Jason Vance’s Sounds, Stories & Suppers of Appalachia

A portrait from Bradshaw Mountain

Based on a pop-up event at the Brooklyn home of Jason Vance, as he transported us to his hometown in West Virginia through foods, songs and stories of his childhood.

Art: Andrew Benincasa.

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The Event

We came to know Jason Vance via Brooklyn Music Factory while 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 would daydream abut 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 New York.

He excitedly agreed because he had already been working on a storytelling + songs show about Appalachia. He wanted to offer an alternative to the misrepresentation (and a does of the truth) of the people and traditions from that region – including his family – and how that misunderstanding hurts us as a country.

jason vance business card
Art: Andrew Benincasa.

As we planned the event, I learned of the the Vance Family cookbook, a 200 page compendium or recipes, stories, household tips and jokes. It is an incredible treasure that I had the opportunity to hold on to for a couple weeks both for recipe testing for the event, and just to enjoy.

After having to be rescheduled due to some particularly difficult deaths in Jason’s family, we finally hosted this event in March 2019, when more than 30 people braved the unseasonably cold weather in Brooklyn, to be taken on an immersive, virtual journey to Bradshaw Mountain,

vance family cookbook

We were treated to five courses of tasty food from the Vance family cookbook prepared by Megs (per the taste specifications of Jason). These were passed around at certain times during Jason’s stories and songs, giving us an actual taste to go along with the stories and songs he was sharing.

But it was not all sitting, listening and eating! Jason had us up flat-footing and also taught us how to play spoons!

Through sharing the food, music and stories of his family, Jason expanded our appreciation of the rich culture Appalachia prides itself on. More than one person told us they were dreaming of actually traveling to West Virginia to attend the next Vance family reunion on Bradshaw Mountain in person!

A selection of the songs, recipes, stories are included here, along with a fun lesson in playing the spoons so that you can replicate this journey at your own home, .

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The Vance Family’s Appalachia

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.

a norman rockwell print updated for a joke referenced during the show. do you know the joke?

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.

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Event Playlist

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

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.

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Bonus Playlist

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.

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The Menu

Vance family events were always full of delicious food, so it was hard to narrow down what he wanted to share that night. Jason finally decided on the below menu for that cold March night in 2019: 

  • Appetizers:  Cheeseball, Salami & Crackers
  • Entrees:  Potato Soup, Cornbread Salad
  • Desserts:  Banana Pudding, Dirt Pudding
  • Drinks: Punch
The infamous cheeseball!

Each dish included here is a staple of Vance family gatherings. The recipes included here are come directly out of the Vance Family cookbook, a 200 page compendium or recipes, stories, household tips and jokes.

The Vance family cookbook was compiled by Jason’s dad with submissions from across the large family. Truly, it is an absolute treasure.

It includes all sorts of classic family recipes, and even to how to make fried crickets! There are tips on how to clean certain items, funny jokes, and memories of loved ones. Pure gold. Maybe someday I’ll find the time (and compatriots) to compile such an archive for my own family (or in a way, is that what I’m doing here… I just have to turn the lens on my own family more! But I digress….)

ma-maws s
ma-maw’s punch, usually virgin but we had rum that night.

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Cheeseball!

No gathering of Jason’s family is complete without a cheeseball.

the infamous cheeseball
the infamous cheeseball

recipe

 Dale Vance’s Potato Soup

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Time Lapse of Potato Soup

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.

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Cornbread Salad

Oh, that Cornbread Salad!

cornbread salad portioned out for the crowd

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Banana Pudding

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.

recipe

Dirt Pudding

And the creamy, crunchy, sweetness that is Dirt Pudding! 

…and delicious Dirt Pudding was dessert number two…
dirt pudding recipe

Bonus

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.