• Posted by Karen Dill on November 25th, 2008, 3:58 PM

    My first memories of Thanksgiving in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina were of simple seasonal foods spread on a rough plank table in my mother’s old home in Madison County. Located in the far west of North Carolina, bordering eastern Tennessee, Madison County used to be known as rough country (moonshiners, family feuds) though it’s now home to a plethora of organic farmers. My mother’s people, the Treadways and the Sawyers, were raw, hardworking clans with bodies long and lean and spirits naturally suspicious of outsiders. Their hands were calloused from labor and their faces weathered from days spent outdoors and worn with the constant worry of survival in the wilderness that they called home.

    Life in the mountains was never easy and for some native mountaineers, especially in the back coves and hollows, it was still primitive in the late ’50s.  My relatives in Madison County were without electricity until 1967 and so for those first Thanksgivings of my memory, the food was all grown locally and prepared over wood stoves. The smell of all the delicious dishes cooked over wood in the cold, dry mountain air of November is forever etched in my memory.

    Though the Madison County relatives were generally a somber bunch, members of the Pentecostal Church who tended to believe that God was a wrathful fellow, their demeanor softened on Thanksgiving Day. On that particular day, the drudgery and hard work of their hardscrabble existence was lifted. There was a sense of gaiety and rejoicing as the living relatives and the spirits of the dead were joined together.

    The foods served on those Thanksgivings were never store bought, but grown and preserved on the same land and in the same house where my mother and her siblings were all born.  The cured ham was made from the best piece of pork from the hog that was slaughtered in the fall.  The turkey—a wild one—was shot by my grandfather and uncles on hunting trips taken in the days before Thanksgiving, where moonshine was consumed and arguments followed.  More times than not the ragamuffin hunting party didn’t return until early on Thanksgiving Day, eyes bloodshot and blackened, staggering into the yard with a puny bird that had been dragged through the dirt for several miles. They were met with both righteous indignation and knowing sighs.

    After a few years of this sordid turkey hunt, my mother and aunts simply bought the bird at a grocery store and prepared it in their own electric ovens. They would then haul the cooked bird in a cardboard box over rutted roads in an old pickup truck for the family dinner. The turkey became an interloper, a visitor tolerated but never a part of the family, pushed aside for the more popular ham and vegetables. My uncles, awkward and sober in their flannel shirts and overalls, never warmed up to the store-bought intruder.  He was eyed as warily as the summer tourist from Florida, and so they headed for the side dishes.

    The side dishes served at the mountain Thanksgivings were testament to the ingenuity and thrift of the Appalachian people.  My father’s family hailed from the Bethel community of Haywood County in western North Carolina, and their dishes were much the same as my Madison County relatives. The dishes were created from foods found in the root cellars, the smokehouses, springhouses, and canning sheds that were essential to the survival of a mountain family. Thanksgiving was a unique day when all of these items were brought out at once and served with pride and generosity. It was a day of gratitude that was deserving of a celebration, a day when good food and good nature reigned.

    My great-aunt Lucinda led the Thanksgiving prayer in true Pentecostal style.  It seemed to go on forever and was punctuated with heavy gasps and the occasional speaking in tongues. I dared not open my eyes, as Aunt Cindy was a fierce woman who had raised my mother and her siblings after their mother died and she suffered no fools. One summer I witnessed her wring a hen’s neck with one hand and casually chop off the head of a copperhead that had wandered too close to the backyard woodpile with a single blow. The list of thanks to God (who hopefully understood the Pentecostal tongue) included gratitude for the spring that had not gone dry, general good health that was not aided by physicians, a decent crop of tobacco (the only cash crop), and fellowship of family. The dead, who rest in the family cemetery on a nearby hill, their graves marked by crude field rock, were named and their virtues extolled.

    The side-dish parade began with dressing and pan gravy served in chipped earthenware and metal plates. Mashed potatoes as well as boiled sweet potatoes swimming in butter made an annual appearance. Leather britches (aka shucky beans) were always on the old plank table as well as pickled green beans with corn. Leather britches are green beans picked from the cornrows in the garden, strung with white string and hung from the rafters of the canning house alongside strings of dried apple slices. Both green beans (called cornfield beans in the mountains) and apples from the orchard by the house were preserved in this manner, as it was a far cheaper alternative to buying canning jars. Another mess of green beans, along with bright yellow kernels of corn, was pickled much like sauerkraut, in large crocks.

    Sauerkraut was also always present at these meals. I love all things sour and so both sides of my family, the relatives from Haywood and Madison Counties, saved a pickled cabbage core just for me, which I munched on while my cousins grimaced. The sauerkraut was panfried in some fatback grease and made the perfect complement to the boiled sweet potatoes.  The greens, freshly picked from the winter garden, were collard or turnip and also fried in fatback grease.  Even the healthiest foods became artery cloggers after the mountain women “doctored them up.”

    Another of my favorite foods on the table was hominy. The hominy had been made from corn boiled in lye water in a cast iron pot over a big fire in the front yard. My grandparents made lye from fireplace ashes placed in a piece of hollow log.  The log slanted downward and water was poured repeatedly over the ashes and caught in a wooden bucket. The resulting lye water was used to make hominy and homemade soap. The dry corn kernels were cooked slowly and soaked in the lye water until their skins came off and the kernels swelled.  The kernels were then washed many, many times until the lye was removed, and then stored in a crock.  I always loved the story of this transformation. It had almost biblical symbolism—the kernels cleansed of their earthly skin and converted to a heavenly white.  I felt as if I were truly eating manna from Heaven on those occasions, though I doubt that the heavenly chefs fry their hominy in (yes, again) fatback grease for flavor. Though the leather britches and fried kraut have been dropped from my own Thanksgiving spread, the hominy, in various incarnations, has remained a staple throughout the years.

    The mountain Thanksgiving spread would not be complete without breads and desserts.  Cornbread and biscuits, served with butter and molasses, were always present. Applesauce, apple butter, and fried dried apples were served with the meats and the breads and could have easily made a regal dessert. But it was pumpkin pies and apple stack cake that followed the meal. Served with steaming hot coffee, slices of pie made from pumpkins grown in the fall garden and delicious slices of cake made with molasses and dried apples, would prove to be the family’s undoing. After many groans and protests, the women headed to the kitchen to wash dishes in the metal wash pan with water heated on the woodstove and the men shuffled outside to smoke and pitch horseshoes if they were still able to move. Eventually, the family gathered around, flushed with the warmth from the woodstove and sated with good food.

    Sitting on the front porch or around the fire in the front yard, stories were told and guitars and banjos were strummed. My great-aunt Lucinda, who had led the Thanksgiving prayer, would allow herself to be swayed by the mountain tunes and would tap her boot-clad feet beneath her long skirts in time with the music, despite herself. A few of the men would wander back to the woodshed to smoke and sip a bit of moonshine (called shine or hooch by my uncles). As they returned, the music would become more raucous and the women, wise from experience, would round up the children and make plans to disperse quietly into the late afternoon chill. But before we left for the day, a trip to the cemetery on the hill was in order.

    As we made our way up the hill, bellies full of grease-laden food, we would walk quietly, in deference to our relatives who had passed away.  A chilly November wind would blow off the French Broad River below and we would huddle together for warmth. I heard the story of my grandmother’s sudden passing at age 27. I listened to the sadness in their voices as they described the hardships of life without a mother and their subsequent search for love in all the wrong places.

    After my great-aunt Lucinda died, Thanksgivings were held at various other houses with electricity and even more of those suspicious store-bought foods. The Butterball turkey made his debut and claimed his spot at the head of the table. Dressing was introduced in various forms—with sausage, apples, pecans, and the occasional oyster. Plain cornbread dressing with sage from my herb garden (no eggs or giblets and a ton of butter) is now the most popular choice. My aunt Marie’s macaroni and three-cheese casserole and sweet potato casserole with pecans and little marshmallows are always hits. My mother’s green bean casserole was popular for a few years, but it eventually went the way of congealed salads. Leather britches and pickled green beans with corn are only memories now, which I dutifully relate to my doubtful children who always question why we couldn’t just buy a frozen bag of corn or open a can of beans. The old mountain methods of food preservation are becoming a lost art, and anyway our family prefers succotash, with its colorful Native American history.

    My husband contributes wonderful foods from his native Augusta, Georgia. My nephew’s wife contributes dishes from her native Chile.  My son brings Cuban shredded roast pork from Tampa and it fits right in with the old mountain dishes.  Instead of moonshine and cigarettes, we sip microbrews and California wines brought from Mendocino by my daughter, and smoke the occasional cigar from Ybor City, Florida.

    Our old farmhouse in Webster, in western North Carolina, has become the usual setting for Thanksgiving meals. My aunts have taken co-starring roles in the family production and my cousins and I have stepped up to the lead roles. I feel that I am being groomed for the role of family matriarch, the menu planner, the organizer of many meals to come. I try to seem wise and, with graying hair and wrinkles, I am beginning to look the part. My mother passed away this year and though we can’t hike to the old family graveyard and visit the spot between her mother and father’s gravestones where her ashes were spread, we will remember her.  I will also remember the old plank table in a chilly old house far from the trappings of modern life, laden with mountain foods that reflected the lives of a harder but simpler existence.

    Karen Dill lives in Webster, North Carolina, which is located in the Smoky Mountains near the town of Sylva.

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