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Communion wafers and apple butter inspire chefs at Lost Creek Farm

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At Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia, husband and wife duo Mike Costello and Amy Dawson delve into the stories behind the recipes served at their famous farm-to-table dinners. The dishes served are rooted in Appalachian traditions.

Recently a semi-finalist for the prestigious James Beard Award, Lost Creek Farm was an outlier in a category usually reserved for conventional restaurants.

Lost Creek Farm is not a restaurant. Costello and Dawson aren’t so much hosts and servers as they are stewards and storytellers.

People come from all over to sample their cooking and knowledge, including Yo-Yo Ma and the late Anthony Bourdain. But it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, because dinners at Lost Creek Farm are all about connecting with the community.

In fact, two community experiences from Costello and Dawson’s childhood inspire their work at Lost Creek Farm. Costello and Dawson usually kick off dinner parties with a curious appetizer that’s a mix of two unassuming cooking traditions from their childhood: communion wafers topped with apple butter. The combo is symbolic of the farm-to-table dinners themselves.

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Chefs and storytellers Mike Costello and Amy Dawson, James Beard Award semi-finalists, greet guests at a dinner party.

Memories of making food as a community

When I arrived at Lost Creek Farm, the birds were chirping and the sun was shining on the rolling meadows. After being greeted by Costello and Dawson, they showed me around the farm.

While visiting the chickens, Costello told me about some of the projects they are working on.

“We’re building an orchard,” Costello said. “There were apple trees here on the farm when we moved in, pear trees. Lots of wild fruits. Lots of blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, that sort of thing.

Costello and Dawson have lived on this land for six years. But he’s been in the Dawson family for almost 150 years. Dawson learned a lot about working on a farm when she visited her grandparents.

Growing up, my family always had a big garden. And we always would. And so most of my summers were basically spent prepping food,” Dawson said. “If you live on a farm, you do food prep and food storage all the time.”

When Costello and Dawson inherited the farm, it had been neglected for years. They dedicated themselves to getting the farm back in working order. The couple raise meat rabbits and lay chickens. They search for food in the surrounding woods. They grow vegetables from ancestral seeds entrusted to them by members of the community. And they have their orchard.

Costello took me under the vegetable garden and the chicken coop to the orchard. “A lot of these trees that we have here are regional varieties,” Costello said. “The apples we grafted yesterday – we grafted 21 trees that will go into the orchard – we will plant them later this year.”

The couple will use these apples for different things, including apple butter. Dawson described apple butter as caramelized and sweet-tasting. Costello likes to play with flavors and often adds bourbon and sage to deliver fiery, herbal notes.

For Dawson, making apple butter takes her back to her childhood. “Apple butter is one of the earliest memories I had, like, as a family — it was kind of a community, like it wasn’t just my family that made it,” Dawson said. “It was friends and, you know, extended family would come in to make the apple butter in the fall.”

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The grounds are set and ready for dinner at Lost Creek Farm, where heritage-inspired Appalachian cuisine will soon be served. As people dig, Chef Mike Costello will tell guests about the stories and cultural significance behind each recipe.

The seasonal ritual of making apple butter helped Dawson understand the connection between food and community. It’s a daunting task to peel, core and chop sautéed apple bushes, then heat them for hours before canning them.

If ever an event called for community effort, it’s one like this. Time spent cooking with large groups of neighbors and friends is as social as it is productive.

Dawson isn’t the only one of the couple who grew up with memories of cooking in the community.

Costello grew up in Elkview, West Virginia, and he often accompanied his grandmother to Emmanuel Baptist Church to make communion wafers. “I have many fond memories of my childhood, my grandmother and the other elderly women in the church preparing wafers on Thursday and Friday mornings for Sunday service,” Costello said. “She would take my brother and I out there those mornings, and we would kind of watch all these women roll out these big sheets of dough and make these wafers.”

As an adult, Costello had forgotten about wafers until he discovered his grandmother’s recipe. “When my grandmother died, I had her collection of recipes. And I found this recipe in there for these communion wafers,” Costello said.

For him, the meaning of this recipe has little to do with religion. “We didn’t go to church with my grandmother on Sundays,” Costello said. “I never had any idea what their religious significance was, I just thought they were that kind of tasty snack. I kind of forgot about them.

Discovering the recipe brought back memories for Costello. “What came to mind was, you know, this image of all these women making these wafers, and how that kind of represented me, the first memory I have of people, here or wherever, making food like a community,” Costello said.

Mike and Amy top apple butter crackers

Mike Costello and Amy Dawson top communion wafer crackers with homemade apple butter for a dinner party. The couple serve up storied, heritage-inspired cuisine at their dinner parties, including these two recipes.

Fusion of two food traditions

In their work today, Costello and Dawson have fused these two traditions and shared them with others. Last year they made an online video tutorial on how to make wafers. In a playful exchange, they note how curious people think the two are munching on hosts.

But wafers are more than just a snack. In the video, Costello and Dawson explain the importance of platelets.

People who know us or our work know that we like to focus on the stories behind the food we make. That’s what makes these hosts so special to us,” Dawson said in the video.

In recipes for apple butter and wafers, there is one ingredient that is not tangible but is just as important as the others.

This is the group effort aspect of these recipes – the shared ritual of making food together. For Costello, this is especially true for the hosts. “I love putting these crackers on a plate, to open our events,” Costello said as we walked. Later he explained more as we finished the farm tour.

“When you can eat that at the table and you can eat the story that goes with it, you know…you connect with people,” he said. “And you connect with thousands of years of history of this being, in all the hands and all the communities that he has gone through to get to this point.

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Fairy lights illuminate the communal table at Lost Creek Farm in anticipation of hungry diners.

Lost Creek Farm inspires and builds community

Apple butter and communion wafers are emblematic of the dinners themselves, a place where people gather over Appalachian foods and traditions.

Arriving at the farm, guests are greeted with music and a warm fire burning outside. Under fairy lights and shining stars, people sit around the communal table, some meeting for the first time. Some of the foods served are simple, such as apple butter and communion wafers. But there is more than that.

“If you just look at the ingredients, you look at the recipes, the apple butter and the crackers, it’s not that bad, is it? But there’s so much meaning in that,” Costello said.

Part of this significance lies in the communities of people who have shaped these two food traditions. And the new communities that Costello and Dawson create at Lost Creek Farm.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the West Virginia Humanities Council’s Folklife program.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part through support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies at the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories about Appalachian folk life, arts, and culture.