For seven generations, Professor of English Erica Abrams Locklear’s family has spread roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“You can trace my family on both sides to this area, all the way back past the Civil War,” reflects UNC Asheville’s 2021 Distinguished Teacher of the Year. With such an impressive lineage and strong connection to growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, perhaps it’s only natural that her pride for Appalachian culture and food would become a prominent theme in her courses.
Since 2008, Abrams Locklear has taught American Literature to students each semester, but it’s her specialized classes focused on Appalachian culture and Southern food that have motivated UNC Asheville students to follow her from one course to the next.
“At their core, Southern studies and Appalachian studies are about place,” says Abrams Locklear. “Relatedly, the foods that people grow, prepare, and eat often reveal fascinating nuances about the history, culture, and tradition of particular places. We learn about labor conditions, social class, race and ethnicity, history, and the creative ingenuity people display when cooking.”
“Foods traditionally associated with Appalachia inspire me because they often indicate a kind of culinary resourcefulness that signals both pragmatism and creative expression,” she says.
Lovingly dubbed “Erica’s army” by Kirk Boyle, chair and associate professor of English, Abrams Locklear’s students are immersed in literature that celebrates mountain folk culture from Appalachia. From visiting authors and speakers to gathering for a potluck supper featuring menu items native to our area, Abrams Locklear’s students receive immersive learning that goes beyond the traditional classroom.
“For me, ‘ah-ha’ moments happen when students experience something out of the ordinary,” says Abrams Locklear. “Whether that’s visiting the Cherokee origin site of Kituwah and listening to storyteller Freeman Owle, enjoying a potluck lunch with food writer Ronni Lundy, or talking with Robert Gipe after finishing Trampoline, I believe experiences that render discussions tangible are often the most worthwhile.”
Personally, Abrams Locklear’s favorite experience with Appalachian food is foraging for ramps with her father. “ I enjoy walking with him in the woods, learning about how to grow them and how to harvest them sustainably, and most of all, listening to his stories about growing up in the Big Sandy Mush community,” she said.
It’s these personal connections and high impact learning experiences that resonate loudly with her students and encourage them to peel back the layers of history and learn about people that have been forgotten or intentionally left out in Southern literature. Her thoughtful lessons and invitation to consider the stories of people who have been marginalized or unjustly portrayed influence her students to ponder the lives of others and themselves. “In and out of class,” commented one of Erica’s students, “she engaged thoughtfully and earnestly with our ideas, and she helped us do the same with each other.”
Beyond the classroom, Abrams Locklear is turning her passion and knowledge of literary depictions of food in Appalachian culture into a book. Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People is slated for release in late 2022 / early 2023 from the University of Georgia Press and will include chapters that explore culinary representation in local color literature, Progressive Era reform initiatives, and author responses to North Carolina’s 1930s “Live at Home” program. The book also explores how food can both stigmatize and elevate its consumers.
Although most academics end up far from home, Abrams Locklear’s connection to the Asheville region has become an unexpected benefit to her students’ studies. Her stories passed down from ancestors and first-hand experiences not only enrich her lessons but inspire her students to reconsider what they know about the Appalachian region – and also how they interpret their connections.
“Dr. Locklear makes me want to be the best version of myself as a student and a scholar,” remarked another one of Abrams Locklear’s students. “I am a better writer, reader, thinker, and person because of her, and UNC Asheville is a better university because of her.”
That resounding review, and many more, have now earned Abrams Locklear the Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, presented at the spring 2021 Commencement.