Tuesday I found myself with some unexpected free time. Due to a weather forecast of 4-8″ of snow, food pantry clients had been rescheduled to another day, so I did not have to volunteer. I assumed, however, because of the forecast that my kids would be home from school for the day. It did snow all day, but the temperature never dipped below freezing, so nothing stuck to the roads. The kids only had a two hour delay (sorry guys!) and I didn’t have to volunteer. What to do with this unexpected gift?! I decided to spend the day going through a cookbook my brother and sister in law gave me for Christmas, entitled Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking, by Joseph E. Dabney.
When I initially started thinking about food insecurity and how to assist people who were hungry, one of the first ideas I had was to look to the past to see how folks used to cook, especially during hard times, like the Great Depression. Prior to the Great Depression the United States also lacked the societal safety nets we have today, so people suffering from poverty really were on their own to survive. After a bit more research, I learned that not everyone cooked and ate the way I assumed. My notion of how women 100-125 years ago cooked and provided food for their families was based on a rural society, where there were little work opportunities for women outside the home and most families had enough land on which grow produce and/or keep some livestock. After reading How the Other Half Ate, by Katherine Leonard Turner, I learned that urban dwelling women approached cooking and feeding their families very differently than rural women, and as the title suggests, different social classes cooked and ate differently as well.
Additionally, I came to realized that cooking like rural women from the past requires a great deal of time. Initially I didn’t think this would be a problem for most of the people today who suffer from food insecurity, as I believed them to be unemployed. After all, that is what many politicians and people in the media would have you believe. I have since learned from my reading and volunteering, that many people who are food insecure are also employed, sometimes working two and three jobs, and therefore do not have an abundance of time to cook from scratch. Cooking from scratch also requires certain implements and appliances that the food insecure may not own, like large pots and pans, a multiple burner stove or an oven.
With all that said, I do still think there are lessons to be learned from old cookbooks and food traditions of the past, which is why I read old cookbooks and historical accounts of how and what people ate. This particular cookbook, although not old as it was originally published in 1998, contains the result of research and numerous interviews with old timers conducted by the author. It is perhaps more an historical account with recipes than it is a cookbook. The geographical location this book discusses, southern Appalachia, has historically been and still is, one of the poorest areas of the United States. I was very curious to see what these hardscrabble people ate and how they prepared it and to determine if I could learn something from their practices that I could pass on to people in my community who are struggling today
One of the first themes that struck me was that they ate what was available wild in their environment, when it was available. Some of this practice will not be very practical today. We live in more populated areas with less open spaces, so foraging off the land will not work as well today. Additionally, we have mostly lost the knowledge of what is edible, growing wild in our backyard or local woods, but it is there. There is a group in Philadelphia, The Wild Foodies of Philly, whose members forage in the city and there is a global organization called Falling Fruit, whose website contains an interactive map of where people are urban foraging. Similarly, I can remember as a young girl picking wild strawberries and blackberries, winter cress, persimmons, beach plums and black walnuts, all of which were eaten by my family. Recently someone gave me some paw paws from a nearby tree growing in a nature preserve and my husband has picked and we have eaten morels and other mushrooms growing in our woods. (A note about gathering wild mushrooms–I am not advocating for anyone to pick and consume a wild mushroom without first taking a class in mycology or going foraging with someone very knowledgeable in wild mushrooms. Some varieties can make you sick, but others can kill you quite quickly. Unless you can tell the difference with certainty do not consume foraged mushrooms!) And almost everyone has dandelions growing in their yard! I often wonder if the people who spend money on herbicides to get rid of dandelions are sometimes the same people who spend money to buy dandelion greens in Whole Foods.
In addition to wild plants, the mountain people of Appalachia supplemented their diet by hunting wild animals, like rabbit, deer, raccoon, squirrel, opossum and turkeys. Not everyone today is interested in hunting or has the land available to them on which to hunt. Likewise, our tastes have changed so that few could imagine eating opossum, but I know many families locally, who still supplement their diet with venison, rabbit, wild fowl and small birds, like dove. The Chester County Food Bank participates in the Pennsylvania program, Hunters Share the Harvest, where hunters can share extra venison with food banks. I just had a client ask me last week if we had any venison.
With regard to produce, they ate or preserved to eat later what was in season, growing in their garden. Not many people can or preserve food today, but it was a necessary way to stretch the summer bounty into the winter, when produce was scarce. Today, eating seasonally is still just as wise as it was in the past, even if you do not have a garden. Produce in season is going to be cheaper, but also will taste better and be healthier, since it was allowed to ripen fully before being picked. Even if you do not know how to can produce, many fruits and vegetables can easily be frozen, so if one has access to freezer space, freezing summer produce can be an economical way to enjoy summer’s bounty in the middle of winter.
In conjunction with eating what was available, the people of Appalachia wasted very little. When they slaughtered an animal or killed wild game, they used almost all parts of the animal in one way or another. Additionally, many plant products we commonly dispose of today were in the past used in recipes, like corncob jelly and pickled watermelon rind. While I understand that many of these historical cooking practices are not practical for today, we can take away the lesson of reducing waste in our cooking. For instance, I just recently purchased a rotisserie chicken for a dip recipe. Once I had picked the meat off the bones, I put the bones into a pot with a quartered onion, covered it with water and simmered it for about an hour. When it was done I removed the chicken bones and onion and strained the remaining liquid. This produced 4 cups of chicken stock, which only cost me my time (mostly unattended cooking) and a few cents for the onion. Another easy practice, which reduces waste and creates cooking stock, is to save parts of produce you are not going to eat, like the end of a carrot or broccoli stalks, in the refrigerator. Once you have a decent amount of this vegetable matter, follow the same steps as with making chicken stock. This process will result in vegetable stock at no extra cost. Finally, I save most of the fat rendered from frying bacon. I put it in a container in my refrigerator and use small amounts not only for frying foods, like potatoes, but also to flavor braising water for vegetables when I don’t have any stock on hand.
I thoroughly enjoyed my snow day on Tuesday, sitting with a cup of tea and a cookbook. While I did not grow up in Appalachia, I did grow up in the country and the people and food ways described in this book spoke to me and reminded me of my childhood. Unfortunately so much of what I was remembering from my childhood is gone. The wild strawberries and hedgerows of blackberry canes are not there anymore. Very little, if any, winter cress grows in the fields due to herbicides or planting practices. My grandfather, sharer of persimmons, has long since passed away. Like the memories of my youth, passing down the practice of cooking from scratch and cooking methods used to stretch the meager food resources of a family have largely disappeared too, especially as busy parents rely more and more on processed, already prepared, packaged food. Unfortunately, we are losing more than we realize when we give up these practices.