Staples of Appalachia: Family & Food

Growing up, I always knew my parents were different from most. I was raised in a little town called Willow Lake, South Dakota. It wasn't much of a town. In fact, there wasn't a single traffic light. We were made up of a single school that housed every grade from Pre-Kindergarten to graduation, a gas station, a small grocery store, a bar, and a post office. In the town congregated three-hundred-or-so people that were mostly the sons and daughters of commercial farming lineage. They were flat-talking mid-westerners set in their way of life. They didn't name their cows. They'd never fried okra. Most of them preferred to buy their eggs already washed at the grocery store. My mother said they were strange, but the sideways glances she'd attract with her southern drawl and her insistence on doing for herself led me to believe that maybe she was.

 John Thomas: Jennifer's father at age 10

John Thomas: Jennifer's father at age 10

Dad wasn't much better. He learned to drive a semi truck when he was just a boy and had been following that career path ever since. He was gone working a lot of the time, leaving Mama, my sisters, and I to tend to what some in the community jokingly referred to as our “petting zoo.” We had a flock of laying hens, a turkey named Pilgrim, a couple of milk cows, an old dog or two at various points, a cat, sometimes pigs or sheep, and an occasional horse. We were hipster homesteaders before hipsters knew what homesteading was. The side yard always housed a perfectly tended vegetable garden. The home was kept clean, warm, and inviting to strangers and friends, alike. Nobody who entered our house left without a healthy dose of folklore and sweet tea.

During class one day in my seventh-grade year, I was asked if my parents were doomsday preppers. I said no, only to be met back with the statement: “Well my mom saw your mom buying canning jars by the box load. What's she making? Jelly?” I looked at my classmate, confusion spreading across my face. “She's canning,” I stated. To my knowledge at the time, canning was something everyone's mother did. Over time, I discovered that I was wrong. 

My parents both grew up in Tennessee during the 40s and 50s. My mother's family was a little more “well-off” than my father's when they were children, but neither of them came from any form of prosperity. Dad's family fits the textbook definition of the Appalachian American. The Appalachian culture is often mislabeled as “hillbilly” or “redneck.” In some more heartless cases, you might even hear the type of people my father hails from referred to as “poor white trash.” In truth, the Appalachian culture is one of simplicity, neighborliness, folklore, and self- sufficiency. 


 Hallie Bellar - Matlock

Hallie Bellar - Matlock

Dad and his brother, Clyde, were raised by their grandparents from the time they were babies, despite having limited financial resources to care for them. They were fearful that the boys would be separated if allowed to go to other relatives, so they taught their grandchildren to pull their weight, and the family learned to make do with whatever they could find. Dad's grandfather taught him to hunt squirrel and run trout lines. Clyde was often sick as a child, and so the majority the work securing food sources fell on Dad's shoulders. He became a skilled hunter and fisherman, as well as a gatherer of scavenged ginseng, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, and other wild-grown resources. My maternal grandmother, Hallie Bellar - Matlock, was raised similarly to my father, although years earlier during the Great Depression. One of her favorite southern delicacies was poke salad. 

Poke salad is a salad made from the leaves of pokeweed. Pokeweed is a toxic plant, closely related to nightshade, found spread across the southern states. Using the weed in a cooked salad became popular during the Great Depression simply because there weren't many other options for vegetation available. People learned that if you cooked the leaves long enough, they would lose their toxicity and become edible. Poke-weed leaves are harvested in the early Spring, making poke salad a lingering favorite at many Easter gatherings across the south. 

The leaves are usually cut from the stem and cooked on low heat with salt, pepper, and bacon fat for several hours until they come to a mushy consistency. A grocery bag full of pokeweed leaves cooks down to about two servings when all is said and done, so Grandma Hallie and her siblings spent many full days searching for and picking pokeweed.

 Pokeweed,  Phytolacca americana . Image courtesy of  Gordon Tillman .

Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. Image courtesy of Gordon Tillman.

The landscape across the Appalachian territory is not suitable for commercial farming. The terrain is rough, and the soil is of a poor consistency for successful growth in mass quantities. The territory is full of “hills and hollers” where wildlife and wild-grown vegetation prosper, but it is hard to work with. For this reason, most Appalachian Americans live on small homestead farms where they raise enough for their families and a little to share with neighbors. They had to find their own ways of preserving resources over the years, which has resulted in a lot of salting, smoking, canning, fermenting, or drying of crops and meat. 

Growing up, my mother loved to see her father and uncles smoking their winter meat supply. She would often tell us about the smell of the meat smoking and how it would make her and her siblings hungry for days on end. Her father- William Matlock-  was an expert meat smoker and would sometimes be asked to smoke hogs or chickens for neighbors, as well. He and my great-uncles would make an affair of the job, camping out and telling stories by the smoker. Often, the children joined in on the fun, hearing tales of their dad's younger days and folk stories about monsters, ghosts, and other legends of the territory. Mama always said it was one of the most fun and looked-forward-to parts of the year for her family. 

The Appalachian way of life is one of rural homesteading and simplicity. My parents lived in a culture where the norm was to own a milk cow, who would often birth a calf for the family to fatten and butcher. The mother's milk would be kept and processed into butter, cheese, or other dairy items. Meanwhile, the calf would be put out to pasture and fed a high-fat diet to get it ready for slaughter by autumn. Many farms also raised chickens for meat and eggs, as well as a litter of butcher hogs, goats, or other animals that they could produce food for their families from. 

In autumn, the animals would be butchered and processed through smoking, drying, or salting to last through the more lean months of winter. Gardens would be harvested, and vegetables would be dried or canned. Gardens are commonly grown from family “heirloom seeds,” which are reaped yearly from plants and saved for the following year. My father often spoke about how his grandmother raised the best tomatoes in Humphreys County, Tennessee, and people would come from miles around to buy them from her. Because of the practice of heirloom seeding, she was able to uphold the same quality year after year. 

My mother's family had learned through the generations to can green beans with bacon fat. The process resulted in a delicious, salted flavor to the beans. When Mama canned green beans, she would have to warn my sisters and me not to go overboard with them- they needed to last through the winter. My mother would spend weeks each year preparing for winter. Our pantry shelves would be well stocked with colorful mason jars of Mama's heirloom family canning recipes. She made bread and butter sweet pickles every year, and our neighbor's daughter would always take home her share. 

One year, the neighbors planted a cucumber patch for the sole purpose of having Mama can sweet pickles for them at the end of the summer. Mama happily obliged. She had grown up in a culture that embraced neighborliness, after all. The Appalachian people know from experience that hard times affect an entire community. Throughout the Great Depression and in the generations that have followed, southern hospitality has remained at the forefront of their way of life. Our house rule concerning guests as we were growing up was that if anyone left our house hungry, it was their fault. My high school friends used to make special trips to visit my mother, even when I wasn't there because they knew she would feed them some comfort-food delicacy from her inventory of Appalachian recipes.

My grandfather and his brothers would share the responsibility of preserving the meat, likewise, the women of my family have for many generations shared the responsibility of canning. My sisters and I were raised by this standard. We spent many days and nights at the end of summer snapping green beans and shelling peas while we listened to our parents tell stories about their upbringing back in Tennessee. From them, we learned the importance of pitching in to make a job go faster and how to make a tedious job fun. While other children may have turned their noses up at the work of preparing jars for canning, my sisters and I looked forward to the chore all year long because we knew it as a time of togetherness.

 Thomas family females: Hallie, Carrie and Jennifer

Thomas family females: Hallie, Carrie and Jennifer

Family bonds are important to the culture. While some misconstrue the practice of Appalachian family roles as sexist or out- of- date, they are in fact anything but. In our family, my mother was as outspoken and important in the decision-making process as my father. Financial burdens, medical situations, and home life were discussed between the two to find correct resolution. At the same time, Dad was the breadwinner, bringing in the majority of our family's finances, and Mama attended to the home. She cooked our meals, cleaned for us, and kept up appearances.

My sisters and I were taught both to be strong, outspoken women unafraid of expressing our points of view, but also to be loving and doting wives and mothers. To this day, I prepare dinner plates for my husband and children before my own. I have been questioned about the practice and told it is subservient. I don't view it as such, but instead as an act of love. 

Today, the neighborly culture of Appalachia lives on. Across the southern states of America, you will often find advertisements for community catfish fries, hog roasts, or jar swaps. These events date back to the Depression era and before, where farmers who had been blessed with bountiful food supplies would invite others to share. Today, the events are more similar to block parties or street dances as held in other parts of the world.

The Irish Picnic in McEwen, Tennessee is one such annual event that dates all the way back to the 1800s and now draws 25,000 visitors each year. At the event, 21,000 lbs of pork roast and about 2,000 chickens are slow roasted over hickory smoked coals, then shared with the community. The event has grown to include live music and dancing, as well as a dart tournament and beer garden. While the citizens of McEwen are no longer in need of sharing food out of hunger, the funds raised from the event are now used to benefit a local school.

When my mother passed away in 2007, her funeral was held at Edgewood Church outside of Dickson, Tennessee. Following the burial, my family was invited to a nearby community center where members of the church congregation had prepared a meal for the funeral attendees. While most of the congregation did not know my mother, they recognized an obligation to feed her family as we grieved. 

It has often been said that the fastest way to a southerner's heart is through their stomach. If my upbringing has proven anything to me, it's that food and hospitality are a staple in showing love to those of all cultures- and Appalachian Americans are expertly skilled at doing just that.


Jennifer Thomas-Mitchell.jpg

Jennifer Thomas-Mitchell is the author of four books and is working on part two of her “Quincy York” novel series, which is a celebration of southern folklore. She currently lives on a hobby farm with her husband, Nathan, and their children, where they raise poultry and garden, and the tradition of mother-daughter canning season lives on.