|Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 1990|
by S.C. Turnbo
Silas Turnbo was a native of Marion County Arkansas who collected, in the late nineteenth century, tales of wilderness, wildlife, pioneering, and the Civil War, throughout the interior Ozarks. The result has been transcribed and the collection is in the libraries of Springfield-Greene County, Missouri, and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
An old timer of Marion County Ark. who has lived on Jimmies Creek since the early flies has this to say of hard times at the lose of the war between the states:
"I and my wife lived 3 weeks at the close of the war without the least bit of bread. We were compelled to live on anything that we could use at all that had any nourishment about it and was not poisonous, wild onions and wild salad were hunted for and gathered all over the woods. Sam Railsback's wife would hunt all the slippery elm trees she could find and take the bark off and scrape off the outside bark and save the inner bark and cut it into small bits with a knife and dry it in the sun or heat of the fire and when she had a sufficient quantity of this she put it into a sack and carried it to Adams Mill on Mill Creek south of Yellville where it was ground into meal and used it for bread by moisten[ing] the ground bark with water and making it into pones or flat cakes and baking it in a skillet. The old man Bosier who lived on Newtons Flat below Jimmies Creek was so nigh starved to death that he would hunt all the old dry hides he could find and cut them into small pieces and scorch them on the fire and eat them."
by Helen Vogel
My introduction to Ozarks cooking came with my marriage to a native of the region. He immediately expected his wife, a Michigan farm girl, to serve his meals Ozarks-style when I could hardly cook at all. In those first years, there were a number of fiascoes such as the time I tried to fix black-eyed peas. I seasoned them with catsup and brown sugar as well as bacon and onion, assuming they should be fixed like baked beans. And then there was the gooseberry pie I baked without enough sugar in the filling. In the thirty years of our marriage, I have become well acquainted with his type of Ozarks cooking. With the help of an understanding mother-in-law and the advice of Ozarks born sisters-in-law, I am now able to produce a meal approaching the acceptable Ozarks standard.
A typical Ozarks menu, I have learned, will have some type of fried meat--pork, ham, or chicken, and more rarely, roundsteak. The chicken and the roundsteak will be well dredged in flour before frying. I understand beef has been added to the Ozarks diet only with the advent of mechanical refrigeration. Roast anything rarely appears on the menu except for the traditional holiday turkey with a very moist dressing. Certainly the preferred meat for company meals is fried chicken or ham.
Once the meat is fried, the cook will then add flour to the drippings in the iron skillet and make gravy. Pork and steak gravy will have water as the liquid; ham and chicken gravy will be made with milk. To accompany the meat and gravy will be a huge mound of mashed potatoes well dotted with butter (Ozarkers do not count cholesterol).
Joining this basic part of the menu will be coleslaw, and a hot vegetable or two. In the spring, the cook is expected to serve wilted lettuce frequently. The wilting is achieved by pouring a mixture of hot vinegar, sugar, and bacon grease over the freshly washed leaf lettuce which has been mixed with crumbled bacon and onion. The hot vegetables will vary with the season and availability on the canned food shelf. The one vegetable, always featured at my husband's family get-togethers, that continues to give me difficulty is green beans. My husband still prefers his green beans to come to the table well seasoned with onion and bacon and "cooked to death" as one of our children put it. My Michigan family prefers them with a little "crunch" and dressed with butter. During the fall and winter, my husband will expect to see turnips seasoned with bacon grease, and not the parsnips or rutabagas that I grew up eating in the winter. Peas, corn, and greens of all sorts appear in the rotation but it is green beans and turnips that signify Ozarks cooking to me. The Ozarks housewife will also place on the table an amazing array of homemade pickles, jams and jellies. In an earlier time, sorghum would also have been on table but I have rarely seen it in my visits to the homes of good Ozarks cooks. Many cooks in the Ozarks produce wonderful light bread (yeast rolls), but that is an art that I have yet to master. Instead my table will feature baking powder biscuits upon which the diners may put their choice of honey, jam, jelly, or gravy. I think, however, most Ozarks cooks produce the biscuits for their menfolks' breakfast.
While many Ozarks cooks produce cakes and puddings as well as pies, my Ozarks menu will feature a fruit pie of some sort. It will be a big double-crusted one chocked full of apples, or cherries. I can now produce a properly sweetened gooseberry pie or a blackberry pie but the fruit for those is hard to come by in the urban environment. In season, strawberry shortcake will appear, the shortcake being a sweeter version of the biscuits.
No self-respecting Ozarks resident will want to go too long without his navy beans and hambone. Once married, no longer did my hambone or hamhocks go for split pea soup, but into the pot along with onions to season the navy beans. My husband's aunts tell me that they have been producing this concoction once a week for their husbands for twice as many years as we have been married. Since the results of my bean cooking are unreliable, the same aunts share the results of their bean pot with my husband; and I would never plan beans on the menu for guests.
Maybe by the time we have been married 50 years I will have mastered the art of Ozarks cooking. Somehow I doubt it as my sources of information are fast fading away.
by Virginia R. Snyder
The most versatile and necessary item in the country household was the big iron kettle. In it, apple butter, hominy, lard, and fruits and vegetables for canning were all "cooked down."
Most rural residents had large round kettles which sat on a rack outdoors and a fire was built beneath them. They were too big and heavy to use on the wood range inside. Besides, they had round bottoms.
Our family must have been the only one for miles around that had an oval iron kettle. It fit the opening of two caps and divider on the top of the kitchen range. Meals were planned to accommodate the kettle and its contents.
My mother bought our kettle from an old German lady who died years before I was born. She walked the streets of Bismarck every morning, a shawl over her head no matter the season, carrying a large market basket on one arm.
There were no cars in Bismarck at that time; horses and mules pulling wagons deposited dung along unpaved streets. "Granny" gathered these heaps, exclaiming to passersby, "Oh, so goot for der got'ten; make der cobbages grow" as she fondled the gems between her bony, crooked, work-worn fingers.
In our kettle, we cooked apple butter in the first cold snap of fall. In winter we made hominy from the current corn harvest, using the liquid lye which had been brewed from hardwood ashes and rainwater, and stored safely away in a crock. In spring we moved outdoors to make soap. Into the kettle, safely supported on a specially built stone frame, went cracklings, other accumulated fats, and the remaining lye water.
We stirred the apple butter with a paddle which had been whittled by an itinerant who also made wood shingles with a froe and maul. The lye soap was stirred with a peeled sassafras stick, then scented with oil of wintergreen, purchased at the drug store in town.
Lard was stirred with a freshly cut sassafras sapling, bark stripped from the stirring end only. Scorched lard could turn rancid, so a peeled, quartered potato was cooked with each batch. When the potato was browned, the lard was ready to be canned. Could that have been the cooking thermometer of the day?
The oval iron kettle, in semi-retirement with its retired, healthy-as-a-horse owner, flaunts a colorful array of silk flowers until some cholesterol-minded friend offers fresh fat from butchering. Then, with anticipation of one of the flakiest pie crusts ever, it's back to the barbecue pit for one more batch of fresh sweet lard.
by Martha Gilmore
When Grandpa Packer was in h is eighties his blood was thin, and he felt cold all the time. Early one fall he built a big fire in the wood heating stove so hot that the flue blazed up and burned down the old two-story farm house on the family's home place east of Springfield.
While a new house was being built the "old folks" moved into town, but two bachelor sons remained behind to tend the animals. They moved cots and a tiny wood heating stove onto the pungent dirt floor of a smokehouse which stood, windowless, its thick wooden walls half buried in the earth, amid a clutter of other buildings out behind the wellhouse.
I had hardly noticed the smoke house before that winter. Meat must have been cured there, because the smell of smoke was strong inside, but I don't remember the smoking process. I was fascinated, though, that the uncles were now living there.
When the family moved into their new and much smaller home, the function of the old building changed. No longer smokehouse, no longer living quarters, it became Grandma's pantry. This smokehouse-become-pantry of the late 1930s and early '40s still remains vivid in my memory.
Grandma was always a very old lady in my eyes. Indeed, because my mother was next to the last of her nine children the difference in our ages was great. I remember her as a quick-moving, somewhat plump little woman, with a huge puff of snow white hair which, in spite of her best efforts, escaped in tendrils from the twisted knot on top of her head. She was born in a Quaker family in southern Iowa about 1860. All her life she felt she had not just a family duty but also a religious duty to feed anyone who appeared in time for meals which she served promptly at six, twelve, and six. There were no between-meal snacks, and she required everyone who ate at her table --family, hobos, or unexpected guests -- to "wash up" before they came to the table. Having an adequate supply of food was important to Grandma.
The uncles butchered hogs and calves every fall, although most of the meat went not into the smoke house but to a freezer locker in town. Only an occasional ham or bacon slab, smoked elsewhere, now hung in the smoke house, though other meat products were among the great variety of foods stored there.
Stoneware crocks of cooked sausage patties were covered with their own grease and topped with saucers or plates to keep the dust out. Mincemeat pies were stacked in tins, already baked and needing only to be heated in the oven before being served. Flat pans of head cheese made from scraps and organ meats cooked to form a natural gel or aspic made a convenient kind of country cold cut. Tin buckets of lard would be used for frying, flavoring and baking; flat pans of lye soap would be cut into squares for doing laundry.
In season, garden and orchard stocked the smoke house. The whole center floor was crowded with bushel baskets of potatoes or apples while drying onions hung in strings from the rafters. Fruits and vegetables -- ranks and files of glass jars sealed with heavy metal lids and rubber gaskets, and covered by old carpet pieces -- filled the shelves which lined opposite sides of the two long walls. Seeds in paper bags and jars, labeled and dated for next year's garden, shared space on these shelves.
On the short wall opposite the smoke house door were more shelves full of a variety of odd containers, some filled, some empty. Grandma seemed to have an infinite supply of stoneware crocks, glass jars, coffee cans, dented aluminum pans and chipped enamel cooking pots, and tins of all sorts. Dried apples or peaches for pies and dried beans and corn (which Grandma always called 'parched corn') for winter meals filled up some of these containers.
In the late summer a set of tall churn-like crocks held brine. They were gradually filled with cucumbers for pickles or cabbage to make slaw. The vegetables, which naturally would bob to the top of the liquid, were held deep in the brine by an old plate which fitted inside the crock and was weighted with a rock. You could judge how full the crock was by watching the plate rise as vegetables were added. Because of their height these crocks stood in the center isle among the egg crates and the wooden lath bushel baskets.
On a small dilapidated table Grandma kept a piece of window glass which fit on top of her enamel dish pan. In summer, strawberries and sugar filled the pan. Placed out on the concrete well pad, the berries were cooked by the heat of the sun concentrated on them by the glass. In mid-winter a few glass jars of these "sun preserves" were a welcome sight among the canned goods. The bright red glasses of fruit were usually topped with paraffin but sometimes with tissue paper dipped in beaten egg white and tied in place with thread until the air dried it into fragile caps. They were Grandma's emergency solution when she ran out of paraffin.
I am sure that neither the contents of Grandma's smokehouse nor her methods of keeping food were unique to this area or to her time. Nevertheless, her old smokehouse has given me a personal memory of a type of food preservation now largely gone.
by Becky Quinn
No examination of foodways in the Ozarks would be complete without remembering a special community food tradition -- preparing and exhibiting canned and baked goods in the community or county fair. Fairs are events of great importance to many farm families in the Ozarks. Exhibits at fairs are showcases for what individuals and families can produce. For some, exhibiting is more than a matter of pride; it is a serious method of marketing the family farm.
"Getting ready for the fair"is an important ritual for many Ozarks families. Getting ready doesn't just happen -- it requires a plan. With January snows come seed catalogs and thoughts of gardens. Canning, pickling, and preserving foods starts with the crops of the garden; so the experienced exhibitor begins by drawing up a "fair plan," in addition to considering family needs for the coming year.
The plan also looks at the available resources, including garden size, available labor (both in the garden and in the kitchen), and storage capacity. Along with the plan, a planting calendar is made so that the harvest will coincide with the dates of the fair (or fairs) where the products will be exhibited.
As spring progresses and the garden is planted, kitchen preparations also begin. Cleaning out the cellar may be a necessary step unless you happen to be one of those families who never throw out a jar of anything for fear of a failed crop or hard times in the coming year. Many of us begin by dumping, washing and sorting jars in preparation for the coming canning season. Now is also the time to inspect the equipment and have the pressure canner gauge checked and rings replaced. The bath canner is also brought out, knives sharpened, and the food grinder is checked and assembled. If necessary, additional supplies of jars and lids are bought, along with 5% vinegar, canning salt, lime, sugar and a host of spices.
In late spring the fair catalog arrives and your planning solidifies into decisions about your entries. The ultimate success of your venture now hinges on many variables, few, if any, of which can be controlled: weather, insects, and your time, just to name three.
For example, will you be ready to make jam when the strawberries are ready? The veteran homemaker and fair exhibitor can attest to the real difference a day can make in the quality of the final product. And what about deciding what to can first when the tomatoes, corn, and peaches are all at their peak on the same day? Once again, experienced canners will confirm that even with the best planting calendar this can and will happen. At this point you have several alternative ways of handling the problem. You can increase your labor pool by recruiting kids, dads, grandmas and neighbors. You can flip a coin to see what you'll can first and what you'll chance waiting on. Another alternative (my least favorite but one which I have done) is working from dawn to dusk until everything is done.
My personal favorite (and I've tried them all) was shared with me many years ago by a perennial purple ribbon winner at the Ozark Empire Fair. This dear old woman, who did not know just how good she was, told me her secret. Do one batch of each vegetable that's ready that day, she confided, and do it meticulously with the sole purpose of selecting the very best for your fair entry.
She went on to describe in great detail how she prepared an entry. She began by knowing the fair's rules inside and out. For example, no jellies in quart jars -- disqualification! She knew from years of experience what judges look for in each category; and, from years of observation, what wins. She developed processing methods that required much more than the usual effort but which resulted in entries which stood out to the judge because of such factors as color, uniformity, shape, packing, taste and clarity. After she selected the best out of each batch for the entry, she carefully stored it away in a canning jar box designated especially for each fair where she planned to exhibit that year. Then, the day before delivering to the fairgrounds, she would check each of her entries to be sure they were sealed properly, then clean, tag, and ready them, along with her baked goods, to be very carefully delivered the next day for judging.
That day I had watched her carry in to be judged, 6 boxes containing 72 canned entries, 6 bread entries, lots of quick breads and four very beautiful cakes. As a teenager I thought them absolutely amazing: they made my little entries look sorry at best. I was even more astounded after the judging. This woman swept the contest in household sciences. Since she had blue and purple ribbons everywhere, I took her words of advice very seriously. As I grew older and more experienced I took great pride in those of my entries that placed above hers and wondered if she realized that it happened because of some counsel she gave to an interested teen years earlier.
Household sciences exhibits at fairs are no longer exclusively women's domain. Men are creating a food tradition for themselves in the Ozarks with their interest and talents in the kitchen.
There are some other changes not as positive, however. Either because of lack of time or lack of necessity, the numbers of exhibitors and of exhibits are decreasing. Perhaps the years of experience that makes a perennial winner are being lost because they weren't shared with a person who could and would carry on this special food tradition of the Ozarks.
by Jim Long
Early homesteaders to the Ozarks didn't have benefit of well-stocked grocery stores for supplies, nor the cash to purchase the items had they been available. What few stores there were kept only the necessities -flour, sugar, salt, coffee, gunpowder, bolts of cloth, tools. Boughten seasonings were a luxury, and families had to do without or find wild plant alternatives.
Most families had roots back east, or were just a generation removed from Europe. Herbs, spices, and seasonings were a firm part of the family's cooking and eating tradition. Those ingredients couldn't be stored long, and so substitutes in the homestead areas were found.
Some families moving west brought starts of their most needed herbs used for seasonings with them, trading and dividing along the way. Plants such as old rose varities, sage, horseradish, rhubarb, winter onion, pepperbush, and garlic all found their way to the Ozarks in this way. Other herb plants used for seasonings which resembled those found or grown in the old country were native to the Ozarks.
The first settlers could vary their simple flavored diets with peppergrass and sorrel. Dried, ground, and mixed together, these plants made a pretty good salt substitute. Sorrell made a good thirst quencher when walking or hunting, and it was added to soups as a foil for oily meats. Pies, and even beverages, were made from this native plant.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a shrub growing around moist shaded areas, was excellent seasoning for venison and wild turkey. The leaves made a tasty hot beverage, was used as a home remedy for fevers, and the berries were a reasonably good substitute for allspice.
Ozarks oregano, or dittany, had a somewhat similar flavor to spicebush, and was added to dry beans, wild game stews, greenbeans, and sometimes made into a tea for "what ails you."Dittany grew at the edges of rocky glades and at the borders of woodland meadows.
Ginger root is still dug in winter and candied for a sweet, and the root was dried for grinding later to make the seasoning for peach pies and pickles. Early recipes for ginger beer, somewhat like our ginger ale of today, relied on wild ginger for flavor. Old root beer recipes called for ginger root as well as sassafrass for the distinctive taste.
Wild onions grew in the meadows, and were used when the common winter or Egyptian onions weren't available on the farm. Passion fruit vines offered up their tart fruits, sometimes used to flavor tasteless apples. Peach pits gave up an almond flavor to canned peaches or peach pies.
The Ozarks provided well for these early peoples, furnishing not only plentiful game, fruit, nuts, and berries, but also the seasonings and flavorings to make them tasty. What may have started as substitutes for other seasonings became a tradition of flavorings in itself. Many families grew up with, and still use, these native herbs of the Ozarks.
by Christie Flanders
The smell of 100% pure, fresh sorghum molasses filled my quarters as I walked in, stickily barefoot. My hair, skin, and cIothes were a pungent reminder of a disappearing part of Southern culture. I was returning home from a Randolph County, Alabama, sorghum sopping.
This past October we at SIFAT performed an old-fashioned rite. With some help from friends, we hand stripped home-grown cane, cut it with machetes, milled it with mules, cooked and skimmed the resulting juice on a homemade wood-fired cooker, strained the thickened molasses with cloth, and poured it into jars. A hog was slaughtered, sausage made, and biscuits baked. People came from all over the area.Clydene Waters, a local farmer who still plows land and snakes logs with draft animals, coordinated the project and got the word out to the community. Some of the older folks reminisced about sorghum soppings in the good old days. Some stood back and watched us sweat, glad that their days of leaning over a cooker, eyes blinded by sorghum steam, was a thing of the past. Parents brought young children, thinking it might be their last chance to sop sorghum in the sun with the cane fields behind them and the mules milling before them. Seasoned soppers set themselves apart by enjoying a glass of raw juice. From before sunrise to after sunset we milled, cooked, and sopped.
Some of this wonderful sticky syrup is still on the shelves, awaiting its contribution to homemade breads, ginger cakes, cookies and pancakes. Alabama sorghum sopping lives on in the memories of another generation.
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