Savoring the Daily on the Fringes of the Coalfields

Grocery bags (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
Grocery bags (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Although grocery shopping here in the United States doesn’t quite reach the challenges I faced when grocery shopping in Morocco or Burkina Faso, the very act of buying food makes me think hard about eating and cooking and just plain living. Shopping for food entails making decisions. What choices do I make when my only option for grocery shopping – so-so Farmers Market* aside – lies with two major grocery chains which ousted a locally operated grocery chain years ago?

I read, with a great deal of envy, conversations between friends living on the West coast, where everything from fresh pluots and garlic abound, to the East coast, where New York City offers everything – if you have money – your cook’s heart could desire.

Yet, as you can see, I return home laden with brown paper bags laden with cheeses from England and sweet-hot peppers from South Africa. I set the bags on the kitchen counters and I walk to the refrigerator several dozen times, putting my treasures into a cold box that not so long required huge blocks of ice and the strength of horses and men to bring on that miracle.

And miracle it is, yes, yes, indeed. A miracle wrought not by prayers, but by the discovery of fossil fuels, the remains of living organisms from millions of years ago. Including coal.

And coal, being one of those fossil fuels, certainly influenced the lives of thousands of people from Appalachia, where I now live. Daily life, intertwined with those of people who descended into the earth, becomes all the more astounding because of that connection. How can I – or you, for that matter – deny that the food I eat depends on the continuing existence of a system developed in the nineteenth century, when railroads became so vitally important for the commercial life of the region? Mining in the coalfields began in 1883, in Pocahantas, Virginia. Just down the road apiece from where I wake up every morning.

And, you know, the irony is that the coalfields contributed to ethnic, and thus culinary diversity, in an area considered extremely insular, Deliverance country no less. Just consider the annual Hungarian cabbage roll dinner held in Pocahontas.

And how we got to that state of affairs, dear readers, promises to be quite a story.

* Available May through October, Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays until 1 p.m.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “Savoring the Daily on the Fringes of the Coalfields

  1. Maureen and Mike, I am planning another installment soon, and am finding new material to flesh it out. Fascinating story about your Tuscan great-grandparents, Maureen – yes, I wonder about the networks people had with relatives elsewhere in the country, for procuring food items.

    Beth and Meghan, I know you would LOVE to see the town, it’s not completely dead yet, and I am hopeful that the Pocahontas history group will be able to start raising funds for rehab of some of the buildings. Unfortunately, many of those buidlings are not likely to stand much longer even with help.

    Merril, it’s really hard not to wonder about the lives people lead, the part they played in the daily routine of a place like Pocahontas. Likely repeated all over the country wherever mining operations demanded labor.

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