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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thanksgiving In Appalachia

I think back to the Thanksgivings I spent at home with my parents and other members of our extended family and numerous positive memories come back.  I grew up next door to my maternal grandparents, Woots and Susie Hicks.  Just down the road, within sight, was the home of my Aunt and Uncle Mabry and Hazel Hicks with their five children.  On down Beaver Creek about five miles in Floyd County was the home of my Aunt and Uncle Corbett and Ellen Terry and their five children.  About three or four miles up Beaver Creek in Knott County was the home of my Aunt and Uncle Edgar and Doris Hall and their two children.  Including myself and my sister, within five miles of my grandparents house, fourteen first  cousins lived.  This meant that many holidays and a lot of other ordinary days were spent with large numbers of the extended family around the tables at my grandparents house.  There were usually two tables: a "Big Table" for the adults and a "Little Table" for the children.  On most occasions, we ate in shifts with the adult males eating first and the women and children eating second. 

While we did not eat a lot of fancy food, we were never hungry and variety was always present.  There was always meat of some kind; and, on a special occasion such as Thanksgiving, there might be two or three kinds of meat.  Chicken and dumplings were generally present at a big family dinner with big, fluffy dumplings which would melt in your mouth.  The best chicken and dumplings always came about when a good laying hen was killed and her uterus, or "egg bag", was emptied in the cooking dumplings to give them that rich golden color which only happens when partially formed eggs and egg yolks are in the broth.  For those who have never eaten chicken and dumplings made this way, you cannot imagine just how much better they are than ordinary dumplings.

 It was also common to have squirrels and gravy in the fall.  There is no better food than squirrel cooked in a pressure cooker with white cream gravy.  My idea of dessert when squirrels are present has always been a squirrel's head.  We always cooked them with the eyes, ears, and nose tip removed. You can eat them intact, but I have never been a fan of that style.  In eating squirrel heads,  you take the head in your fingers and hold it on the plate while you eat the facial muscles.  Then you remove the lower jaw and eat the tongue.  But the piece de resistance is the brain which is removed by cracking the top of the skull with the handle of a butter knife.  Then you pick the bone fragments off and literally suck the brain out.  It is rich, sweet, buttery tasting, and cannot be equaled by most other foods.  Squirrel brain has only one drawback.  It is too small.  Brains from nearly any edible animal are wonderfully tasty food.  Whether it is squirrel, cow, or hog, the brain is one of the best tasting portions. 

Squirrel for Supper

If the weather was cold enough, it was also common to kill a hog during Thanksgiving week.  Fresh pork, especially organ meats, is stupendous at a holiday dinner.  We often sent the heart, lungs or "lights", liver, kidneys, spleen or "melt" to the house as soon as the hog was gutted and that would be our supper after the hog was processed.  We never ate chitterlings and threw them out.  I often wonder what we missed.  There might be a large pot of fresh pork and potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. We also frequently flavored vegetables with small amounts of pork.  The favorite for this use was smoked jowl.  But salt pork was also often used.  In the days when refrigeration was not always available or electricity was unpredictable, salting was often the most effective way to preserve home killed meats.  Hog killing deserves an entire post and, at some time in the future, I hope to get one done.

Hog Killing Time In Appalachia

We also had numerous pots of various homegrown vegetables and my personal favorite was shucked beans.  For the uninitiated, shucked beans are made by sun drying white half runners.  They may be strung and placed on strings with a needle and thread or strung and broken and dried on a sheet either on the roof or the ground.  The sun drying process imparts a flavor to beans that cannot be equaled by any other bean.  It is also interesting that a food dehydrator cannot produce the same flavor.  We often also had homegrown sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, squash, beets, turnips, carrots, and a variety of greens such as kale, collards, mustard, and turnip greens. Although beet greens are also edible, I do not remember ever eating them at home.  And, if the weather in fall had been fair, we might have some late sweet corn. 

There was  always corn bread, biscuits, and, in later years, commercially produced rolls.  The biscuits were large, fluffy  cathead biscuits about the size of your fist.  The best online recipe for cathead biscuits is found at this URL: 

The variety of food available at a family Thanksgiving dinner was incredible but it always seemed to be eaten.  Desserts were also prolific.  There would be cakes, pies, jello, and salads galore. Pies would generally be covered in homemade meringue made from fresh egg whites and browned to perfection under the broiler in a gas oven. We generally had fresh whole milk and home churned butter.  Today, I still fondly remember churning and after the butter was removed from the churn dipping a coffee cup in for a cup of warm, fresh butter milk.  It is an awesome drink.  Just thinking about a traditional Thanksgiving in Appalachia makes my mouth water. 

Thanksgiving Turkey

It is interesting that I have written this much about Thanksgiving dinner and never mentioned the turkey.  We usually had a turkey baked with sage dressing and a large pan of extra dressing on the side.  I still do not care for dressing without sage in it.  That rich, spicy smell always takes me back home to Beaver Creek no matter where I am when I smell it.  The same holds true for sausage.  We generally made homemade sausage with a strong dash of sage.  Commercial sage sausage does not come close to home made since none of the companies make it strong enough to remind me of home. 

Happy Thanksgiving and Bon Appetit!!!

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