West Virginia is often referred to as the northern-most southern state and southern-most northern state. And, it’s smackdab in the middle of Appalachia.
At a cultural crossroads between southern classics like pimento cheese and iconic northern favorites like New York-style pizza, West Virginia straddles the culinary line — and adds an Appalachian twist.
For example, if you’re in West Virginia, you might take a look at the above dishes and decide both pimento cheese and pizza could benefit from the addition of ramps. Or maybe even some morel mushrooms. Or maybe that’s just me.
This unique geographic location, though, means both foods commonly identified with the northern part of the United States and the southern part of the United States have made their way into the foodways of Appalachia and often improved with a little ingenuity.
Cheese straws are one such food.
Some say the savory, cracker-like snack has ties to the British biscuit. Others say it might be related to the biscotti of Italy. In America, they’ve become synonymous with the South.
No matter where they originated, cheese straws have persevered in the region and even migrated a bit north. That may be due in part to the same reason that many other foods have stood the test of time in Appalachia: they’re made with what’s available and they’re made to last.
Making cheese into straws or other crackers was once a way of preserving cheese in the South, which can be hot and humid and not the most welcoming environment for fresh cheese.
The flaky and firm snacks were popular during the ’50s and early ’60s as a canape when paired with a cocktail. Now, you may see them as a snack on a charcuterie board or at a family reunion.
Wherever you may find them, cheese straws have that Appalachian quality of having been created out of necessity, and that’s always special to me.