Not too long ago, best-selling author J D Vance went to a fast-food place with a young friend in his Appalachian hometown.
As they talked, the Yale-educated corporate executive noticed that Brian, the young man, was acting odd. He didn’t want to share his milkshake (which was strange for a kid who always said “please, sir” and “thank you, ma’am”). He was anxious, avoiding eye contact, looking at everyone else’s food.
Vance, moved by compassion, draped his arm around the boy’s shoulder and asked him if he needed anything:
“’Y – Yeah,’ he started, refusing to make eye contact. And then, almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more french fries.’ He was hungry. In 2014, in the richest country on earth, he wanted a little extra to eat but felt uncomfortable asking. Lord help us.”
Vance describes what happened to his own hillbilly culture when it got swallowed up by the much bigger culture of modern secular materialism. His book, Hillbilly Elegy (2016), narrates the hard story of how the folkways of his Appalachian people – his naši ludi, if you will – crashed and burned when they tried to get all their stuff at WalMart, eat all their food from boxes and get all their culture from TV.
I just got, in the mail, another Appalachian book called Victuals (by Ronni Lundi, 2016), and it’s chockfull of homespun stories and humble, authentic recipes from the real hillbilly culture. These dishes (like Leatherbritches ‘n Cornbread, or Buttermilk-Dipped Fried Chicken) are far more delicious than the megaslurp-and-cornchips menu at the gas station, and obviously more nutritious, and – what’s sadder – a lot cheaper.
And, since you grew most of this stuff out of the garden, this cooking is a lot more beautiful, because it is obviously, simply, from God’s hands, from His holy earth.
This vittles book goes to show what the hillbillies I grew up with once had as a precious treasure. But Vance’s book shows what so many of them were willing to give this treasure up for – a cheap cardboard and plastic life.
Vance’s book is a hard read in that he describes, painfully, the consequences of embracing the modernist lifestyle. Families fall apart, with multiple marriages and co-habitations. Customs and folkways are broken, recipes forgotten. Meanwhile, satellite dishes are stuffed into tiny yards, even swimming pools are crowded up against the backdoor stoop and the best toys are piled up under Christmas trees – all this frequently financed by same-day paycheck loans and post-dated checks.
Worst of all was the drug-addiction epidemic that exploded with crystal meth in the 90s and the heroin contagion of today. Watch the very good movie, Winter’s Bone (2010), for an accurate portrayal of what drugs have done to Appalachia.
J D Vance recounts what it was like growing up with a drug-addict mother. He gets nightmares to this day, even in his well-off lifestyle, of horrible episodes when he and his sister got chased around by his drug-raged mom. It got so bad at one point that his grandfather (Papaw) secretly installed a hidden phone line in the bottom of his toy box so that his older sister could call for help “when things got a little too crazy.”
This is not the Appalachia that I knew. When I think of the region, I think of baling hay in beautiful green hillsides on a hot July afternoon. Or I think of watching the sunrise on frozen fields while we sluiced feed and fermented sileage, steaming against the snow, to a hundred head of Holstein dairy cows. I think of revival meetings in the spring and fall and snowball fights after Sunday evening church in a hollow called Hexie.
Nowadays, everyone talks about Game of Thrones down in the hollow. And yes, there’s heroin. Even there.
Toward the end of his book, J D Vance doesn’t blame politics from either party for his people’s ills, nor does he blame the big corporations. He pretty much says that blaming is a waste of time, but if blaming must be done, we just ought to blame ourselves. And take responsibility:
“I believe we hillbillies are the toughest … people on this earth … But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”
Hillbilly Elegies is not a story of just hillbillies or Appalachia. It tells the story of how every single culture falls apart when it gets wasted by the drunken soddenness of secular materialism, where things are real only if they have a price, only if they have a use.
I do not want our church culture to end up in a book called American Orthodox Elegies – Carpatho-Russian or otherwise.
J D Vance is a little short on his advice about what to do, in the face of a modern world that does so much ripping apart people from each other, from the land and their faith.
But I have a few tips to serve up in my own hillbilly recipe. It’s kind of a potluck casserole. Here it is.
Recipe for Staying Together:
Recipe for keeping a country together:
- Practice respect and civility.
- Honor tradition.
- Make peace. Listen to the opposition. Always.
- Cling to the humble quiet.
- Preserve the land and its people. Conserve creation
Recipe for keeping a church together:
- Serve without acknowledgement or programming.
- Fight pessimism. Model optimism.
- Be willing to learn Orthodox doctrine (and not just rubrics) humbly, and with hard effort. Always.
- Accept the fact that opinions about people are always inadequate.
- Teach children: do not change the institution for them.
Recipe for retaining youth in church:
- Avoid Sunday morning extracurriculars.
- More importantly: never, ever be negative about church people in front of the kids.
- Lead them to think, classically, for themselves, and not to replace disciplined thought for reaction, passion and intoxication (by any passion).
- Be wise, be winsome. The lack of adult wisdom and peace is the only real reason why youth evacuate the church.
Recipe for keeping a family together:
- Control emotions. Always.
- Which means practicing meekness.
- In fact, practice all the Beatitudes, by yourself, even if no one else does.
- Stay in Church. Commune constantly, body and soul. Struggle to know what this means.
Recipe for keeping a marriage together:
- Follow the example of the Virgin Mary.
- Suffer ego-death and take up your Cross, daily and sweetly.
- Recognize beauty. Build on beauty.
- Make goodness greater, little by little.
Recipe for keeping a heart together:
- Wake up in the morning (or now) and be amazed (thaumazein) at being alive. See Creation instead of reality. Pray a lot.
- And ask yourself: what would Mary do?