“Great Loaves of Flaky Bread:” Rebecca Harding Davis as Appalachian Culinary Defender

Rebecca Harding Davis is best known for her 1861 novella, “Life in the Iron Mills,” which depicts the desperate lives of Welsh immigrants Deb and Hugh Wolfe, yet she published a tremendous body of literature, including a fair amount of fiction set in the Western North Carolina mountains. Like many of her literary contemporaries, Davis took great pains to describe the culinary landscape in which her characters found themselves consuming mountain fare. Unlike local color writers including Mary Noailles Murfree and John Fox Junior, or travel writers like Charles Dudley Warner, Davis mostly avoids blunted portrayals of mountain food that equate coarse food with coarse people. Instead, in works like “The Mountain Hut” (1885) and her three-part novella “By-Paths in the Mountains” (1880), Davis often defends mountain people and the foods that they prepare, serve, and consume. “Wretchedly poor and ignorant” characters appear, for example, in “By-Paths in the Mountains,” but those depictions are countered with descriptions of “great loaves of flaky bread from an oven in the yard” and “innumerable pans of gingerbread or cherry pies.

This essay considers Davis’s culinary depictions from several of her North Carolina stories, placing them within the larger context of how other writing publishing around the same time represents mountain food and by extension, mountain people. Like writing by Louise Coffin Jones and David Hunter Strother, Davis’s work presents a complex rendering of the mountain table.