Morgantown’s Marion Ohlinger is hot on creative Appalachian cuisine.
Part punk rock, part home-grown cooking, but all parts creative, Chef Marion Ohlinger is making waves around Morgantown with his vocal take on what West Virginian dining should be. It’s been almost two years since Morgantown’s culinary darling, the Richwood Grill, closed its doors for the final time, and the innovative mind behind offerings like wild boar chili with antelope sausage packed up his knives and his family to head West. After 15 years running the day-to-day of Solera Cafe and then Richwood Grill in Morgantown, the family was ready for a much-needed vacation. But after months away, traveling and researching America’s lost cuisines, Chef Marion is back—and with a mission: He’s working on a book, he’s reviving a pop-up dinner series, he’s performing cooking demos at farmers’ markets, and he’s readying a new venture at a hotel in Morgantown. But most of all, he’s amped to begin an Appalachian culinary revival.
What did you do during your time spent traveling?
I was doing a lot of research. I spent several days going into the really small backwater towns in Mississippi checking out the culture of the blues and barbecue—what soul food came out of. I spent quite a bit of time on the Texas coast searching for salt-grass beef, an obscure regional specialty. What I was looking for was those lost regional cuisines of America that you only find in a few places.
From that research what did you learn?
It’s the idea of pockets of America reclaiming their heritage, their history. I couldn’t be prouder of being a West Virginian, though it’s very frustrating sometimes. It’s time not only to claim our history and heritage but to really stand up and proclaim Appalachia and West Virginia as a viable and authentic culinary vernacular, up there with Creole, Cajun, Pacific Rim, and Tex-Mex.
What is Appalachian cuisine?
At one time we used a lot of wild game. There was a lot of foraging going on. We had huge gardens and we raised things, a lot of that was heirloom. I think we’re really losing touch with our roots here and I very much want to reclaim that, while at the same time moving us forward and progressing. Everyone is always talking about heritage and tradition and that’s wonderful, but very few are trying to create new traditions. There’s so much more you can do with what we have here. You can do a version of almost any cuisine with what we grow here.
Something I’ve been experimenting with and came out really well is an alfalfa broth. I did an alfalfa sprout soup years ago where I’d use the sprouts as a primary flavor, like a pho, and I’m going to try doing it with hay. If you grew up in West Virginia, there’s hay everywhere. Think of how good alfalfa hay smells. Think of putting that in the oven and lightly toasting it and covering it with water and simmering it into a broth and extracting that flavor out.
What are the roadblocks to creating these new experiences?
My wife isn’t from here and she says that after 12 years here, she’s starting to get it. She says West Virginians have been just ignored for so long, not included in the rest of the American conversation, that people are thrilled to be getting what everybody else has now. They feel like we’re being justified by finally getting an Olive Garden because everyone else has an Olive Garden, and while I do not share in that frame of mind, I get it.
written by Katie Griffith | photographed by Carla Witt Ford