Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 1990


Old Fashioned Country Cooking

by Robert Flanders



Is there any restaurant down there that still has old-fashioned country cooking? You know, like our grandmothers made. Cooked from scratch -- simple, not fancy. Made from real ingredients, not packaged or frozen. Your grandmother probably cooked that way too, just like mine."

This comment, overheard at a service club luncheon, provides clues to the nature and meaning of Ozarks regional food. The questioner, an elderly man, alluded to its essentials. Ozarks food came from "the country," not from town. It came from "real ingredients," not from boxes, cans, or bottles. It was "simple," not "fancy" (like the ham-broccoli rollups with cheese sauce served at the luncheon). Its traditions of preparation were within the family, and at least as old as grandmother -- in his case surely a nineteenth century woman. Finally, he assumed that his conversant would know what he meant. Were not our grandmothers pretty much alike? Aren't we all from the same place? Don't we share a common culture, including our tastes for food?

Regional food is the food common to a place, or set of related places. It is what common people prepare and partake, what mothers teach their daughters, and what husbands expect from their wives. Traditional food is the food everyone knows, the food everyone expects to be the norm. In the Ozarks it's the residium of a Southern upland frontier society.

It's the cooking of a region's small town cafes. At six o'clock one cold winter morning I sought breakfast at a cafe in Anderson, McDonald County, Missouri. I wanted to "eat light;" but light breakfasts were not on the menu. No fruit, no fruit juice, no milk for cereal. What an enthusiastic throng of regular customers expected, the cafe provided superbly: fried eggs, fried potatoes, and fried hog meat. Around the perimeter of each platter was a wreath of big biscuits covered with about a cup and a half of thick, white gravy flecked with browned sausage meat. The coffee was abundant, hot, and weak. It was a prototypical Ozarks restaurant breakfast, repeated with little variation across the region, that day and every day. It was Ozarks food.

Small, sparsely stocked country store. Photograph probably taken in 1930s.

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Food in the Streams of Culture

Humans differ from animals in that they dine rather than feed; they generally prefer to dine together rather than alone; and they prepare food in complex ways to enhance its palatability. People express culture as well as taste at table. The culture of food is carried forward in time as well as across space in "streams of culture," persisting, modifying, according to circumstances of history and geography. In the Ozarks, the chief elements of persistence and change have been the mingling of a few culture streams -- primarily Southern, Yankee, and German -- in an environment of wilderness abundance and frontier necessity.

The intersection of those streams sometimes occurred at meals, minor culture clashes that seem humorous in the recounting. Douglas Mahnkey of Taney County, Missouri relates that early in this century his father was invited to supper in the house of "Uncle" Wilce Yandel. The meal was roast possum. Mahnkey, son of German immigrants, had not been raised with a taste for wild meat. Possum, with its sweet meat, soft texture, and great fattiness, is not an easily acquired taste. To Uncle Wilce, however, possum was like mother's milk. His tastes were inherited from generations in the Southern Highlands, among the persisting backwoods frontiers. He grew up on possum. After a bit Yandel looked up in surprise and said to his guest, "You're not eating your possum!" Mahnkey tried to excuse himself by saying he didn't like possum. Yandel stared out from behind a fat-wet beard and hands dripping grease to the elbows to exclaim, "1 think any man 'ud say he don't like possum is just a darn lawr!"

Simple and Southern

Yankee, German, and Southern culture streams are complex events that have occurred over long periods of time. Their blending has produced a kind of Middle West cuisine, more Yankee toward the north and Southern toward the south, with German and other continental influences strongest in certain areas, especially in Wisconsin and Missouri. How does Ozarks regional food differ from this Midwest mix? It seems to me that it is more southern in its character, has remained closer to its rural roots, and is a simple cuisine revealing long-lasting effects of a perpetuated frontier environment.

Southerners came to the Ozarks first -- upland Tennesseans and Carolinians, people of English and Scotch-Irish descent. They carried British peasant cookery, or what remained of it, with them to the Ozarks. Yankees and Germans came later, were fewer in number, and did not immediately intermarry with the Southerners.

The most influential British contributions to Southern foodways were soda bread, turned into cornbread and biscuits, and whiskey. (Overheard in a rural Ozarks bar: "When I was in St. Louis I tried some of that 'scotch'. .... What was it like? .... Well, it wasn't anything like whiskey!") Along the way the British-American foodways stream gained African and Native American elements: the frying of meat substituted for spit roasting; chickens were floured or batter-dipped to be skillet-fried; "corn," the English word for all small grains, came to mean American maize; every kind of bean and pepper (save only black) were added, along with pumpkins, squashes, yams, and okra, an African vegetable.

Ozarkers of Southern descent long made their home amidst an open range. Hogs had roamed the woods, identified by ear notches registered in the Book of Brands and Notches at the courthouse (if they were to be identified at all). Corn was taken to the local grist mill to get the family's meal. Butter and milk were at the spring house, while meat was in the smoke house. (As late as 1947 at Gainesville, county seat of Ozark County, Missouri, the only place to purchase fresh meat was at the drug store, and it was mostly pork and "lunch meat.") The variety of foods was not large, and techniques for food preparation were relatively few.

Ham and bacon were staples served at almost every meal, symbol and substance of domestic affluence. Large households reported a dozen or more hogs slaughtered and cured for a season -- some 75 hams, shoulders, and sides of bacon. One study suggested that in the late nineteenth century the per capita consumption of pork was 52 times greater in Arkansas than in Massachusetts! Large quantities of starchy vegetables were consumed, especially root vegetables -- sweet and Irish potatoes, turnips, carrots, and onions -- and squashes and pumpkins. Turnips were as much raised for their tops as for their roots. Turnip greens cooked with bacon fat and hot peppers, the pot likker to be sopped with cornbread, was a common meal. Seasoning of vegetables was often by the inclusion of salt pork, bacon, or ham. Dried hot peppers were also a common seasoning. Vinegar was most commonly used for pickling, and with bacon grease and sugar for wilting greens. Garlic was apparently little known. Salted, smoked pork was the savory flavor; honey, and by 1900 molasses, were the homemade sweet flavors.

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Cornbread, hot or cold, with butter and honey or sorghum, or crumbled in sweet or sour milk or in potlikker, might well be taken at every meal. Southern cornbread is heavy and solid, its texture dependent primarily on the quantity of lard or butter melted into the batter. As wheat flour was added to the larder -- for most it was a trade item, since wheat was not commonly raised by individual families -- soda biscuits became a breakfast staple. Both cornbread and biscuits were most often baked in a skillet or spider, a convention continued by many long after cookstoves supplanted fireplaces. Cornbread and biscuit went to the field as sandwiches with butter and honey, bacon, or ham. They went to school in children's dinner buckets.

Light bread, a Southern term for yeast breads, was less common. A Boston Mountains resident from Newton County, Arkansas, told me that his first taste of either light bread or roast beef was as a teenager working on a German farm outside the Ozarks.

Cornbread and biscuits were simpler than light bread. Pork was simpler to raise, butcher, and cure than beef. Frying was simpler than roasting. Pot boiling of everything not fried was the simplest of all, from cornmeal mush to all vegetables and fruits. And one savory sauce, gravy, was the one common sauce.

Gravy

Gravy, a sauce, is prepared according to the type of meat producing the broth. It is used as a garnishment which enhances the flavor of breads, mashed potatoes and other vegetables. A rule of thumb practiced in most preparations: use cornstarch for beef broths, flour for thickening pork broth and bacon drippings, also boiled chicken dishes.

Gravy from skillet-fried chicken or bacon drippings produces a distinct type of gravy, probably derived of necessity many decades ago. Drain skillet to approximately one half cup fat from frying chicken, bacon or other pork. Add two heaping tablespoons flour, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Brown until almost scorched, stirring constantly. Remove from burner and cool. Combine one pint milk and one pint HOT water, pour into cooled mixture, scraping sides and bottom of pan with egg turner. Return to low heat, stir until mixture bubbles and thickens. Serve immediately.

NOTE: Vegetable shortenings do not make palatable gravies!

Submitted by Virginia R. Snyder, Bismarck, Missouri
Gravy deserves attention not because it is so simple (made well, it is somewhat demanding) but because it stood virtually alone for so long, the single sauce of the Ozarks table. White sauces and cheese sauces were probably introduced to most cooks by women's magazines, and remained uncommon until after World War II. Tomatoes, especially home canned ones, were frequently mixed with leftover biscuits and generously seasoned with sugar, butter, and lots of black pepper to make a kind of sauce or pudding. Store-bought macaroni might be boiled and mixed with canned tomatoes. Tomato sauces however, were apparently not common fare until the national craze for neopolitan foods penetrated the Ozarks forty years ago.

Sorghum boiling.

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"Sauce"for most people was a word denoting sweetened boiled fruit -apples, peaches, pears, plums, or berries. Of other sweet sauces, egg custards were common. Cream, honey, and sorghum molasses served as staple pour sauces on the Ozarks table.

In Season and Out

Before canning and refigeration, the character of much food was determined by the roll of seasons. The spring brought greens, both wild and tame, including the strong taste of wild onions in the milk, butter, and cheese. Young chickens became tender fryers. The milk cow freshened. Strawberries ripened. It was the end of the monotonous diet of winter. Summer brought the produce of the garden patch in great abundance, especially peas (seldom English, or green, peas), green beans, cabbages, cucumbers, green corn, new potatoes, melons, and tomatoes. Fall brought the harvest of ripe corn, dried beans and peas, the squash and pumpkin gathering, the sorghum boiling, the fruit drying, and the making of fruit butters. The first cold snap meant hog butchering, with the subsequent salting and smoking of the pork and the rendering of the lard.

From March to November the production and preserving of foodstuffs was the primary occupation of most Ozarks families well into the twentieth century. Winter was a time of eating what had been prepared in the productive season, and hoping that it lasted. The introduction of hot water bath canning, not universal until near World War II, revolutionized the winter diet of Ozarks people by carrying over immense quantities of summer's bounty. Many of us remember from childhood vast caches of canned goods in thrifty Ozarks households, rows of mason jars running to hundreds of quarts. Sometimes they accumulated to be finally thrown out in order to retrieve the jars for another round.

Skillet and Oven

The tradition of baked goods in the Ozarks is somewhat different from those of the Upper Midwest. When my family moved to the rural Ozarks fifty years ago, my mother was shocked by what seemed to her the poor quality of pies and cakes brought to our rural school sociables, and the absence of home-baked bread. The only people that "baked," according to my mother, were the Stauffachers and the Van Noys, families of German and Dutch descent. They also roasted big beef roasts surrounded by onions, carrots, turnips, and Irish potatoes. Their cornbread was lighter, airier, more tasty. Their light bread (a new term to us) was substantial but bouncy. No one else in the neighborhood cooked and baked like they did. The other Ozarks neighbors had light bread in their diets; but it was that ghastly white, doughy-soft stuff bought at the town stores. Appalling, thought my mother.

Baking, according to her thinking, required real ovens, and careful attention. It could not be done in a skillet. However one may judge baked goods, perhaps an explanation for the contrasts she noted was not so much carelessness, as my mother assumed, but differences in the culture streams.

The peasant cookery of England, the Low Countries, the Germanies, and Scandinavia developed around familial or communal ovens, or ovens of a village artisan-baker, and centered on the production of good bread. Native, or old-stock Ozarkers, however, were descended from different traditions, those of the Celtic Fringe to the west and north of England --Wales, the North Country, Scotland, and Ireland - where bakers and bake ovens were less frequent, flour less plentiful, and breadstuffs meager. Oat and barley flour had been baked up into cakes, scones, and soda bread, in skillets or on hearth stones. They were traditions carried to America and continued on the Southern upland frontiers for generations. When Ozarkers were able to abandon fireplace cooking for cookstoves with ovens, perhaps they did not know how to use them to make refined lightbread or pastries. Perhaps they had not tasted such foods.

The Milch Cow

Milk has been the common Ozarks table beverage, according to the testimony of many informants. Milk was an important food, especially in the winter when other fresh foods were unavailable. Unfortunately, cows went dry in the late winter and early spring, before freshening, at the time that winter food supplies were running low. The onset of spring meant far more than good weather: it meant the beginning again of the milk supply.

A mule powered sorghum mill in new ground. Note the girdled trees in background.

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Cows, mostly, were for milk and butter, rather than meat, although the sale of beef and the keeping of oxen as draft animals were common. One informant described butter making as a daily event. Another, stirring a "cooking" of molasses as he talked, said of his childhood, "That's what we ate -- molasses and cornbread and butter. By God, we're tell'n you'ns the truth ]"

The Store

The country store changed the way people ate, especially by adding to the variety of the diet. The following table of all foods sold between 1907 and 1912 in the mill hamlet store at Alley, Shannon County, Missouri suggests the scenario. In 1909 a railroad was completed to within four miles of Alley, incident to a commercial timber boom in the area. Wage money and the ease of restocking made for a dramatic increase in the store's grocery list, as indicated by the second and third columns.
Items New Additions
1907-1909 1910-1912
salt tomatoes baking powder
sugar salmon peanuts
la rd sardines crackers
flour "oats" canned corn
coffee "coco" cornflakes
oatmeal coconut pumpkin
beans "chops" mustard
vinegar "porkbeans" Vienna Sausage
rice kraut chili
soda gum onions
nuts potted ham prunes
syrup apples tea (only in 1912)
"meat" gooseberries strawberries
peaches "sorgum" extract" (vanilla?)
cookies cinnamon  
raisins mince meat  
eggs    
candy    

Coffee and tea, the great stimulant beverages of the world, were store goods. Tea seems to have been little used, even practically unknown in the interior Ozarks. (Iced tea, like soda pop, is a modern drink and was not traditional in the region.) Coffee seems to have been common, a staple like sugar, flour, and soda. The beans were bought green to be roasted at home in a skillet or a dedicated coffee roasting pan. As outsiders often attest, the Ozarks taste even today for coffee is for a mild, weak brew, perhaps because in the past the grounds might be reused over and over for days, with a little fresh thrown in if the old stuff refused any longer to color the boiling water. To throw away store-bought goods, including coffee, that would still "work" was to be thriftless and extravagant.

Will the Taste for Country Cooking Endure?

Food, clothing, and shelter have demanded most of the time, labor, and craft of most of the world's people throughout history. Those demands on humankind seem to be little known, little imagined, to the rising generation in developed nations, including our own. Food, like other attributes of culture, seems now to come a la carte, merely by purchase or hire. What shall we eat tonight? Chinese? No, no --the question is too simple. Will the choice be Szechuanese or Mongolian? Cuban for a change? Or perhaps Aussie Outback? Pizza carry-in? Southern fried?

In the Ozarks, the long persistence of a perpetuated frontier, of rural life and family self-sufficiency, have caused many traditional ways to be remembered and long continued. I have interviewed people who crafted their own log houses, and even some whose mothers grew and spun their own cotton, sheared and carded their own wool, and wove their own cloth. Few desire to continue log house living or home cloth weavery anymore, at least out of necessity. Will the taste for "country cooking," endure?

Further Reading

Walter N. Lambert, Kinfolks and Custard Pie: Recollections and Recipes from an East Tennesseean (University of Tennessee Press, 1988); Charles R. Wilson and William Ferris, eds., The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, (The Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 1989); Sam B. Hilliard, Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South (1972); Joe Gray Taylor, Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the Old South (1972); Linda Brown and Kay Mussell, eds., Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States (1984); Calvin Trillin, American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (1974); Eugene Walter, American Cooking: Southern Style (1971).

Butchering time.

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