Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Wednesday 21, 1991                                                       Virginia Star

Food of Yesteryear

By Ona Osborne Flanary

Except for older men and women, many people living today, especially the young, probably think that food was scarce and hard to find in country homes during the winter. Nothing could be more wrong. Instead of choosing from the array of foods on grocery store counters and shelves as today's shoppers do, mothers and fathers of the past got their supply of food through planning and hard work.

I would like to discuss the foods that I fondly remember from my childhood years.

First, let us discuss fruit. My father had a large apple orchard with fruit ripening from early summer to fall. For winter use, my mother canned apples, made jelly and apple butter. The apple butter was made in a big brass kettle. The fruit was prepared the night before and was cooked and stirred for many hours the next day. When the apples were of the right consistency and color, the cinnamon flavoring was added. Nothing could surpass that aroma.

Apples were also dried in the sun and on a rack over the stove. Mama and Dad liked these apples stewed, but for the children their prime use was for fried pies and stack cakes. Ah!, those pies with their tender thin crusts and cinnamon aroma were a joy to eat. I have never been able to get my crusts as thin and tender, with the right browning, as Mama's.

Until blight attacked the trees, we also had peaches and pears to be preserved in the same ways, and also had cherries to can.

Later, I will tell you how apples were kept fresh for eating. We picked wild strawberries for canning and jelly. Blackberries were plentiful and were picked in large quantities for canning and jelly. The entire family greatly enjoyed blackberry cobblers. To this day, I buy berries in order to have the pies. Also a batch of blackberry jam was made in the brass kettle. I always looked forward to the berry picking as I loved roaming in the woods, a trait I probably inherited from my mother.

In addition to the foods to be preserved for winter, we had Burbank plums that lasted through the fall season. In the fall, we picked wild haws from a tree on the farm. That was the only haw tree I have ever seen. In the spring, in order to have a taste of fresh fruit in addition to our apples, Dad would go into the woods and pick service berries. Most people pronounced them "sarvice".

In the fall we gathered walnuts, chestnuts and chinquapins. These nuts were plentiful then. Trying to keep the stain from our hands, we removed the hulls from the walnuts and let them dry for the winter. There is a hollowed out space on the fireplace stone hearth in the living room where we children cracked the walnuts on a cold winter day.

In addition to the nuts for fall and winter use, in the fall there was the paw-paw, a banana-like fruit. My mother loved these. She would lay them in the grass until they had spots somewhat like ripening bananas.

From the spring and summer garden, pickles were made from beets and cucumbers. Many quart and half-gallon cans of tomatoes were filled. We liked these with soup beans, in tomato pudding and with macaroni. Beans were canned, pickled and dried. If you have never tasted pickled beans as my mother prepared them in a ten-gallon crock, you have missed a lot. Beans, called "shuck beans", were strung on heavy thread and hung in an airy place until they were dry. On a cold winter day they made good eating. I always try to dry enough for one or two cookings in January or February. I like them with cornbread, onions, pickled beets and milk. A special bean was grown for soup. Dad would bring these to the back porch, and we would cork (sic) the hulls from them.

Cabbage was preserved in two ways. My mother did a ten-gallon jar of kraut. For a snack, we children enjoyed the cores which she would put in the jar for us. To have fresh cabbage in the winter, they would plant a fall crop. Before cold weather, these were pulled and put upside down in a shallow trench that had been dug. Only the stalks showed. I remember I fantasized that they were soldiers marching to war, row on row. The cabbage was fresh tasting and very tender when pulled from the ground.

Parsnips could be left in the ground to be pulled when the ground was not frozen. Except for me, all the family liked these. To this day, I have never been able to stand the taste or the smell of this vegetable.

Enough sweet potatoes were planted to last through the winter. These really grew big on our farm. After drying, they were kept in the house as cold would cause them to rot. Mama baked these, fried them in butter and brown sugar, and candied them.

Irish potatoes were kept in hay or straw-lined holes in the ground. They were covered with boards and straw and kept in perfect condition. Turnips were raised in sufficient amounts to be kept in the same way. Usually two holes were prepared for apples as we ate a lot of them. When they were brought in for eating, they were very crisp and tender. They did not have tough skins as ones you buy today have.

Of course one had to face the cold to get the above fruits and vegetables. Daddy was used to it and seemed to think little of it. If he dreaded the task, he never let us know. Later a basement was dug with space provided for preserving these crops.

There was no way to have fresh greens in the winter time, but a late lettuce bed was sowed and covered. The lettuce kept until a freeze came. Late mustard was sowed for fall use. In early spring Mama would pick a mixture of wild greens. I have forgotten most of them but well remember how delicious they were.

Pumpkins and cushaws were occasionally planted in cornfields for pies and other uses. I like to let my mind wander back to the beauty of corn and the gold of the pumpkins and the gray-white of the cushaws before they were brought into the barn. Squash was also planted in sufficient amount for winter use.

Corn we raised to be ground into meal.  I think cornbread made with that meal was better than that with today's product. Mama, with Dad's help, would make a large crock of hominy. This was very good, but tedious and time consuming to make, they did not prepare it very often. Occasionally, on a cold day, Mama would make mush part of a light supper.

Often on a cold afternoon when children were not in school, we would beg Mama to make her wonderful sweet bread, which also among other things contained meal, flour and molasses. We wanted it baked in a baker, a large, round cast-iron utensil with a lid, used since colonial times. This would be used on the hearth with live coals underneath and on top. There would be a wonderful thick crust on both top and bottom. In addition to being so delicious to eat, to us it seemed a more romantic way to bake than in the kitchen stove.

I can't remember it, but for years Daddy raised wheat and took it to the mill to be ground into flour.

Dad grew cane and made molasses every year when I was a child. A horse was used to turn the cane mill to derive the juice. The people in the community always wanted a night "stir-off", so he always planned to have one. It was a fun time. My older sister said that the young people used to have a square dance. The finished molasses were poured into large tin cans. We liked to eat them at both supper and breakfast. My favorite way was with hot, buttered cornbread and a glass of butter milk at suppertime. In addition, the molasses were used for stack cakes, gingerbread and cookies. Pulled candy (taffy) was occasionally made.

Chicken for meat, eggs and trading at the store were kept. At one time, Mama tried raising ducks and turkeys. The ducks would swim down the branch to the river and never came back.

The turkeys were too much trouble. Cows were kept for milk and butter and for cheese, if milk was plentiful.

Hogs were raised and killed in the fall. The meat was salted down and kept in the smoke house. In addition to the hams and meat used for seasoning, I remember the side meat which made such good eating when sliced and and crisply fried to eat with vegetables at supper time or eggs or gravy at breakfast. Mama and Dad made large amounts of lard for cooking and baking needs. Sausage was ground and canned. It was flavored with dried sage leaves from plants in the garden. Ribs were also fired and canned.

Beef was not killed as there was no refrigeration and most of it would have spoiled. Sometimes, after advertising it ahead of time, someone in the community would kill one and bring it to the store to sell. Dad would always come home with a large roast.

When night fell, the family would gather around the warm fire in the living room. Popcorn was always planted in sufficient amount to last through the winter. We enjoyed eating the big tender kernels, popped in a long-handled popper over the glowing coals. This, with our apples, made all the snack food we wanted. We made sure we had learned our lessons for the next school day, and then often played quiet games. We greatly enjoyed the shadow figures Daddy would make on the wall. We were enthralled by the stories of the past, even back to Indian times, that Mama and Dad could tell so well. There was a quality of life felt there, a feeling of love and tenderness, a feeling of family.

 

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