JonTillman

From Eating Asturias, the Encyclopedia of Asturian Gastronomy


Jon Tillman

So who is this guy telling you about Asturian food? How did a small-town cook from Appalachia end up in Asturias? What is his deal? Why so many recipes? Well, pull up a chair and let me tell you how I got here. Along the way I’ll explain why I care so much about food, about Asturias, and why you should too.

I have always been a little bit (okay, a lot) obsessed with food. Growing it, preserving it, cooking it, eating it, reading about it, taking pictures of it, you get the gist. So, writing about it is a natural evolution of that obsession. Read on to learn specifically how I came to be where I am now.

Growing Up

My earliest memories are of food. I grew up with a vegetable garden out the back door and home-canned food all winter. I vividly remember our neighbor butchering and dressing a deer on a stand in his front yard. Appalachian suburbia is a little different from the standard conception of suburbia, as I was to discover later in life.

I spent the majority of my childhood in the rural southern Appalachian Mountains. They were in the 1980s and 1990s, and mostly are still today, a place where most homes have a vegetable garden, volunteer fire departments sell fried catfish platters on Friday nights, and a potluck supper is how you mark pretty much every occasion, from Independence Day to a wedding or a funeral. It turns out that the region is the most diverse and varied food culture in all of the United States.

Getting to Work

That diversity is partially due to the fact that farms in the Appalachians stayed small and local and responsive. Elsewhere across America farms had gotten bigger, and mechanical, and mono-cultural, and made markets instead of responding to them. That situation created something in a generation of cooks there of which I was lucky to be a part. We came up together in a little bubble that didn’t know that we were all supposed to eat the same things everywhere. We had farmers literally knocking on our door to bring us the things they grew. Not only that, but they could all speak knowledgeably about the varieties they grew: where the seeds came from, how long they had been grown in the area, what they tasted best paired with.

First, I worked in a fast food joint, and then in another. My third job however was in a local restaurant of some limited renown and only open for dinner. I was one of two prep cooks, and we went to work in the morning, preparing the ingredients for dinner that night. We had keys to the place, learned to tell good produce from bad, how to argue with a fishmonger, and how not to waste anything.

I was hooked. Soon restaurant work took me out of Appalachia to bustling beach towns famous for fresh seafood, to small country inns, and to the hip vegan East End of London. Steadily I moved “up” the kitchen hierarchy, until I found myself addressed as “chef” by most of the people I worked with.

Learning Some History

During this time, I became more and more interested in why we eat what we eat; in the history and ethnography of food. Firstly in the food I ate and cooked, but then more widely. I began to amass a library of food-related books. Through that reading I became familiar with the work of John T. Edge, Ronni Lundy, and James Veteto, among many others. These authors inspired me to look closely at the food around me, at the land around me, to explore the culinary landscape.

Later, I discovered the likes of Raymond Sokolov, Reay Tannahill, and Massimo Montanari. Through them I developed a more global view of food and its impact on culture, and began to have a real appreciation for the impossibility of any particular food or dish “belonging” to a particular culture, especially in the post-Columbian Exchange world.

And then one day I came across the book Pinnick Kinnick Hill, about immigrants from Asturias who had moved to Appalachia to work the zinc mines. I was struck by how much of the book revolved around food, and how similar the Asturians found West Virginia with regards to food and climate. I became very interested.

Eating with My Eyes

Simultaneously, I was developing an interest in photography. I had always owned a camera and taken snapshots, but I became more interested in learning how to capture images as I saw them, in order to better communicate my view of the world to other people. Photography became another lens (pardon the pun) through which to investigate the food I was cooking and eating. Through the works of Francesco Tonelli, Dennis Prescott, Andrew Scrivani, and Beata Lubus I learned how to look at ingredients, not just finished dishes.

I began to spend a lot of time tracking down good food pictures, initially documenting the ingredients around me in my restaurant, then branching out into pictures of small breweries, farm fields, barns, etc. I had found another way of investigating the culinary landscape.

Asturias Calling

Then in 2014 I visited Spain with my wife. We spent most of the trip driving from village to village across Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I was immediately struck by the Asturian food; the ever-present cider, the amazing variety of cheeses available everywhere, and the very rural, agricultural, quality of life. It was very familiar to me. It felt very comfortable.

Fast forward three years: After much discussion and calculation, we decide that a change is needed. I had hit the ceiling of what I was going to be able to accomplish as a chef. Wanting to put my hand to something new I thought of Asturias. I was still haunted by the food and culture there. My wife was definitely ready to get back to Spain. So we hired a shipping container and made some very questionable choices in what to keep and what to sell. Then we packed ourselves, our two kids, our dog, and our cat off to Spain. We had a vague idea of doing something *waves hands vaguely in the direction of Asturias* with food.

Living in Asturias

So here we are, finally living in Asturias. The similarities to Appalachia are real enough to keep me intrigued and the differences big enough to keep me constantly on edge. I drink less beer and more cider. We eat more sausage and less ham. I regularly find myself wondering “why doesn’t that exist here”.

But mostly I am enchanted. I have a culture to explore that is familiar enough to be comforting and keep me grounded, but different enough to give me the necessary detachment to look at it more critically than I would at the culture I came from. We are all blind to our own situations, and to look closely requires being in unfamiliar circumstances. I hope you’ll join me as I explore this new, but old, food culture.

Elsewhere

I have a personal website located at jontillman.me where I write about other things, including music and being an immigrant to Spain. You can find my thoughts on topics tangential to this website at Mastodon and pictures from around my farm on PixelFed.