When History Speaks
by Richelle Putnam
Maia Surdam attended the University of Michigan with the thought of becoming a medical doctor—but history got in the way.“I was interested in women’s history and the study of gender, so I applied to the University of Wisconsin, which has a phenomenal gender and women’s history program.”
Maia moved there when she was 23.
She received her PhD in US History and was the first person from her rural American Midwest family to go to college.
Surprisingly, her studies returned her to her roots. Instead of finding the white homogeneous place she remembered, Maia discovered traditional narratives and racial dynamics she had never known.
“It was a more racially diverse area, especially with Mexican-American community members. Yet, I didn’t know anything about their history or the complicated racial past.”
Maia’s dissertation covered Midwest communities and her interviews revealed the interaction between Mexican migrant farmers and white European-descended family farmers. It also prodded Maia’s intrigue with food and gardening.
“Growing and cooking food was a passion throughout graduate school and became a procrastination thing while I was working on my dissertation.”
When it became difficult for Maia to find a fulltime teaching position, she and her partner, Dave, chose the place they wanted to live rather than accept a job that took them anywhere. They chose Asheville, North Carolina.
Maia got into baking and her first professional baking job was at Louise’s Porch, a Bed and Breakfast Inn. Her entry into Southern Appalachian Mountain food ways uncovered the tradition of apple stack cakes.
“It was one of the first food stories that got to me,” she said.
The apple stack cake derived from a region that produced a surplus of apples. Leftover apples were dried in the sun and dishes were prepared with the dried apples.
“It’s such a beautiful example of communities being resourceful. The people had little resources, but had so much knowledge about the food surrounding them.”
The apple stack cake led Maia to Susannah Gebhardt, the baker who started OWL (Old World Levain) Bakery and who is now Maia’s business partner.
“Susannah started the Appalachian Food Store Bank,” said Maia. “I reached out to her because she was a baker interested in history, my two passions.”
To understand the Appalachian cuisine, one must realize the biodiversity of the region. The qualities of the Appalachian food culture are not only in the eating and sharing the food, but in snapping beans and peeling apples and preparing it together. People did it out of necessity, but were enriched in ways that might not be visible, explained Maia.
In fall 2016, Maia taught a class on Appalachian food ways. Food is complex and deep and rich in memory with feeling and community, said Maia.
“If you are making food together and thinking about the ways the meal may have been shared among people in and from different generations, history comes alive.”
Yanna Fishman is a potter, homesteader and seed saver who grows fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
“I learned about the wide variety of sweet potatoes grown in this area and Yanna heard about the Nancy Hall sweet potato from her neighbor,” said Maia. “Long after people stopped growing other varieties of sweet potatoes, they continued growing the Nancy Hall because the flavor is so incredible.” The Nancy Hall sweet potato was Maia’s entry way into Flo foods, which became one of the Heritage food projects Maia and Yanna do every summer with heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties from the region. “We grow the seeds and distribute them and have celebrations around them.
At Evergreen Community Charter School, Maia taught 8th grade students about Appalachian Culture and History and how to conduct and analyze oral
histories. Still, in this highly technological world, will students and future generations really care about these stories?
“I think so,” said Maia. “Stories make the past come alive and understanding helps preserve the stories and carry them through the generations. Every dish, every ingredient has a story to tell.”