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Making killed lettuce involves a delicate balance

Fred Sauceman • May 16, 2018 at 11:00 AM

On my very first ramp dig, Mary Waldrop, one of Unicoi County’s best ambassadors, suddenly put down her shovel. While her husband Richard continued to dig ramps, she knelt down beside a mountain brook and inspected a bright green plant with serrated edges. “It’s branch lettuce,” she called out.

Mary paused to describe the procedure for preparing ramps and branch lettuce that day. She explained the process that mountain people call “killing,” combining fresh spring lettuce, ramps or onions, and rendered pork fat. The mixture is flavored with long shelf-life staples - vinegar, salt, pepper, and sometimes sugar.

The dish is often listed in cookbooks as “wilted lettuce,” but around here, it’s “killed.” In the Greene County communities of Afton, Bright Hope and Orebank, where my people come from, “kilt” is the common pronunciation.

Making killed lettuce involves a delicate balance, to wilt the green elements of the dish without actually cooking them, so that the precious flavors of the springtime are not lost.

Lettuce and green onions are among the first plants to produce in the garden, and ramps are one of the first green plants to appear on the forest floor in springtime. A bowl of killed lettuce is a sign that spring has arrived. For some, it’s a spring tonic. And it’s about the closest thing to a salad that many traditional mountain cooks will admit to.

A friend now living in Texas recalls how his father would pick lettuce leaves and green onions from the garden while his mother heated bacon grease in a skillet and poured in a mixture of vinegar, water, sugar, and lots of black pepper. The concoction would immediately erupt, and then she’d pour it over the big bowl of chopped garden greenness. For those who have made killed lettuce this way, the explosive sound of vinegar hitting hot grease is unforgettable.

A pot of grease kept near the stove is still a refreshingly common sight in many Appalachian kitchens. When bacon or streaked meat is fried, the grease is drained off into the pot and left there all the time, at room temperature, ready for chicken frying or lettuce killing or maybe a pot of what we in the mountains simply call cooked cabbage.

Killed lettuce need not be all green. I know cooks who add radishes or even store-bought tomatoes. In the late Pauline Harmon Smith’s Tazewell, Tennessee, kitchen, diced, boiled eggs were a common addition to killed lettuce, always with a side of hot fried cornbread.

Chef Sean Brock grew up eating killed lettuce at his grandmother’s table in Wise, Virginia. He now runs the Husk restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia. Paying homage to springtime in Appalachia, he serves a Killed Lettuce Salad in his restaurants. His version is as simple and straightforward as his grandmother’s, always with a side of cornbread.

At a time when cooking according to the seasons has become almost a universal restaurant menu theme, it’s important to realize that Appalachian people have been doing it for a long, long time. For that killed lettuce legacy, I’m grateful every spring.

Fred Sauceman’s latest book is The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.

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