April in Helvetia

By Sally Schneider

Published on January 26, 2007

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 10 years before I met the woman who built the cabin with that 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 roadhouses 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 here 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 have encountered here a world where food is a language, both welcoming the visitor and eloquently expressing the local culture.

So much in Helvetia revolves 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 come corn bread and ham, greens, flaky lard-crust pies. From Switzerland come the 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 doughnuts, 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 peaches. Even perfect strangers give away food as a kind of "hello." Lucky Farrar'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.

At first glance, Helvetia, nestled in a lush valley near West Virginia's eastern panhandle, appears to be a private, quiet place that you can drive through in a minute—church, general store (doubling as post office), folk museum, library, community hall, restaurant, 25 or so homes. The local population is about 150, with most folks living on farms outside town. On my early visits, after the Ramp Supper my friends and I would head back over the mountains to a seedy motel with an ice machine and a sign that advertised Colored TV.

Then, one year, I heard that there was an inn at Helvetia, and I stayed on after my friends left. The Beekeeper Inn, an old house at the confluence of two forks of the Buckhannon River, is owned by Eleanor Fahrner Mailloux. Eleanor grew up in Helvetia in the early 1920s, left to travel the world, and came back in the early 1960s to help nurture the fragile culture of her childhood—later opening the inn and a nearby restaurant called The Hutte ("little house" in Swiss-German), considered the county's best.

"Even as a small child," Eleanor once told me, "I could see how beautiful Helvetia was. I wanted it always to exist; that was my dream." But there was a danger that it wouldn't. Like many Appalachian towns, Helvetia had been losing ground over the years, a victim of the state's struggling economy and the changes wrought by an increasingly urbanized society.

Eleanor set out to fight the decline, enlisting the support of Rudolph Zumbach, a Helvetia old-timer and a community leader. "We're all in favor of progress, as long as we don't make any changes," Rudolph said to her. "It sounds funny, but I understood what he meant and felt the same way," Eleanor recalls. "We didn't want Helvetia's integrity, its heart, to change." She has also functioned as a one-woman historical society for Helvetia, organizing the refurbishing of many of the town's buildings and the landscaping of public areas. Through her efforts, the village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Helvetia area was settled by Swiss immigrants in 1869—families with names like Merkli, Betler, Isch, Daetwyler, Burki, Fahrner, and Zumbach—who came here, many driven by crop failures in Switzerland, to carve a thriving town out of the mountains that reminded them of their homeland. They named their settlement Helvetia, the ancient Latin name for Switzerland.

Nothing earth-shattering has ever happened in Helvetia: no Civil War battles, natural disasters, or great scientific discoveries. What is remarkable about the place is that the way of life created by those 19th-century Swiss immigrants—independent, courageous, sometimes eccentric, completely original—still exists here.

I've sought to understand this life, and to record as much of it as possible. I've often roamed the area with a grizzled-looking Appalachian native named Rogers McAvoy, a psychology professor at West Virginia University who owns a home in Helvetia. We have spent hours driving around the mountains in his old Jeep, stopping to talk to people sitting on their porches and in bars or just walking along the roads. He has been a guide and resource, tracing the convoluted lineages of families and exploring the complex mores of this community, part industrious Swiss, part American pioneer.

Rogers debunks common misconceptions about Appalachia, about such things as poverty and laziness. He explains how the mountains have acted as a barrier to the homogenizing influences of mass media and urban culture, preserving the area's uniqueness. "To the rest of America," he says, "Appalachia is like another civilization."

Irene Hartford and Mary Hicks epitomize what I love most about Helvetia. These two sisters are part Swiss and part Irish, reflecting the integration of other immigrant settlers. They were born McNeal on a neighboring farm, then moved to a big house in town, where Mary still lives. Irene, who looks like Gertrude Stein, spends much of her time at Mary's house, but actually lives across the road in the log cabin with that remarkable sign—which she hung in 1939 as a joke with cosmic underpinnings.

Mary did much of the cooking on the family farm. She is one of the best cooks in town and acts as its culinary memory, in lieu of written recipes, for the town's many fund-raising dinners. She always appears at the community hall just as the preparations for these monumental undertakings hit a crisis point, when nobody can quite remember the proper way to cook the beans for the Ramp Supper or the gravy for another Helvetia tradition, the Chicken Supper held every third Saturday in August.

Although Mary's house is enormous, everything seems to take place in the kitchen, which is at once immensely welcoming and a study in benign chaos. On the table is a disarray of supermarket coupons, ripening tomatoes, shopping lists, jars of pickles and jam, seedlings in paper cups, a glass of mismatched teaspoons for coffee. There is also usually a half-finished project going on: wild grapes being picked over for pie, cucumbers salting for pickles in a basin on the porch.

Visitors always find something good to eat. Irene and Mary feed a lot of people in the course of a week, as everyone seems to pass through their house at one time or another. "Are you hungry?" Irene will ask. "Well, we've hardly a thing to eat!" Mary will say, shaking her head and then pulling out a ham, or delicious beans cooked with home-raised pork, or hot yeast rolls from the oven. There is usually a pie around, and always preserves with something to put them on, along with coffee and a gallon jar full of cookies.

I have sat at the kitchen table with Irene and Mary for hours at a time, listening as they reminisce, embellishing and correcting each other's stories. Memories and recipes intertwine, one sparking the other. The recipe for buckwheat dumplings reminds them of the buckwheat mush with creamed elderberry sauce that they hated as girls. This leads to the story of when Irene ate with the men at threshing time, consuming huge potato dumplings stuffed with ham until she thought she would burst. The apples Mary is preparing for pie remind them of the cold cellar on their old farm, so perfectly designed that it kept butter sweet and hard as a rock.

Mary cooks by feel and by eye, as do most of the older cooks here. She knows intuitively what works and what doesn't, but can't always explain why. When I ask for quantities in her recipes, she has to think hard to pin them down, and sometimes she can't quite resolve the amounts. "Well, I don't know. You just take whatever you have and go from there"—a logical approach for a cook accustomed to making do with whatever is on hand. "If you don't have it, you don't need it" is a philosophical principle in Helvetia, where stores are many miles away on winding mountain roads.

Everything in Irene and Mary's kitchen seems to draw me further into their world. Take the salted trout. Mary buries fresh trout in a bucket full of salt to preserve them for months, the way her mother did. The trout are then soaked in water for days to remove the salt, dusted in cornmeal, and fried crisp in bacon fat, their bones tender enough to eat. From hearing that simple preparation described, I can almost conjure up the childhood kitchen where Mary and her mother prepared huge meals for family and friends.

Beans and corn bread, one of the most common meals in these parts, also shows how food is a window on Helvetia's way of life. It is one of those perfect combinations of foods, comforting and nourishing, created from necessity by frugal people. When larders were spare, there was always cornmeal, beans, and a little ham. The first time I sampled the combination was at the hilltop farm where Eleanor Mailloux's sister, Margie Daetwyler, lives with daughter Nancy Gain, son-in-law Leroy, and the Gains' children.

That day Margie had set her beautiful old kitchen table with woven red place mats and shallow soup bowls patterned with fading flowers. There was a large crockery bowl of beans cooked with bits of pork, a platter of fried ham, and a basket of corn muffins. Several small glass bowls held Margie's pickled beets and homemade cottage cheese, and Leroy's spicy pickled cabbage, which was sublime on the beans. Dessert was canned homegrown peaches and pears. It was as well executed a meal as I have ever had.

Margie's memory is as acute as that of the McNeal sisters. She talked that day about the wild spring greens she and her family used to collect—wild mustard, poke, nettle, sheep's sorrel, lamb's tongue, blackberry leaves. She spoke of the sausages her husband used to make at hog-butchering time, and his extraordinary hog's-head mincemeat.

Later, I visited Nancy and Leroy's house next door. I was astonished at the scores of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs they harvest, can, freeze, or dry—a measure of Helvetian industry and self-sufficiency as well as of the valley's plenitude. They also raise pigs, cows, and chickens; make cheese, butter, and sausages; and hunt wild turkey, deer, and grouse.

Some of the younger people in Helvetia recognize the beauty of the community's way of life, and are helping to preserve local traditions. Nancy has been learning needlework techniques such as tatting and quilting, and has been collecting old recipes. Eleanor Mailloux's daughter Cathy has become a chef at The Hutte, where she lovingly prepares authentic Helvetia-Swiss food. Alvin Burky makes butter and cheese by hand on his mother Hazel's farm, which he manages.

Still, I worry that this way of life, so suffused with memory, will disappear when people like Eleanor and the McNeal and Balli sisters are no longer around. Every year I make the long trek from New York to this Appalachian town that I still find rare and mysterious, and where I have always had the feeling of being home. I continue to record stories and recipes, as though trying to fix on paper what is deeply imprinted on my heart.

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