Tater Cakes

NOTE:  You probably got this in your inbox earlier in the week and I apologize - I simply got the date very wrong!


Blogs across the web will abound this week with recipes and suggestions for using Thanksgiving leftovers.  I doubt I’ll ever burden you with one of my recipes, but I did enjoy a leftover dish this week that always reminds me of home and Grandma.

Tater Cakes, also known as Potato Pancakes, Latkes or Botkin Pie are always a treat when I make them and I remember my Grandma Stepp frying them while I stood by the stove and practically ate them out of the skillet.  She always cooked bacon – or side meat – at the same time and now I wonder just why.  I suppose the bacon drippings made for more flavorful Tater Cakes and together it was a quick and easy meal. 

I wondered how widespread is this resourceful use of leftover potatoes so I did a quick internet search  and I also reached out to some friends around the world.  I was rewarded with an abundance of information.  From Germany to Ireland Potato Pancakes are loved.  Latkes are a traditional Jewish food for Hannukah – although my favorite Middle Eastern Jewish resource doesn’t remember them being among their traditional foods. 

I’ve mentioned before how I’m amazed that our mountain traditions can so often be traced way back to the original immigrants to the mountain and here again we see our Scots-Irish heritage reflected.  In Ireland, Boxty or Poundies are larger than I’m used to seeing, looking more like a real pancake. 

Scottish Tattie Scones look a lot more like our Tater Cakes although some are larger and cut into quarters before serving – and their use of “Tattie” for potatoes sure sounds a lot like our “Tater”, doesn’t it? Well their little cakes are soft rather than crispy and the texture seems dependent on making them while your potatoes are still warm.  Come to think of it, as an ancient recipe fried potato pancakes would keep better than leftover mashed potatoes so without access to refrigeration you might be in the habit of cooking them right away.  The scone recipes also have a lot of butter in them and I’m going to try that the next time I make my own Tater Cakes.

Tell me, do you remember eating Tater Cakes?



The Power of Smell

In the 1950’s and 1960’s movie producers experimented with incorporating scents into the theater experience.  Their project didn’t work too well but they had a great idea.  Our sense of smell is a powerful trigger to our memories.  I suppose that’s one of the key drivers of the multi-billion dollar scented candle industry.  Everyone loves for their home to smell like Grandma’s apple pie or fresh baked cookies.

Well there are scents that will forever remind me of my childhood home.  The unmistakable odors of cattle or sun-dried hay would hardly make popular candles but it will always take me back to hard work and happy days. 

This olfactory stimulus is one of the reasons I still regularly dry my laundry in the fresh outdoor air.  These days in our drought-stricken valley, we’re surrounded by wildfires (nearly 7,000 acres are burning across Tennessee) and the smoke is working its way into everything including my laundry.  Again, wood smoke wouldn’t sell very well but I grew up on sheets dried beneath the smoke from the wood stove and that’s what I’m reminded of while folding laundry today.

If you ever lived on or visited the mountain twenty years ago you too will identify with this memory.  It used to be that everybody heated their homes with wood.  This renewable energy source could be harvested from every hill and holler.  Hard winters often toppled the trees for you and chopping up stove-sized pieces would keep you warm for two days – the one when you chop as well as the one when you rest by the fire.  And since you’re gonna’ need a fire from November till April, every load of laundry gets a dose of the smoke.

You won’t ever find towels stiffened by cold winter winds and infused with wood smokein a luxury motel where they think you’ll be so impressed with their linens you may buy a set for your house.  But if you’ve ever had the pleasure of wintering on the mountain, I imagine you can appreciate them.

Janavee Stepp Sisco

This week my family lost another precious memory-keeper.  Aunt Janavee was the last of my Grandpa Stepp’s siblings and somehow despite seeing her so seldom, so long as she lived there was a link to Grandpa and to all of my great-aunts and uncles that surrounded my childhood.  Ironically, Daddy and I were talking about her just last week and I had tried to reach out to one of her sons to check on her.  I had just been saying I really need to go see her.

If you’ve been visiting the blog for a while, you’ll remember my new year’s resolution a couple of years ago was to visit.  Well I’ve been pretty successful at keeping that resolution, but there are just so many folks to visit that I don’t seem to be able to make much headway on my running list.  Still, every moment I get to spend with an aging neighbor or relative is a win in my mind because every visit yields new stories or reminders and details to stories I’ve always heard. 

Janavee, her mother Emma Stepp, nieces Roberta and Janiene holding her son Sheldon

Janavee, her mother Emma Stepp, nieces Roberta and Janiene holding her son Sheldon

This whole weekly blog is dedicated to preserving these memories of our mountain people.  Losing an octogenarian strengthens my resolve to record their stories, to tell them to my children and my children’s children.

I’m always asking you faithful readers to share your thoughts on the blogs.  Today I want to ask you to share your stories.  Please click on “comments” below and share a memory you have from your own childhood or from time with your grandparents.  Maybe you’d like to share a story your grandparents told you about their own childhood.

So let me share a little story from one of Janavee’s childhood friends, Dimple Norris Young (in her own words as nearly as I can transcribe them).

We’s talkin’ about the time they’s gonna give us shots for Small Pox.
They said it was goin’ to be Small Pox shots.
I remember Janavee found out what it was going to be and she slid out some way or another and she just flew down the road.
She said, I’m not stayin’ and let him poke me with that thing.
I’ve always wondered if she made it home or if somebody went and got her.

I remember not too many years ago, we went to church and somebody brought us part of the way home.  We had to walk over there by Conard’s [Atkinson] and all there.  And a dog got after me and her and like to scared us half to death.  We jumped bean poles and I don’t know what all through the yard there down to Uncle Millard’s before we ever got down there we just about tore ourselves up gettin’ away from that dog and it probably wouldn’t bite nothin’. 

Janavee with Great-Grandson Nathaniel and Grandson Kevin

Janavee with Great-Grandson Nathaniel and Grandson Kevin

Civil War Veterans

War is ugly.  Yet from our earliest accounts of history, mankind has “beat[en] plowshares into swords” (Joel 3:10) and faced down enemies.  Even today we have men and women marching under the stars and stripes on foreign soil in an attempt to preserve our way of life.  They deserve our prayers and a prominent place in our hearts.

Today is the 241st anniversary of the inception of the United States Marine Corps.  Tomorrow is the day America has set aside to honor veterans in every branch of service.  It seems a fitting time to share a recent research experience.

I’ve been doing some family-tree research and came upon a grave-site picture that inexplicably moved me to tears.  What is it about those simple white stones that bring on so much emotion?    I suppose it’s the suffering they represent. 

If you notice the death date on the picture, this man did not die in battle, but lived many years afterward, raised a family and hopefully enjoyed peace and happiness.  The survivors of America’s War between the States may have suffered more than those who fell quickly on the battlefield.  The state of medicine at the time meant that many war wounds would never really heal.  Musket balls were often carried inside limbs for a lifetime.  Without the aid of antibiotics, infections festered sometimes for years - not to mention the emotional scars of the close combat. 

Oath Cropped.png

Then there was Reconstruction.  Another document I’ve recently run upon records of Confederates’ oath of allegiance.  The header on this book reads, “An act to provide for the more efficient government of the rebel States’.  An article published by James R. Baker, jr. on Rootsweb explains that there was no standardized oath and that they were administered for varied purposes.  At least one ingenious Confederate commander prevailed upon his Union prisoners to pledge never to take up arms against the Confederacy.   The ledger records the citizen’s length of time in the state and everyone says 12 months so it appears that was the requirement before you would be permitted to vote.

I also found record of a young man, Preston Stepp, who died in May 1864 as a prisoner at the infamous Andersonville camp.  He died of dysentery after being captured at Rogersville, Tennessee in November 1863 - an utterly unromantic victim of one of the Confederacy’s greatest enemies.  I believe the 1850 census records a ten year old Preston living in Fentress County, Tennessee with his parents and three siblings.   I say “believe” because neither the enlistment nor prison record give any detail beyond the name and regiment.  It’s as though the war departments either had no idea there would be casualties or no intention of notifying the next of kin.  For research purposes, it seems nearly impossible to know if the record refers to your particular ancestor.  In fact, this soldier may have been the twenty year old son or even the fifty year old father who bore the same name.

Preston’s brother William appears to have enlisted with him in Tennessee’s 2nd Infantry Regiment.  As I looked at the picture of the nearly thirteen thousand headstones marking Civil War graves in Andersonville National Cemetery, I can’t help but wonder what young William went through in the weeks and months after his brother’s capture. 

When would William have learned his brother’s fate?  Would he have finished his tour of duty wondering whether Preston lived?  Did he return home to Fentress County half expecting him to come wandering home one day? 

The 1880 census shows William did return to Fentress County where he married and raised a family of his own, farming as his father had done.  Do you suppose he was ever even able to visit the Andersonville gravesite?  I doubt it as the three hundred eighty miles surely represented the journey of a lifetime.  Perhaps he felt he’d seen enough of Georgia during the war years.  Likely there would not have even been a tombstone erected in William’s day. 

As I’ve said so many times, I’m left with more questions than answers.  But this research causes me to question not just the past but the present as well.  The Bible tells us there will be wars and rumors of wars until the final days when at Armageddon good ultimately defeats evil.  And we certainly can’t bow to the forces of evil in the name of peace.  Still, it seems like anyone contemplating starting a new conflict ought to have make that decision in the center of one of our national cemeteries.



Comfort Foods

CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS How can such a comforting food make for such a bland picture?

How can such a comforting food make for such a bland picture?

Today’s article might be fittin’ for True Confessions… I woke up with a sinus headache amid overcast skies.  It seems the older I get the more my moods are driven by the weather and winter’s shrinking hours of sunshine don’t bode well for me. 

My life is so filled with blessings that it makes me downright mad at myself when I have these blue days.  A popular topic in many historical fiction novels is the depression frontier women often faced living in the dimly lit sod-houses of the prairie.  In my wide-open home with lots of windows and electric lights if I need them, I can scarcely imagine what those ladies had to deal with. 

But all is not gloom – last night’s supper was chicken and dumplings!  What is it about certain foods that just make us feel better?  It’s certainly not the nutritional value; it’s not even the satisfaction of a full tummy.  There’s just something about dumplings that kinda’ makes you smile. 

We can make dumplings on about anything.  My grandpa remembered his mother making dumplings on pinto beans – that very poor family probably didn’t have chicken very often.  And blackberry dumplings are a personal favorite.  But good ole’ chicken and dumplings are surely a universal favorite.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone at my table that claimed a distast  for them.

Of course I learned the fine art of dumpling-making at the hand of my grandmothers.  So much of my cooking reflects those early lessons.  My Grandma Stepp taught me to make a basic dough that she used for biscuits, dumplings or pie crust.  In fact, a lot of the things she taught me were really universal recipes that I fall back on every single day.  Depending on how ambitious I’m feeling, dumplings can be carefully rolled and cut or simply dropped into boiling broth. 

These days it’s hard to find a good, fatty old rooster for your dumplings so my Grandma Livesay discovered packaged chicken broth to enrich the weaker product of cooking lean chicken.  This is not the same as the rooster-method, but it suffices in a pinch.  While on a camping trip this summer I carried a can of chicken and dried broth cubes just in case the fishing didn’t go well.  My family was amazed when my dutch oven produced this staple dish and I was forced to confess the shortcut. 

Perhaps my choice today is a non-traditional breakfast, but there are just days I can’t muster hot biscuits, bacon and eggs.  And before you chastise me for this particular selection, I should admit that my first choice on a day like this is a dish of coffee-and-bread… have we talked about that before?  If not, we need to!

So by the time I had fed breakfast to the children and gotten myself dressed for the day, the sun had popped out and I remembered the leftovers.  The day is looking up already.