Food From the Heart

Chef Travis Milton’s Appalachian love song.

A standard-bearer of Appalachian cuisine, Travis Milton has finally come home to roost. At his new restaurant Hickory, at Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards in Bristol, he takes a reverent, sophisticated, often playful approach to the Appalachian food of his childhood.

“We are committed to the region,” says Milton, “and we want to welcome folks to this wonderful little corner of the world.” Growing up, he spent time at his grandparents’ restaurant, The Village, in nearby Castlewood, and worked there as a teen. The experience informed his approach to both life and food.

An early foray into teaching only intensified his longing for the kitchen, so he worked up the restaurant ranks, starting in San Francisco, followed by stops in D.C. and New York. He returned to Virginia for the chef’s role at Comfort in Richmond, under owner Jason Alley. 

“Jason taught me to cook like springtime, making everything as vibrant as possible with herbs and acids,” Milton says. “My palate shifted during my time at Comfort, and I started playing with ferments and different vinegars.”   

His path to Hickory came with dues to pay. “The stereotype of Appalachian cuisine was a bunch of dumb Scotch-Irish eating crap food,” says Milton. “But digging into the tradition exposes a complex and dynamic foodway dependent on seasonal harvests and the availability of ingredients.”  

Milton’s support of the grassroots Appalachian Food Summit has brought attention to the region while upending the old stereotype. “The culinary world used to be more dish-centric,” says Milton, but the farm-to-table movement that followed wasn’t new to cooks in Appalachia where, if you wanted to eat, you had to grow it in the garden, pickle it, dry it, can it, and preserve it for year-round use.

Milton loves taking diners into the fields at Nicewonder Farm to forage for the ingredients that bring his cooking to life and share his reverence for them. A few of his favorites: 

  • Candy Roaster Squash: Their sweet, nutty flavor is great for pies. At Hickory, Milton uses candy roasters in his gnocchi. 
  • Greasy Beans: These smooth heirloom beans turn shiny when cooked, hence the name. They figure in classic dishes like Shuck Beans and Leather Britches.
  • Heirloom Apples: Hundreds of varieties dot the Appalachian landscape. They’re essential to hand pies, apple butters, and vinegars. 
  • Ramps: A wild allium, the pungent taste of ramps suggests garlic, onion, and scallions. “They’re a little overplayed,” says Milton, “but with good reason.”
  • Foraged foods: From morels to garlic mustard, lion’s mane, and stinging nettles, foraged foods add an earthy, seasonal undertone to Milton’s culinary lexicon. 
  • Necessity: When cinnamon was scarce, red hot candies found their way into apple butter. Vinegar pies were born from a lack of citrus.
  • Time: Picking, processing, canning, simmering, fermenting, shucking, stringing, and drying all take time, which invites cooperation, community, and storytelling.

For the home chef, Milton advises, “use ingredients at their peak season and flavor. Produce at its prime makes all the difference,” he notes. “Take time to experiment, and create variations of a recipe. Preserve family recipes—and make cooking a collaborative effort.” 


Catfish and Tomato Gravy

For the brine: 

  • 6 cups hot water
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • ½ tablespoon coriander
  • ½ tablespoon mustard seed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 cup dill pickle juice
  • 1 cup Crystal hot sauce 
  • For the breading:
  • 2½ cups Anson Mills white cornmeal
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • For frying:
  • Large cast iron pan
  • 3 cups canola oil

To finish:

  • JQ Dickinson Ramp Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Tomato Gravy

Combine the first 8 brine ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve salt. Simmer 4 minutes, then add pickle juice and hot sauce, stirring to combine. Strain brine into a container and refrigerate to cool. 

Place 4–5 8 oz. wild catfish filets in cooled brine and refrigerate 3½ hours. While catfish is brining, preheat smoker with hickory chips to 190°F degrees. Remove catfish from brine and place in smoker for 30 minutes to impart flavor. Transfer catfish to buttermilk. Mix cornmeal and flour together and season to taste. 

In a cast iron pan, heat canola oil to 325°F degrees. Bread each filet in cornmeal mix and set aside. Fry catfish in stages, 4–5 minutes per side. Arrange fried filets on a platter and season with JQ Dickinson Ramp Salt and black pepper. Spoon tomato gravy over catfish and serve.

For the Tomato Gravy:

  • ½ cup rendered country ham fat or bacon fat if not available
  • 2 cups diced onion
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups tomato juice 
  • ½ cup coffee
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 quart canned heirloom tomatoes, preferably German Johnson, crushed 
  • 1½ tablespoons black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon Crystal hot sauce

Heat bacon fat in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Add onions and sweat until translucent. Add cornmeal and flour to make a roux. Cook 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Add tomato juice and coffee and continue stirring. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 12–15 minutes on medium heat. 

Baked Candy Roaster Squash with Apples, Chestnuts, and Meringue
  • 1 medium candy roaster squash (or 3 medium butternut squash) peeled, seeded, and diced to ¾- inches cubes
  • 2 cups chestnuts, roasted, peeled, and diced (look for these pre-roasted, peeled, and packaged in grocery stores) 
  • 1¾ cups sorghum
  • 1½ cups apple butter
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
  • ½ tablespoon lime juice
  • 4 oz. goat cheese
  • 1½ tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 oz. mint leaf, for garnish

Preheat oven to 375°F degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except mint leaves. Pour mixture into a 14-inch cast iron skillet and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and set heat to broil. Let sit for 8–10 minutes before dotting the top with piped meringue (see below). Return to the oven for 4–6 minutes to brown the meringue slightly. Garnish with mint leaves and serve.

For the Meringue:

  • 3 egg whites
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¼ tablespoon salt
  • ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon juice
  • ½ tablespoon crushed pink peppercorns

Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Then add sugar and salt, beating to medium peaks. Add confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch, then continue to stiff peaks. Beat in lemon juice and pink peppercorns. Transfer meringue to a piping bag for garnish on the “casserole.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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