Sharing Food, History, Tradition
by Marlene Osteen
The fog is rolling in now. It signals the advance of Thanksgiving – or so I am told.
I watch it settling down and it brings up memories of our family celebrations. And it makes me wonder what Thanksgiving might have been like for those who settled here early on. The South had only recently and reluctantly accepted Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
Partly for this reason and partly due to topography the menu would have been simpler. The hardy, intelligent, kind and hospitable people who settled this countryside cultivated corn and vegetables, farmed their land, tended their orchards, raised hay and stock, and hunted the deer, wild turkeys, rabbits and game that were in abundance The steepness of the slopes dictated that only the smallest plot of land could give way to vegetables.
Yes, many were poor, but if truth is in the telling they didn’t define themselves as such.
Surely their dishes told the tale of their migration from places far away – Northern Europe and Northern states and some closer by, from adjoining states. But mostly they bore the fruits of their labor – of what making a life in these hills must have entailed, of turning dirt into food, of hunting and fishing the wild, of foraging the woods, and planting the orchards.
Family farms meant sharing labor. Women and children worked together to pick, snap, boil and can fresh produce. Cookbook author Joe Dabney recounts, “Fall’s arrival brought a glowing pumpkin moon and the season of wine and gold – a time of cooking sorghum syrup and apple butter, of drying beans and peaches. . .and killing hogs.”
Above all, it was a time for processing hog killing meat, getting hams and shoulders salted down and smoked for the winter.
And because the South has the most vigorous food traditions, the meal would have been distinctive. The turkey of the Northern celebration would certainly take center stage – whether it be wild or domesticated. Yet, more commonplace recipes were adapted to local and family traditions.
Pumpkin pie was transformed to sweet potato pie, and pecans or Bourbon added to the mashed sweet potatoes. Certainly there was corn – the “Mountain Staff of Life” in several forms.
Corn fritters, perhaps, or hoe cakes made in a hearth fire. Definitely corn bread – made from white cornmeal, as it was well known that “white corn is for corn and yellow corn for fritters.” Wintergreens and potatoes would have been pulled from the winter gardens. Jars of pickled beans, beets, peaches and onions were brought up from their cellars. Apples would be in lavish display – smoked and dried, made into apple butter and into pies (that in least in one story warranted a marriage proposal).
And because every farm boasted at least a few “bee gums” – homemade hives made from hollow poplar logs – jars of honey would sweeten the table.
And to drink, perhaps Apple Cider, (hard for the grown-ups, not for the children), or maybe Pumpkin Whiskey, Persimmon Brandy or Muscadine Wine.
More than just what was on the plate, the Thanksgiving meal of circa 1900 reflected a sense of place – about who they were, about the joy of generations connecting, sharing food and history and tradition.