers. From Carol Goss

Ingredients

  • 2 packs of 8 oz cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup creamy Italian dressing
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

To serve:

  • 2 boxes crackers, to serve
  • 1-2 dried sausage varieties, sliced

Instructions

  • Soften cheese. Mix with dressing and return to fridge to harden.
  • Shape into “ball” (or 1/2 a sphere on a plate) and roll in the chopped pecans to coat the ball.
  • Return to fridge until ready to serve, alongside crackers and salami.

 Dale Vance’s Potato Soup

 

potato soup with all the fixins

Dale Vance’s Potato Soup

Ingredients

  • 9 cups russet potatoes, peeled* & diced (~4 lbs potatoes)
  • 3 cups diced yellow onion (~1 large one)
  • water, to cover (~8 cups)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 12 oz can evaporated milk
  • 1 stick of butter
  • optional: celery, or cream of celery soup

For serving:

  • 2, 12 oz packages of bacon (traditionally it was Bacon Bits, but we cooked/crumbled our own for the recipe testings and event)
  • 18 oz grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 1 lb box Saltine crackers**

Instructions

  • Cook bacon until crispy and allow to cool on a paper towel.
  • Wash, peel and dice vegetables.
  • Toss into a large pot and just barely cover with water. Put temp to high, add salt and a bit of pepper and cook until potatoes are cooked thru (potatoes easily prick with a fork; ~15 minutes), being careful to stir often so that potatoes don’t stick to the bottom. Reduce heat slightly if it begins boiling over.
  • Meanwhile, crumble or chop the cooled bacon, and grate the cheddar (if necessary), putting each in separate serving bowls and keep aside.
  • Once potatoes are fully cooked, reduce heat to medium and add condensed milk and butter, and continue to cook, stirring frequently to combine, being careful that it doesn’t boil over. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.
  • Serve with Saltines, bits of bacon and grated cheddar cheese, and imagine yourself on a rocking chair.

Notes

* Jason requested that we try not entirely peeling the potatoes. We left about 1/3 of the skins on, and enjoyed the added color, texture and flavor.
 
**Saltines can be found here

 

Here’s a video of the potato soup as it’s being made, and you can hear not only the food cooking but the music that helped it along, from the second playlist here.  If only you could smell it, too.  So simple, and so delicious.

 

 

 

Cornbread Salad

Oh, that Cornbread Salad! For a taste of that, you’ll have to come out the next time we host this show.  To get notified, Join our mailing list here.

 

Banana Pudding

Banana Pudding is yet another staple of Vance family gatherings.  Here, we’ll treat you to a sneak peak of the recipe straight from the Vance family book of recipes!

bacon cooling while I make the banana pudding…

Fun fact: when testing recipes, we happened to eat this still warm, and Jason’s mind was a bit blown.  He’d only ever eaten it cold! He hadn’t said as much so I had just left it on the counter while we all ate our cornbread salad.  I’ve now had both ways, and both are great, but Jason is likely to want to eat his warm from now on (and I wouldn’t disagree).

One final note on the Banana Pudding: the recipe in the Vance Cookbook calls for making a meringue to top it with, but per Jason’s memory and taste, he requested canned whipped cream, so you may want to grab some of that.

 

Dirt Pudding

…and delicious Dirt Pudding was dessert number two…

And the creamy, crunchy, sweetness that is Dirt Pudding!  For a taste of that, you’ll have to come out the next time we host this show.  To get notified, join our mailing list here.

 

Bonus File


Download File

Learn to Play the Spoons!

Grab your wooden spoons if ya got ’em!  Otherwise, get two matching metal spoons (preferably with wider ends on the handle side), which will help you control them.

And if you tried this one at home, we want to hear about it!  If you listened to the music provided, tasted the food, learned a bit about life on Bradshaw Mountain, tell us what you think!  And please tag us at #culturescapsules and @culturescapsules so that Jason, and the rest of us can see and get inspired ourselves!