WV Culinary Team: Moonshine is proof Appalachia is trendy

By Candace Nelson - 3:00 PM


My latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

There are few things more Appalachian than moonshine.

The outlaw liquor, often portrayed in the media as a jug with “XXX” on it to signify how many times it’s been run through the still, was simply homemade whiskey, often made at night.

Crafted in the mountains, moonshine — like many other Appalachian delicacies — was created from what was available in the area and derived from generational recipes over many years.

The problem, though, was that it was produced without government authorization. So, it was this bootleg booze for Mountaineers throughout history — for a number of reasons.

Not only was moonshine developed with available ingredients to consume but, by the 20th century, moonshining became an occupation for many Appalachians. With limited road networks, transportation was often expensive and difficult.

According to “Moonshine, Mountaineers, and Modernity: Distilling Cultural History in the Southern Appalachian Mountains” in the Journal of Appalachian Studies (2012), “One could transport much more value in corn if it was first converted to whiskey. One horse could haul 10 times more value on its back in whiskey than in corn.”

But like many Appalachian delicacies, e.g. ramps and morels, moonshine has caught the eye of folks who finally recognize the ingenuity in these mountains.

In recent years, the term “moonshine” has been applied to legal booze in order to market an elusive, mischievous drinking experience.

Merriam-Webster reflects this change, defining “moonshine”:

moon·shine (noun): intoxicating liquor, especially: illegally distilled corn whiskey; Synonyms: bootleg, mountain dew, white lightning

This switch to a more mainstream product tends to follow a routine. Moonshine was developed from what was available. Difficult terrain and roads limited accessibility to products, so the need was more utilitarian. But now, it’s trendy.

You can purchase moonshine at a local distillery or grocery store. And, there are more flavors than ever before: paw paw, strawberry lemonade and more.

And, I personally love seeing when Appalachian products are appreciated by a larger pool of people — granted, Appalachians receive the credit they deserve for their creativity.

Nonetheless, navigating how moonshine has transcended from mountain drink to city cocktail seems much in line with other Appalachian specialties. But, because of its very nature, it has stirred a debate on whether or not it’s the same product. When you take the hooch from its home, is it still hooch?

If it’s “legal,” is it still “moonshine”?

Blackberry Moonshine Steak Tacos

Leannda Cavalier, a West Virginia native, created sliced flank steak glazed with sweet blackberries, a smooth bite of moonshine and a smoky chipotle kick all wrapped in soft tortillas for an Appalachian spin on steak tacos. Cavalier now calls Knoxville, Tennessee, home and shares her creations on her food blog, whipsmartkitchen.com. Blackberry Moonshine Steak Tacos is one of her original recipes printed here with permission. Serves 4-5. Time: 35 minutes, plus 30 minutes to let the steak come to room temperature.

1.5 pound flank steak

1 to 2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon avocado or vegetable oil

1 clove garlic

1/4 red onion, sliced in two

2 tablespoons cold butter, halved

5 ounces blackberries

1/3 cup moonshine

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce (canned), plus 2 tablespoons sauce

2 tablespoons honey

Serve with:

  • flour or corn tortillas
  • thinly sliced red onion
  • sweet corn
  • sour cream
  • cilantro

Let steak come to room temperature for about half an hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pat steak dry with paper towels. Coat both sides with salt and pepper as evenly as possible and lightly brush on oil.

Warm a large skillet over high heat until very hot. Sear steak along with onion and garlic for 3 minutes one one side, then flip and sear 2 minutes more. Add butter, swirl it around the pan, and finish in oven for 6 minutes until internal temperature reaches 135 degrees.

Move steak to a cutting board, loosely cover with foil and rest for 10 minutes.

Carefully remove onion and garlic from skillet, wipe out any excess salt or large solids, and put it back on burner over medium heat. Add blackberries and cook until soft, about two minutes.

Pour in moonshine and stir for about a minute, then add pineapple juice, chipotle pepper, adobo sauce and honey.

Stir mixture occasionally, smashing berries and pepper as you go, until it is thick and jammy, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Slice steak thinly, place slices in the saucy skillet and toss to coat.

Enjoy in warmed tortillas with red onion, sweet corn, sour cream and cilantro.

NOTE: If seeds bother you, you can strain the sauce before coating the steak. I like them, so I leave them!

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