Pros: It is a fascinating look into the history of a people most people really know nothing about. What they ate, how they ate, and how they survived
Cons: If you are looking for a "cookbook" or strictly recipes, this may not be the one.This is more of a story of the Appalachian people and their heritage.
Many years ago I went to the home of a friend in Virginia for Sunday dinner. It was there I was introduced to dish called spoon bread. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the dish. It reminded me of cream of wheat, grits, and a Jewish holiday dish, potato kugel. It was a uniquely Southern dish and one that has stayed in my mind since that first taste.
When I was given a choice of books to review, the title with the word spoon bread in it caught my attention. I had to review this book; if for no other reason than to get a good recipe for that specialized cornbread dish.
Not too long ago PBS did a documentary on Appalachia, the people, and the history of the region. I found it to be a fascinating documentary. Being offered this book to review was fortuitous for me. From my own experiences as well as what I learned from the documentary, it became obvious to me that many people really know little about Appalachia and its people. Certainly when I was in school we studied the United States, and I grant you it's been long time since I was in school, but still I don't seem to recall learning much about the people in Appalachia, or the region. Most of what I thought I knew about Appalachia was moonshine, the Hatfields, and the McCoys. Precious little else was taught.
The first thing I did when I opened this book was look for a recipe for spoonbread. The book is so big that it was obvious it would be more than just a collection of recipes. You can’t have a book about Appalachia without having commentary about the culture of the southern hills, and how the people lived their lives. This definitely includes the foods of the people, and their view of it.
I primarily review cookbooks and the fact that this book has recipes loosely puts it into that category. This book is about much more than recipes, though. Recipes in this book can be seen more as a snapshot in time that shows the people in the region and the folklore and art of Southern Appalachian cooking. Like many regional cuisines it is steeped in tradition, though it doesn’t seem like anything has been adjusted to modern tastes, and styles. Then again, simplicity doesn’t have to be altered.
What I came away with was a sense that their cooking was more the means to an end, and that everything surrounding the cooking was the real story. Even the food is about their lives, about the hardship of turning mountainous land into nurturing soil, about the struggle just to survive in a new country. It’s a story of how proud, hard working people learned to exist and how they turned survivalism into their own unique culture.
This book is not short, just over 450 pages long. The first 100 pages speaks of people and the land. It tells about who settled the region why they settled there, how they adapted, and what they did once they got there. At this point I started to understand the area and the people more than I ever had. The author, Joseph Dabney, is a native of these mountains, and he takes care to give you a good picture of what makes the Appalachian people. Settling a new area is never easy, more so when you're settling in pre-modern times when working the land was truly working by hand. Mostly farmers, these were people with intimate knowledge of the earth and the vagaries of Mother Nature. They had to take care of each other to survive.
Food becomes more than just a survival mechanism when it's reasonably plentiful. Food becomes a social activity as well as an art form. Each chapter in this book goes through foods that were important to the people of Appalachia, and . is filled with anecdotes as well as recipes. Keep in mind that within many of these recipes are items that you're not likely to find in your local store; Sevierville Sassafras tea, for example. The recipe calls for water and dried chopped roots, and since you're likely not to find dried chopped Sassafras roots at your local mega-mart you would have to go into the woods to make this drink. So the book shows you, in the form of its anecdotes, where to find the roots, how to identify the roots, and which ones are best. I grew up in Maryland and we had Sassafras growing everywhere and I am a big fan of the taste. Reading this book brought back nice memories of Sassafras root and I think I may go out and see if I can find some.
The food chapters are broken into six sections; breads, mountain beverages, meats and gravies, vegetables, fruits and nuts, and desserts. Most of the food that was raised was for survival, markets were few and far between in those days so any extra that they didn't need to get them through the winter would be used to trade for amenities that a household would need.
We call this style of eating, Southern, or Mountain cooking, but the recipes are really just adaptations of recipes they brought with them in conjunction with the native foods of the area. When the settlers arrived the area was already populated by Cherokee Indians and other tribes. If not for the native Indians it's quite possible the new settlers would never have survived. Not only did the Indians show them what the land produced but also how to use it for food, shelter, and clothing. Many of the recipes contained in the book have obvious Indian influences as well as from the settlers homeland. Their story is similar in many ways to the stories of the pilgrims.
In the book we learn about moonshine--- where it came from, how it was used, and why it was made. Moonshine liquor was a huge part of the Appalachian people. The book goes into some depth of the whys and wherefores. It is a very interesting section and frequently mentioned throughout the book.
Being farmers meant that most of their diet was vegetables. There was meat to be sure, but there were a lot more vegetables than meat. Being that these people were without local grocery stores the recipes are very simple. You're not going to find 15 different recipes for cabbage. You'll find simple recipes that showed what they ate, and how creative they could be with what they had. Their recipes tell the tale of survival, of good times and lean times. The recipes and anecdotes all weave together to tell the history and the story of the people of Appalachia. I came away with a new found feeling and understanding of the good people of Appalachia. These are recipes of the people. Using these recipes you gain an understanding of their lives, and in a way are sitting at the table with them.
You will not likely have a dinner party and serve any of these dishes. But if you know of anyone with roots in the Appalachians, or some just want to return to a time of simplicity and taste you may well get the recipe for spoon bread and bask in the comforts of family and home.
Sidebar:What Is Spoonbread
Southern food critic, John Egerton describes spoonbread as “the lightest, richest, most delicious of all corn bread dishes, a veritable cornbread soufflé.
Most people today think of spoonbread as a suppertime dish, but that was not always the case. In Thomas Jefferson's time, at his magnificent “Monticello” home in Virginia's Blue Ridge foothills, his cooks served spoonbread throughout the day, all the way from early morning breakfast through late evening light suppers.
Spoon bread is a reported descendent of suppawn, a Native American corn meal/milk pudding whose meaning derives from the Algonquin “nasaump” (cornmeal “softened by water”) Virginians using whipped egg yolks and whites, finessed the cooking of the delicacy to a fine art, giving it a nice brown crust with an inside soft enough to dip out and eat with a spoon. It is to be served, of course, with a generous dollop of butter. White corn is the preferred base.
Jefferson's files yielded his own spoon bread recipe that called for scalding a 1/4 cup of milk and salt (quarter teaspoon). Into this was to be sprinkled (slowly) one cup of corn meal, followed by a double boiler cooking for an hour. Butter, (3 teaspoons) and eggs (3) then were then stirred in. The mixture was then placed in an oven for 45 minutes of baking.
Spoon bread goes well with many Appalachian dishes -- vegetables, chicken, ham and gravy, and various stews, including rabbit and squirrel, plus hot fruit dishes and even salads.
The late beloved Mary Alice Barnes, who for many years, gracefully reigned over Catherine Hall on Berry College’s original turn-of-the-century log cabin campus, offered the following spoon bread recipe to the Daughters of Berry. It is named for the college's Lavender Mountain on top of which Martha Berry, built her “House of Dreams”. The mountain is named for George Lavender, a Tennessean of German descent, who, in the early 1800s, operated a trading post on the Oostanaula River with Cherokee chief Major Ridge. It was located across the river from what later became the farmland of Colonel Thomas Berry, Martha Berry's father.
Lavender Mountain Spoon Bread
2 cups of milk
¾ cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons Butter
3 Eggs (Separated)
Heat milk in a double boiler until steaming. Add meal slowly. Stir and cook until thick like thick white sauce. Add salt and butter. Beat egg yolks and stir into cornmeal mixture. Then fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour into buttered baking dish and bake in moderate oven for 30 minutes.