Re-embracing the Vine that Ate the South

Depending on who you talk to, kudzu is alternately revered and reviled. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Edith Edwards, aka the Kudzu Queen, deep-fried her first kudzu leaf on August 22, 1981. Decades later, she still remembers dipping the fronds in cold tempura batter and then dropping them into rolling peanut oil. “I kept the leaves crackling for less than 30 seconds per side,” she says. “They just downright crumbled in your mouth.”

It’s midsummer on Edwards’ Kudzu Cow Farm just south of Rutherfordton, so the weather is hot and the kudzu is … everywhere. Since her initial foray into edible kudzu, Edwards has waded into other unusual combinations — ice water with kudzu and mint, kudzu scrambled eggs, and kudzu syrup over vanilla ice cream. Some might call Edwards’ culinary experimenting precocious. After all, her first fried leaf predated the trendy revival of greens like kale and collards. But according to Edwards, kudzu fans have been around for centuries.

To prove her case, she cites William Shurtleff’s The Book of Kudzu: A Culinary and Healing Guide, a paperback she borrowed from a cousin “up the hill.” The first chapters detail the plant’s formal introduction as a novelty garden item at the 1876 World’s Fair Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. But it truly thrived in the Southeast, and the vine eventually gained so much ground that Channing Cope, a columnist for The Atlanta Constitution, founded the Kudzu Club of America in 1943. At its peak, the organization had more than 20,000 members.

Of course, enthusiasts realized their slight soon enough. By the 1950s, kudzu had swallowed pine forests and formed thick carpets along highways. Seeing it as a threat to biodiversity, especially native flora, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly classified the cover crop as an invasive species. Still, a faithful few stand by the tenacious weed, which is notoriously hard to kill and resists even commercial herbicides (some cities, like Chattanooga, have gone old-school and introduced goats and llamas to chew it into submission).

“Kudzu grows 12 inches a day just looking for someone who likes it,” quips weaver Nancy Basket, who adapted her last name, in the Cherokee tradition, to suit her vocation. Basket began working with kudzu 26 years ago when a voice told her to “leave the trees alone.”

“Some people are dog whisperers,” she says. “I can hear plants.”

She’s been making paper and baskets from kudzu ever since. The fiber extracted from kudzu is a linen-like material called ko-hemp. “[The plant] is fibrous and easy to split,” says Basket. “Plus, it’s free.”

That fact proved especially important when a severe drought wreaked havoc on the Edwards’ dairy farm in 1963 and 1964. With little money to buy feed, Edith and her husband Henry turned to kudzu. Heifers loved the slimy porridge — pickled overnight in the silo — and a steady revenue kept the farm from going under.

Today, decades later, Edwards continues to concoct new ways of using the utilitarian vine. “Some people like fried kudzu with parmesan,” she says. “But I think it tastes mighty fine just how it is.”

Chimney Rock Park presents two kudzu-related events on Saturday, August 12. Nancy Basket leads a kudzu-weaving workshop from 10am-12pm ($25 per student), and “Krazy With Kudzu” happens 11am to 3pm featuring educational programs, jelly-making, and more (free with park admission). For more information, visit chimneyrockpark.com or call 800-277-9611.

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