Regionalism is kaput. If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern American dish, some Southern foodways pundit—you can’t toss a rock without hitting one, and the bigger the rock the better—will tell me it’s served in dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. On a national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe because it’s so simple and practical. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake a particularly Southern recipe. Apparently, what I consider simple and practical Mainers think is broke and stupid. Balderdash; Americans have made this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so it all boils down to perspective if not quibbling over terms. This recipe and variations are luxurious with fruit, with ice cream a mortal sin.
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup buttermilk
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla
3 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 (trust me, this is a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine sugar and butter, beat until creamy. Add poppy seeds, buttermilk, eggs, lemon zest and vanilla, mix well, add remaining ingredients and beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until thoroughly blended and moist. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake one hour. Turn off the oven and leave the cake in the cooling oven for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for at least an hour before slicing.
The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it turned south for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms in southern woodlands. It was an ecological calamity, but it kept a defeated people in food and clothing.
I grew up in the hills of north Mississippi, where sawmill gravy was a staple for the big breakfasts served in farming households. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many of the old folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning.
North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy
This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.
Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed, and I think it’s best with plenty of black pepper.
Travis Milton, a native of Russell County, Virginia, high in the Alleghenys, became a chef on the East Coast, but his thoughts kept returning to his childhood home. “The more I learned about the restaurant business, the more I appreciated the food culture I’d grown up in,” he says. “I started dreaming of a restaurant that would capture and celebrate that lifestyle, allow me to explore where it came from.”
Milton is profiled in a recent Gastro Obscura article, “The Chef Restoring Appalachia’s World-Class. No matter your definition of “world-class” the term seems incongruous to most when applied to Appalachia, a region of grinding poverty and hard-scrabble existence, so it’s not surprising that his idea was ill-received by his fellow chefs. “When I’d say ‘Appalachian Cuisine,’ they’d hit me with a shit-eating sneer,” says Milton. In 2010, at a New York restaurant, Milton was part of a group planning dishes that would “tell about who we are.” He wondered aloud about sourcing leather britches and greasy-backs, a type of beans common in mountain gardens.
The following afternoon, the head chef slapped a copy of Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking onto Milton’s station. “He got in my face,” says Milton, “and started barking, ‘If this is what you wanna do in my kitchen then you can get the fuck out!’” Having White Trash Cooking slammed in his face was a turning point. To overcome the stereotypes, Milton realized, he’d need to be able to tell the story of Appalachian food, but writing on the region’s cuisine was mostly focused on single mothers dressing up SPAM in a sugary sauce and other relatively recent ways that Appalachian cooks respond to the poverty that is, for most, coal’s legacy in Appalachia.
Then in 2016, Ronni Lundy published Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Her work won the James Beard Foundation Book of the Year and Best Book, American Cooking awards. In Victuals, Lundy claims that European settlers adopted native Cherokee foods almost wholesale. Wild game, wild herbs and greens, nuts, and berries augmented produce from small gardens of beans, corn, and squash using the “Three Sisters” method.
Appalachians let animals range freely, keeping prized breeds adapted to the landscape. Settlers raised pigs on acorns, berries, and chestnuts, which produced the famous hams of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. After the Civil War decimated the region, residents of isolated Appalachia embraced their gardening traditions, developing thousands of hybridized varieties of apples and pears, squash, tomatoes, collard greens, and other foodstuffs.
While Victuals establishes a benchmark, the font and source for Appalachian food writing is The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery: Regional Memorabilia and Recipes. First published in 1984, Appalachian Cookery has little resemblance to any other publication involving Southern foods. The Foxfire Project was the brain-child of Eliot Wigginton, a man from West Virginia who received an advanced education in the north and began teaching at a rural school in northeastern Georgia during the late 1960s. Called “foxfire” after a will-o’-the-wisp in mountain woods, his students collected folklore and customs in a series of oral histories that were first published in a 1972 anthology. Many more editions have followed as well as other volumes documenting Appalachian culture.
According to the text, some of the research and the photographic essays included in Appalachian Cookery were gathered for previous Foxfire books but were not selected for inclusion into an earlier volume. Appalachian Cookery stands out as the most complete and comprehensive record we have of the food, cooking and home life of southern Appalachia in early to mid-20th century. Most of the recipes are very simple; pound cake has four ingredients in equal measure. The book is also a primer on how to use homegrown or wild-gathered foods. Appalachian Cookery opens a door to a world far away from arugula and alien to star anise, a world where cooking was simple but not coarse, having a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the lessons of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons. For those of us from the upland South, these are our roots.
Cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons shortening with an equal amount of sugar. Add one cup molasses and two beaten eggs. Sift together 4 ¾ cups plain flour with 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 ½ teaspoons soda. Then combine with 2 cups grated coconut, 2 cups chopped walnuts and 1 ½ cups raisins. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup milk to creamed egg mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. YIELD: approx. 7 dozen cookies.
It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.
When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.
Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.
Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.
When I submitted a list of twelve kitchen essentials for a Southerner to my friends, it was like throwing a June bug down into a flock of ducks. The pot roast was devastated by a barrage of detractors who claimed that it’s just got Yankee written all over it, the red velvet cake was gunned down as a Waldorf recipe, and the pecan pie was mined by a sweet potato. I substituted a pound cake and sweet potato pie for the red velvet and pecan, stewed greens, which almost lost out to butter beans, for the roast, and achieved some degree of consensus.
Buttermilk biscuits Cornbread Pimento cheese Fried chicken Barbecued ribs Pound cake Fruit cobbler Cornbread dressing Chicken and dumplings Sweet potato pie Banana pudding Stewed greens
Women in any given society will assemble to sip, nibble and talk about anything they want and anyone who isn’t there. Speaking as an ardent fan of my opposite sex, I’ll be the first to say that the world is a much better place due to distaff parliaments. Civilization itself depends on feminine attentions if not to say machinations, and it’s usually in these gaggles that the most uninhibited deliberations between our sisters take place. Men should understand and appreciate this phenomenon, since when it comes to gossip, the trickle-down theory actually works; you may not know that your boss is sleeping with your secretary, but it’s a fair bet that you have a better chance of finding out if your wife does. And God help you if you’ve been shtupping her as well.
The food served at more formal klatches of this type is delicate, often to the point of fussy. This is no place for pork chops: small servings of carefully prepared, light offerings are the rule. You’ll find salads with cold seafood or chicken, pasta or seasonal vegetables alongside the obligatory crustless geometric sandwiches. Sweets, with the exception of a killer cake, are dainty and plentiful as are the drinks. I’ll not go so far as to swear that food is primarily intended to buffer the effects of a Bloody Mary luncheon—that would put my life in danger—but the theory has been broached. In the South, pimento and cheese, chicken salad, deviled eggs and pound cake (lemon or poppy seed particularly) at a ladies’ luncheon seem mandatory now, but it wasn’t so long ago that holding one without serving tomato aspic would imperil your membership in the 20th Century Club.
Because of recoil from the foods of the Sixties, congealed salads (like fondue) have become not only passé but proscribed. This reaction is somewhat justified; on any given month between say 1960 and 1975 in any magazine devoted to food, you’ll find tons of recipes for gelatin involving practically every ingredient in the kitchen, more often than not canned fruit, citrus Jell-O and mini marshmallows. But we shouldn’t abandon a good recipe because it’s showing its age, and this is a great dish: light, savory, easily prepared and attractive. Let’s hope tomato aspic is going through a trial period in popular tastes before it becomes not so much a novel legacy but a standard for our tables.
3 cups tomato juice
2 packets unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons finely minced white onion
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to taste
Warm tomato juice, add gelatin and dissolve. Stir in lemon juice, black pepper, Worcestershire and hot sauce (I like Crystal), add vegetables and chill until partially set, spoon or pour into individual (5 oz.) lightly oiled molds and chill until set. Unmold and serve with cold sides such as boiled eggs and vegetables, particularly pickled green beans or steamed asparagus.
Let’s not quibble and just admit in our hearts that pecan pie is made up of every ingredient condemned by food Nazis as downright deadly: eggs, sugar, flour and lard or butter. It’s a sure bet that not a few of those Aryans have petty issues with vanilla flavoring, and some left-wing faction probably thinks pecans will wreck your colon. But you know what? We shouldn’t care; pecan pie is the most iconic dish of the season. Trust me, use the Karo recipe with light syrup and wrap loosely in foil while baking to prevent scorching.
My mother Monette Morgan Young was born in 1915 on a small farm east of the village of Reid in the northeast part of Calhoun County on the old road to Houlka. She was the daughter of Hosea Morgan and Eula Murphree Morgan, and was an only child. The lack of siblings and nearby neighbor children made her childhood lonelier than most. Her mother was a teacher for many of Monette’s early years, moving around from one one-room community school to another and lodging with someone in that community during the short school term each year. She took Monette with her while Hosea stayed home to take care of the farm. When schools were not in session, all three worked hard to raise enough food and “bring in” a small cotton crop to sell for their cash needs.
Monette was a reader and a writer; she loved poetry and history. In her later years, Monette began to write of her growing-up days and her life on that farm. Like many people as they grow older, she became interested in family history and began a decades-long period of formal research and the gathering of family stories from surviving aunts, cousins and others who had lived in Reid. Her cousin Clarence Morgan was a great source of family and community information; and she and he made many trips, some with grandkids along, to old cemeteries and old communities barely recognizable by then with the changes of time.
In the early 1980s she began sending me long letters—some she typed but most were handwritten in a hurried scrawl—letters with information she had gathered about not only our family but also about other families who lived in that area and her memories of them and her life there. As I saved her letters, I began to realize that if the material was organized, edited a bit, fleshed out with a map or two, and if I took the various bits of information about, for example, the Clark family or the community social life, and put those together and did likewise with other topics, this might make an interesting memoir as well as a useful genealogical and historical resource. I did that. It took months in those pre-computer days, but it began to come together. I finished typing it and decided I’d have a few copies made for me and my children and would give her a few copies on her 75th birthday. I called it “The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi”. She was delighted, but said several times, “If I had known you were going to do this, I’d have written this or that, or would have not said that, or would have added the story about….” I told her to consider it a draft and to add or subtract whatever she wanted, and I’d revise the book accordingly. She did, and I did. After Mother died in 2000, I created a second edition of the book, adding the additional material and cleaning up some typos and some errors that had been pointed out. Over 100 copies of that second edition were subsequently made and a digital version is available on the internet for free download.
Holidays (an excerpt from The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi, by Monette Morgan Young
We did not do lavish Christmas cooking, not in our circle of acquaintances and kin, nor did we do lavish Thanksgiving cooking. We usually had fresh pork both times and often our meat would be a huge pot of backbones. If the hog killing had been in the last day or two before the holiday, we had the most prized meat of all, the loin strip. Our men did not make pork chops of any cut of hog. That long lean strip was taken out without bone and how I looked forward to it. I hated any boiled meat. Mother and all her acquaintances and kin only boiled or fried meat. One reason for that is that they did not know of roasting procedures and second that it would have required oven cooking and use of much stovewood. They could boil a piece or pieces of meat in the black iron cooking pot on the coals on the hearth by the fire which was already going for warmth. Mother would make good dressing with that water and we always had small Bermuda onions growing in the garden all winter. These grew in clusters and did not decay as the large ones did and were not hot. Mother did not have to buy sage. She grew it, dried it in a slow oven and so we had sage and onions for dressing and since I always contended for fried meat, she fried something for me. We sometimes did have a hen boiled but since I wouldn’t eat boiled meat, she had to do the frying for me and I ate dressing with that.
Usually Thanksgiving Day was just another day. Daddy was sometimes up to his ears in corn gathering and we cooked a little better dinner. Some meat as I have described, maybe a molasses cake with the dried apple filling and frosting, one or two or three of the many vegetables in storage, canned or dried, the usual dish of pickles, preserves, canned berries, or peaches, on the table. Christmas would be the same with the exception of a coconut cake. Mother always cooked a large luscious coconut cake. She used only her simple two-egg recipe for the batter (2 eggs, ¾ cup milk, 1-1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup fat, 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt), but we always got a fresh coconut and she filled and covered the cake lavishly with frosting and coconut. Then she always had Daddy to buy the cone-shaped frosted jellied candies, assorted colors. She topped the cake with those and it looked like tiny frost-covered shapes of color in a snow bank. That was her specialty. I never saw or read of a fruit cake. With all our folks, just ordinary cakes were made. A little more lavish perhaps, was a Christmas cake, or was called so.
We often saw no one but ourselves on Christmas Day. The weather would have been too bad to venture forth. My parents had bought a little fruit and a few nuts. Oranges still always smell like Christmas. We had them no other time unless someone was really sick. Those little home-grown apples smelling like all the aromas of Araby would still be crisp and we would allow ourselves a few more of those unwrapping them from the Sears Roebuck catalog pages that were used to protect them and out of their cardboard boxes from under the bed in the front room. We got a few raisins, the seeded ones still on stems, I never taste such now.
If we did not go to Mama Murphree’s on pretty Christmas days we would walk to Grandaddy Morgan’s. My parents occasionally bought a box of lemon stick candy. At Grandfather’s he would bring out his goodies. He may have sent to town for a bushel of shipped in apples, which then I preferred to our small homegrown ones, and he had oranges and several boxes of candy. He always bagged up a large paper bag for us to carry home. Uncle Alsie’s children made their home at Grandaddy’s and Grandmother’s. These were Euras, Theda, Roy and Lois. Lois was near my age, the youngest. So I would get to see the cousins there.
One favorite toy at Christmas time for parents and teachers to give children was a harmonica. At that time, all children were given gifts by teachers. A harmonica, which we called a French Harp, cost all of a nickel or a dime. A good sized professional one might cost a quarter. I invariably wanted one. Of course, I had not a musical bone in my body. I made noise on it, and that was all. Another gift that teachers most often gave was a “bought” toothbrush. Our toothbrushes were off the black gum bush or the black gum tree. They made a large tree, but the woods were full of the small ones and we got a good sized twig about as large as a small cedar pencil, peeled the bark down about an inch and a half and the whole thing was about six inches long. We chewed the peeled end into a mop shaped thing and brushed our teeth with that. We used ashes or baking soda. I recall that Daddy used ashes.
I had bountiful Christmases. I always got one special large gift and one or two small ones. Also there were the oranges and raisins which we did not get at other times, not often. There was candy too, then, but seldom at other times. My victory over my nice pretty things was a little hollow, with no one to show them to or to play with them with me. Some other children of the area did not get anything but the candy, nuts, and fruits. Christmas was a very quiet celebration then. The weather was usually bad and the roads almost impossible to travel on, so family get-togethers were never planned. We almost always got to both my grandparents during the Christmas week. At “Mama” Murphree’s sometimes we got to see other cousins, sometimes not. At the Morgan grandparents, my four cousins who made their home there were always at home and I enjoyed them. Friends and relatives did not exchange gifts. We had no church programs. We didn’t try to plan for such due to not knowing what the weather might do. Mother tried to see that I had a good Christmas. When she was a child, they had had usually nothing except a little candy and one time nothing at all. One Christmas there was a bisque doll with curls for me and one time there was a big sleeping doll and a cloth body–perhaps a paper mache head with painted-on reddish blonde hair. That day it rained all day. We never got outside.
When I was about four, Tellie Murff and Winnie Davis gave me some lovely Christmas gifts. I think Tellie gave me a beautiful ball and some of the best of candy. Winnie gave me a box of blocks, some of which were painted to form the facade of an antebellum house. They were still in the house when all of the things had to be sold and/or given away when Daddy got sick. Some winter Sundays we couldn’t go to church. We’d have Sunday school at home. My Father was well read in the Bible. He was on speaking terms with the old Bible Patriarchs. We three would read and discuss the lesson while pork backbones simmered in the kitchen, they for our Sunday dinner, and while sweet potatoes baked and while perhaps dried peas or butterbeans cooked.