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April in Helvetia

excerpted from an article in Saveur #5, March–April, 1995

The first house you see as you come into Helvetia, West Virginia, from the Mill Creek road is a log cabin with a weathered sign above the door that reads Zeit und Raum ist Alles [“Time and Space is All”]. I had been coming here for ten years before I met the woman who built the cabin with the extraordinary sign — and before I entered the life of this town, deep in the Appalachian Mountains.

My first trip to Helvetia (pronounced hel–VEE–shah), in 1972, was with college friends. We came in pursuit of the wild leeks called ramps — or rather, the ramps were our excuse to run wild down breathtaking country roads, to funky road houses like the LuLu Belle Inn and the Rebel Lounge. I was not a cook then, and never imagined that a lark to the Helvetia Ramp Supper would inspire me to return every spring to Helvetia, and would lead eventually to my finding roots that had nothing to do with my own.

The people of Helvetia captured my heart with their generosity and spirit, and have taught me more about food than anyone else. From my first breakfast of thick–sliced, toasted homemade bread and tomato jam at the town’s only inn to the butter and cheese made by three old sisters on a remote mountain farm, I encountered here a world where food is a language, both welcoming the visitor and eloquently expressing the local culture.

So much in Helvetia resolves around food: its cultivation and preparation draw family and friends together — and it is a way that people who don’t have much can give to each other. Food in Helvetia is generally simple fare — Southern farm cooking with a strong Swiss accent, a reminder of the region’s original settlers. From the South comes cornbread and ham, greens flaky, lard–crust pies. From Switzerland come the spicy sweet–and–sour flavors of sauerbraten and sauerkraut, onion pies, dumplings, spice cookies.

“You’ll never be hungry in Helvetia,” I was told, and it’s true. There seems to be a great cook in every house — Margaret Koerner, her white hair in neat braids, frying donuts, barefoot in her spotless kitchen . . . Bernadine Wooten, round and comforting in a flowered dress, plying me with raspberry cobbler still warm in an iron skillet. I’ve come away from people’s houses with tomatoes from the garden, slices of pie, homemade wine, mason jars of ramps, venison and spiced peaches. Even perfect strangers give away food as a kind of “hello.” Lucky Farr’s shy wife didn’t say a word when we met, but knocked plums off the tree in her yard and filled my pockets with them.

Click the image to read a companion recipe, Mary Hicks' Cornbread

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