From whiskey to whistle-pig pie

The mountain folk whose recipes are documented in Joseph E. Dabney’s Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking have swapped their mules for pickups and their wood stoves for microwaves, but a passion for place and a love of tradition can still be found at their dinner tables.

In this compelling new book on Southern Appalachian cooking, Dabney not only records the recipes, but chronicles the life of the people who have raised corn and hunted rabbits and brewed moonshine for hundreds of years in our mountain region.

The book begins with a history of the Appalachian people, including the Cherokee — who generously taught the Europeans the virtues of the “three sisters”: squash, corn and beans. A descendant of the earliest settlers of Cade’s Cove declares that his “ancestors would have starved had not the local Cherokees taken pity on them and given them dried pumpkin through the winter.” The book wholeheartedly acknowledges the native contribution to the cuisine of the region, detailing its marriage with that of the Scots, Celts and Germans who came to the frontier seeking a better life. (In fact, such quintessentially Southern dishes as barbecue, country ham and grits all spring from Native American methods of preserving foods.)

Dabney’s pages are full of philosophers and historians disguised as moonshiners and biscuit bakers. Gray inset boxes scattered throughout the text provide engaging digressions — from tips on how to care for your cast-iron pot to the story of Homer Bailey, reputedly the best cook in the mountains (and a confirmed bachelor to boot). Western Carolina landmarks — such as the Jarrett House in Dillsboro and the Nu Wray Inn in Burnsville — share some of their time-honored recipes, as do modern-day mountaineers, including local author John Parris and Angie Ross Lossiah, a descendant of the great Cherokee Chief John Ross.

At times, the book soars to pure poetry, as when Dabney describes the taste of spring water from a cedar bucket, or when he traces the origins of “poor-do” sawmill gravy. This cream gravy, which is served with biscuits throughout the South, is sometimes referred to as “poor-do” because it was what poor people had to make do with, in order to survive.

If you want to know how to marinade a bear, roast a raccoon, or put a whistle pig in a pie, turn to the chapter on game. (That’s where I learned that “whistle pig” is another name for a groundhog.) The recipe for yellow-jacket soup, however, did raise some unsettling questions: For example, how in the world do you keep the yellow jackets from flying out of the comb while you toast them in the skillet?

In the chapter on beverages, you’ll learn about cherry bounce — a mixture of fermented cherry juice and corn liquor, which can “snap a person’s suspenders and stop his watch,” according to Dabney. He traces the venerable profession of moonshining with wit and respect, but cautions the reader not to make more than 300 gallons of any of the recipes: That would be illegal.

Ramps — those odoriferous wild leeks that have been known to make mountain women bar husbands from the marriage bed — merit their own chapter. Recipes are included for the traditional eggs and ramps, and fried potatoes and ramps, as well as pickled ramps (and, for those with more sophisticated palates, “Grits Souffle a la Ramps”). If you’re intrigued by the tales of this tiny onion, you might look into one of our area’s official ramp festivals in the spring: Robbinsville, Waynesville and Cosby, Tenn., all host such events.

For less adventurous souls, though, many recipes — such as those for gingerbread, cabbage, apples and sweet potatoes — are ideally suited for this time of year. A recipe from Eleanor Hall of Asheville for her late husband’s Olde Time Apple Butter, and one collected by Lyn Kellner, also of Asheville, for Boone Honey Apple Pie, look particularly inviting. Dabney deftly combines centuries-old recipes with modern versions, as in the chapter that includes Brunswick Stew, where a crock-pot adaptation is paired with an heirloom recipe.

In their discussions of vegetables, the cooks in this book make no apologies for cooking vegetables slowly. As one South Carolinian put it, “We have never put much stock in the ‘scalding’ school of vegetable cooking.”

If you’ve ever been intrigued by the wide range of leafy greens sold at markets in this area, Dabney can satisfy your curiosity with recipes for creasies, mustards, turnips and poke sallit.

Corn is also given its rightful prominence, with chapters on fresh corn, grits and cornbread. As picky as any wine connoisseurs, the cooks discuss the merits of white vs. yellow corn meal; how, exactly, the meal should be ground; and whether real cornbread can contain even a smidgen of sugar or flour. Dabney also devotes several pages to buttermilk, including instructions for eating it with crumbled cornbread, “Elvis style.”

In the chapter on biscuits, Dabney failed to include one tip I heard the other night: Leftovers are useful for polishing patent-leather shoes. He does, however, provide a recipe for Bryson City Cathead Biscuits, so called because of their size (reportedly that of “about a medium-size female” cat’s head).

You’ll find a recipe for sassafras tonic, the spring requirement for healthy living in the mountains (it “thins” the blood), as well as a fascinating treatise on the practice of planting by the signs of the zodiac. Dabney explains that people used to insist that tender “eyed” vegetables — such as beans, peas and potatoes — be sown by Good Friday, “otherwise, they were sure to weep and even cry their eyes out over the crucifixion.”

One warning about Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine: Do not pick it up on an empty stomach. And yet another caution: Dabney takes obvious delight in detailing the food offerings at corn shuckings and family reunions. If you’re familiar with such customs, Dabney’s descriptions might make you weep with longing.

Incredibly thorough in his research (the bibliography lists 250 books he consulted), Dabney also draws on his own experience growing up in the mountains of South Carolina, as well as hundreds of interviews with mountain folk, in assembling this cooking panorama.

Best of all, he allows the people of the region to speak for themselves. What emerges is a portrait of a people with an abiding reverence for creation and their place in it, a people full of ingenuity and good humor, a people rooted deeply in these mountains — but, most of all, a people who sure know how to cook and eat right.

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