Tennessee Mountain Stories

Eating Acorns


Last week’s article about Potatoes, Butter and Wealth already had me thinking about how well off we are today as compared to our ancestors – then I read this article about how to eat acorns!  Well, that got me to wondering what your food situation would have to be to resort to eating this often abundant, wild nut.

I suppose our Native American ancestors may have relied on these nuts, as well as many other wild fruits, grains and nuts that we’ve completely lost the use of.  But even the depression-era stories of hunger and need never included acorns - at least not the ones I’ve heard. 

As I was reading the instructions on how to prepare and eat acorns I couldn’t help but remember a comical story Daddy always tells about Mr. Cross moving up to Fentress County from Pickett County.  He went back home for a visit and was goaded for his decision.  When asked what he was eating out there on the mountain he said, “Pine needle soup”.  Farmers always question why you would move from fertile valleys onto the rocky mountain top and I don’t have a good answer for the mystery.

Still, our woods have long offered provision for the wise hunter or gatherer.  I’ve mentioned before that one Cherokee traveler reported the area was flagged by his tribe as a bad hunting ground but many families found meat for their tables in deer, squirrels or even opossums when necessary.  Of course as more and more people called the mountain home, there was less room for wildlife, and over-hunting left depleted populations at times. 

You may remember reading Callie Melton’s account of hunting salad in the early spring here.  This was a familiar story for me as I’ve heard of my Great grandmothers on both sides of the family picking greens as well as herbs they would use for cooking as well as medicine. 

Stories of the great Chestnut trees that covered the entire Appalachian mountain range are legendary among woodsmen.  These trees provided nuts as wells as strong, lightweight logs and lumber that were used for everything from furniture to rail fences.  The Chestnut Blight began killing off stands in the late 1800’s and by the 1930’s the American Chestnut tree was practically extinct.  While their rot-resistant logs and stumps hung around into the 1950’s – and in fact you still might find remnants of some of the stumps – the nut-bearing live trees were only a memory by my Daddy’s time.  I’ve mainly heard of the Chestnuts being eaten as nuts and not really ground or used in cooked foods. 

Is this just a limit in my own knowledge?  Why do you suppose our mountaineers did not adopt this staple of their Cherokee forefathers?  Certainly there’s a lot more work involved in using acorns than either chestnuts or little hickory nuts.  While you can eat a chestnut raw, acorns are high in tannic acid that must be leeched out before it can be eaten.  The Indians did this by soaking them in running water, but the Farmer’s Almanac says you can boil the acid out of them – although it takes several times and you have to keep at it, not allowing the nuts to cool between the pots of boiling water.  So that really is a lot of work and the process may well have contributed to its lack of popularity.

Again I’m reminded to count my blessings - while eating acorns is fascinating to me, I’ll have bread today without grinding flour from acorns.

If you’ve heard stories about people using acorns I can’t wait to hear them.  Please click Comments below.


Potatoes, Butter and Today’s Wealth

Rotting Potatoes.jpg

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wealth we enjoy in this time and place and you know I’m always weighing these thoughts against our history. 

 My thoughts first began to turn this direction when Mama mentioned that the winter’s potatoes are rotting.  I found her assessment to be fully accurate when I noticed that awful smell of rotting potatoes emanating from my cabinet.  So I decided to mash a big bowl for supper and began peeling them and cutting away the bad parts.  As the scrap bucket grew fuller and fuller I wondered if that sight might have panicked my grandmothers.  Here we are in the early part of September, the potato crop has already been fully harvested because worms were threatening and the vegetables are showing signs of spoilage.  If my family’s well-being rested with those tubers I might be wondering already if this would be a lean winter. 

Do you ever think about the reliable food chain America enjoys?  Now my rural upbringing means my larder is usually pretty well stocked and we could go a few weeks without visiting the grocer – IF we were willing to eat cornbread made with water and all-veggie meals for a few days.  And I can do without potatoes mostly because I’ve tried to trim some starches out of my meals and so I don’t cook them every day like my grandmas did.  But for those families that raised pretty much everything they ate, failure of the potatoes would surely mean they’d see some hungry days.  And that reminds me that our Scotch-Irish roots are still planted pretty deeply.

The thought process continued after a cousin gifted me with my great-grandma’s butter mold.  Daddy and I were talking about what good shape it’s still in and he mentioned that Grandpa Key never kept more than one cow so the amount of butter they had would have been limited.  This mold is for 1 pound and it takes about 3 gallons of milk to produce a full pound of butter.  A cow can only produce about that much each day and if you let the calf have part of it then how much are you carrying to the house?  Certainly not much more than a large family can drink – and the Keys raised 11 children although no more than 6 or 7 were at home at the same time.

A neighbor shared the picture of her mother’s butter mold and it appears to be only ½ pound which would certainly be easier to produce.  Of course you don’t have to have a mold at all, and you can just mold the butter by hand on a plate. 

My own little family of four goes through nearly 3 gallons of milk each week – which we buy at the store because we’re worse off than Great Grandpa and have NO milk cow.  (I’m reminded of Ellie Mae Clampett saying of their Beverly Hills’ Mansion, “this is all we’ve got.”)

It’s sometimes hard for me to think of myself as well-to-do when I look around at the big toys my friends and neighbors often buy.  And my children have yet to grasp the concept that “we can’t afford that” when they ask for anything they can imagine (my son wants a “camper you can drive” and a flying car).  Yet when I look back at how very little my ancestors survived on and when I realize that I have little memory of hunger and almost no fear of it; I don’t believe in waste and always try to curb it but I know I can pretty easily get a gallon of milk, pound of butter or bag of potatoes.  When I look at it like this I thank The Good Lord for His manifold blessings and grace.

The Enduring Music of the Mountains

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to join my friends and neighbors at the 1st Annual Bluegrass Saturday Night On the Road in Jamestown, Tennessee.  Now, we’ve talked here before about the timeless music that we now call Bluegrass.  It came with our ancestors from Ireland and Scotland, and we still enjoy it today.  Well the gathering Saturday night certainly reminds me that this musical tradition lives on.

Jamestown’s country music radio station, WDEB, airs a weekly show of bluegrass music known as Bluegrass Saturday Night and hosted by “Country John B.” Mullinix.  This week they did a live, remote show at the American Legion building inviting several bands to play and all the community to come out and enjoy good music, grilled burgers and hotdogs and great fellowship.

WWII Vets at Bluegrass Saturday Night.jpg

They honored all of the veterans in attendance, especially those who fought in World War II.  They played the national anthem and everyone stood with hat in hand.  We prayed.  Then we clapped and tapped our toes, laughed, chatted and maybe even sang along a little bit.

Cody Hull Band at Bluegrass Saturday Night.jpg

How exciting it is to get up a show like this and have almost all the talent be local.  And young – several of the groups had 20-somethings playing with them and I didn’t see anyone needing a cane to get up on stage.  Surely this is a sign that our music is not just surviving but thriving in our hectic twenty-first century.  There’s no question that one of the keys to the preservation of music that originated in the old country was the remoteness of our mountain home for a couple of centuries.  But today the world is at our doorstep with planes, interstate highways and the world wide web.  Still, we are drawn to these old sounds, many of the songs are familiar and the strains of the modern bluegrass songs are often as comfortable as the traditional ones.

It’s always fun to get out and see neighbors you don’t often get to talk to.  And this past Saturday evening was a pleasant time on the mountain with the rain clearing out in plenty of time for parking and setting up – probably in answer to Mr. Mullinix’ prayers.  Add in the talented picking and familiar tunes and you’ve got the best kind of Saturday night.

Yesterday’s Teddy Bears


Teddy Bears are a precious part of childhood.  I have a favorite bear that was handmade by my Great-Aunt Mary and loved nearly to pieces.  But I never gave much thought to the history of this snuggly toys until a friend told me of finding an old bear in an historic home I wrote about here

Leslie Gentry grew up across the street from the early 1900 home and his sister lived in this house.  When I began to ask him questions about the house he mentioned that he’d found an antique teddy bear in an old shed on the property.  My eyes popped wide open to hear that.  Then I got in my car one evening after church to find the furry friend in the passenger seat!  Now I just had to learn about him!

Stuffed bears may have been made by the original creators of toys – mothers – long before but the Steiff company began commercial production and sales in 1880.  About the same time, American toy maker Morris Michtom began marketing plush bears as well. 

The bears were instantly popular but it wasn’t until a cartoonist drew President Teddy Roosevelt with a cute old bear that the toys were named Teddy Bears.  And it was Mr. Michtom who first tagged his stuffed animals with the President’s familiar name. 

It seems that President Teddy Roosevelt was on a rather unsuccessful hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902.  Determined that the president succeed, some of the hunt’s organizers captured a bear which their dogs had wounded.  When President Roosevelt saw the animal tied to a tree he refused to kill him but because of his wounds he was ordered put down.  The American people loved their leader’s compassion and the title would stick to the plush toys from then on. 

As with all things, Teddy Bears have changed a lot over the past century.  Fur was originally made from Mohair, then silk and eventually synthetics were invented in 1938.  Stuffing was first “wood wool” which was long fine shavings and made a rather crunchy sounding bear.  After 1914 a tropical product called Kapok was used for stuffing, then textile waste or cork and rubber granules.  Even eyes and noses have changed with the first eyes being wooden and noses being sewn in thread. 

Well this adorable little animal that my friend shared with me seems to have all of the characteristics of the oldest bears.  He’s crunchy, has wooden eyes and a black string nose with felt pads on his feet an arms.  He’s not the softest bear but I can just imagine the child who is standing with his family in the earliest picture of the historic home playing endlessly with this little fellow.

A Passion for Picklin’


I’m not much a fan of pickles, but I realize I’m in the smallest minority – at least that’s the way it seems among all my family and friends.  Recently some friends were over for a meal and asked, “Do you make pickles?”  Well I’m not a very good hand at it but through more of that Christian compassion that brought last week’s beans, I’m well stocked with pickles.

It got me to thinking, is this passion for picklin’ everything a Southern thing?  Or are pickles universal?

Statista reports that in 2017 73 million Americans consumed at least 1 jar of pickles in a year, and nearly 4 million people consumed 6 jars or more.  The United States consumes 5.2 million pounds of pickles each year.

And a little research tells me that pickles are popular the world around.  Historians believe that the Mesopotamians first began pickling about 2400 BC.    At some points in history, pickles were thought almost magical in their benefits to the body.

Well, as with most things, Southerners claimed pickles for their very own and transformed the food.  I found this great article from the State Archives of Florida detailing a handwritten cookbook from the 1850’s or 1860’s with recipes for pickling everything from watermelon rind to cabbage (and that one was new to me).

Then there’s the protein-packed pickled pig parts.  Pickled pigs feet are probably the most popular of these foods but did you know folks also pickle the lips, snouts, ears, and hocks of the hog?  Now this just proves that you can truly use every part of the pig if you set your mind to it! Pickled eggs are also a great source of protein.

What strikes me among this list is the perishable nature of these foods.  Surely pickling was historically very practical.  Vinegar is easily created from fruits that will perish quickly.  And while smoked or salted pork can be made to last for months, it would be pretty hard to cure the feet enough to keep them.  So if you’re wanting to use a whole hog, pickling parts of it makes a lot of sense!

While we seal our pickles up tight in Mason jars, commercial producers actually cure them in open vats stored outdoors.  So even before self-sealing lids and glass jars were widely available, pickles could be put up and kept just in crocks. (Okay I’ve got to research what all you can actually preserve in crocks!)

My family tends to stick with cucumbers, but I can’t wait to hear what ya’ll pickle.  If you leave a comment – and I dearly hope you will – please be sure to tell me where you live or where you’re from as I’m very curious where the customs originate.

By the way, my friends around the supper table quickly put away half a quart of Grandma’s Bread and Butter pickles!  They were so excited by them I sent the rest of the jar home when they left.