I’ve been obsessing a bit lately over heritage. Where am I from? Who were my ancestors? Most importantly, how did they eat? Family history tells me that we were most likely from the Highlands of Scotland, validated a bit by my rare blood type, shared by two of my three brothers. Leave a family alone long enough, without money to bind them to the past, and they will invariably invent their own history. It is somehow cool to be from Scotland, of course. It is now favorable to be a descendant of one of the many tribes of Native Americans, whose own heritage has been wrenched from them, retooled and made safer for textbooks. The same for Scottish, Italian, African, Indian, Asian or anyone else who wasn’t white enough to qualify, somehow. The land of opportunity was indeed just that, despite the major obstacles facing all these immigrants.
I’m not here to talk about something so political. I don’t have the knowledge, understanding, will or disposition to enter into such volatile territory. Nope. I’m here to talk about Appalachian food, something else that is being irretrievably lost in many mountain families with the proliferation of fast food into the hills and valleys of the so-called “Poverty-Stricken.” Fifty years ago, these people would have not agreed with such a classification, and no doubt would have, and did, take great offense with the notion they were “poor” in the eyes of city folk. They didn’t think they were poor, and honestly, no one really gave a shit about race. Oh, there were a few, as there are everywhere, loud buffoons with enough money and political clout to make themselves a representative of an entire geographical area, which in this instance stretches from Georgia to Main. The great Appalachian Mountains. The oldest mountain range on earth. Home to wildlife most haven’t seen, sustaining communities from Boone, NC to Hurley, VA to Get Lost, VA and further north, through the coal fields and increasingly rugged terrain until it meets the sea.
That is where I grew up. That is where my heritage is. You don’t get to choose as a child who your parents are, or where you are born-n-raised, but you can choose to keep that heritage close and honor it.
You can remember the smell of honeysuckle, fresh cut hay, Virginia Creeper, snow white Trilliums, brilliant Indian Paintbrush, peach blossoms and zucchini blooming, which will quickly be an absolute nuisance. We would can, pickle, eat them raw, eat the blossoms and those damn plants would still have vegetables running out our ears. We proud of our black sorghum, slowly boiled and stirred by the old method, using a donkey on a long pole who would walk endless circles with the patience only a donkey can, giving rides to local kids, knowing full well that his share would be a big bucket of molasses, black as tar
An early morning, just before daybreak breeze, redolent with morning glory, locust blossoms, scarlet paintbrushes, fresh cut hay and clover will make me open my eyes quick. Then you listen for the first birds, while you are still bundled in your blankets against the night, cozy and warm. The owl will bid you a good day, the crows will wake to harass everyone around them, like grumpy old drunks seeking a whiskey barrel. But it was the thump and groaning of an old wood stove and the smell of side meat that would roust me from my bed faster than finding a snake sharing my blankets. That did happen once and that was one unlucky snake. He was between me and the stove.
As humans, we remember extremes the best. Old timers tell of how it used to snow until the eaves were the only thing showing. They had to wallow into the punch mouth mines with their mouths closed to keep from choking on mud. They’d have to send in canaries to make sure they could breath. The working conditions actually were horrendous, but there was the satisfaction of a days wage hard earned. Easily said in retrospect, but working hard for what you had built a kind of pride and sense of heritage that cannot be duplicated.
I remember those early mornings best. Grandma never used a recipe that I ever saw. She would get the fire going with coals left over from the day before, then boil coffee on the eyes closest to the stove. While she sipped her coffee, planned her day, deciding by the moon and stars and other signs which vegetables were ready to pick, which chicken needed to be in a pot and how much wood would be needed for cooking and coal for heating the home. I would take my seat with my back to the old leaded glass window, sagging in age, and anxiously wait for breakfast. My clock was ticking too. Chickens needed to be fed, gardens weeded, berries picked (a big source of my walking around money) yards mowed, ditches dug, and always, always wood to be split.
At the right moment, she would spring into action. Ok, at nearly 80 and wearing slippers, she never really “sprang” anywhere. It was more of a swish of her old night robe and slippers on the uneven floor. She would place fat side meat in one skillet to fry up for “eatin meat” and butter the other with an ungodly amount of butter. She kept lard in the fridgedare (her words) and would cut it into even chunks with her giant razor sharp knife. Nearly as long as her, that knife was basically a razor. Grandpa stropped it every night on his belt.
She would pour flour in an old wooden bowl, then work the lard into the flour using an old rusty pastry cutter. When that started to look like sand, or dirt if there was a bit of residual cookin’ bits left in, she would add heavy cream, stirring with an old wooden spoon until it was right. Out of the bowl, onto the old countertop that doubled as a chopping block, the dough would then be kneaded gently, rolled into a long fat rope twice (more than that and you break the biscuit, she told me). She would then pull the screeching hot cast iron skillet out of the wood oven with a wet rag, never a dry one, despite my attempts to explain thermodynamics to her and drop the gently molded biscuits onto the pan.
The fatback would then come out of the other skillet, flour would go in and coffee would be added at the last second, beaten with a fork until it was smooth. Biscuits smothered with red-eye gravy, fresh runny eggs gathered that morning by my Grandpa, who had already been up and at work for hours, pork side meat and a peach or three, washed down with the strongest coffee I’ve still have yet to encounter, with eggshells floating around the top, was one hell of a breakfast.
Decades later, I was asked at four in the morning, “Can you make biscuits??” We were out of frozen biscuits. A serious emergency to our kitchens claim of “Fresh homemade biscuits every morning!” I dug around in these old memories, and yes, I could still make biscuits.
My Grandmother is proud, I have no doubt. So, I showed Nolan how to make them: