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Pioneer Cooking

Pioneer cooking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
revolved around the good things brought to the table by the family members through hard work and diligence. Appetites were hearty, and the cooking reflected that. Hearth cooking was most often employed: foods cooked over an open fireplace always seemed to taste better.

Most food items originated out of necessity -- using up a surplus harvest or an entire butchered animal, cooking with whatever implements and heat sources were available, and stretching scarce products to feed a large, hungry family or to make the items last through the cold winter months.

Game flourished in the surrounding mountain forests and meadows -- rabbits, opossums, squirrels, deer, bear, geese, wild ducks, quail. Fish were plentiful and the menfolk brought home rock bass, trout, catfish and others. Bees were kept in homemade hives called bee gums. The honey was used often as a sweetener and also sold to obtain extra income. Potent corn whiskey was also made and sold to bring in more money for the family. Garden vegetables always included corn, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, beans, pumpkins and cane, among others.

Early settlers often cooked bread in the field at lunch. According to tradition, they would take cornmeal and seasonings with them when they left each morning. Come meal time, the men simply added boiling water, formed a pone and placed the dough on their hoes and held it over an open fire, thereby giving birth to the tasty Southern hoe cakes.

Apples were a useful crop from which the women made dried apple shortcake, apple fritters, apple butter, apple cobbler, applesauce, apple pie and pan-fried apples.

Berry picking was a joyous time in the mountains for the hills were loaded with these delicious treats. Everyone pitched in at picking time and though the harvesting was sometimes difficult, the end products more than made up for the problems. Most berries had sharp spikes or thorns which tried mightily to discourage the harvester but to no avail. The tasty goodies cooked up from the berries were too tempting to allow a few spikes to deter them. Cobblers, jams, pies, jellies and conserves were all created. The tantalizing smell of a fresh blackberry pie put in a window to cool drew the whole family home. For breakfast, a delightfully colored jar of raspberry jelly put on the breakfast table would be instantly snatched up and the delicious spread applied liberally. Other berry creations included blackberry jam cake, huckleberry cobbler, elderberry jelly, cherry cobbler and blackberry dumplings.


True Southern hospitality had its humble beginnings with these harried pioneer women. No matter how little there was to work with or how similar the meals might become, everyone was always fed. If friends or relatives dropped by they were graciously invited to stay and join the family meals, meager though they might have been. People often had little, but what they had they gave of freely.


What a woman had available to cook depended upon the season and the whims of weather and Mother Nature. Not all foods were available all year round for the pioneers had no refrigerators or freezers to keep things fresh. Canning, preserving, pickling and smoking were used to keep food for long periods of time without perishing or becoming rancid. At harvest time, the women were kept busy for hours at a stretch, canning and preserving and storing all the surplus harvest brought to her. Nothing could be wasted since her family depended on the stored items to help them through the winter.

Table sugar was rarely used by the pioneers who preferred the taste of honey and sorghum molasses. Most settlers had their own bee gums (called such because the homemade hives were constructed from hollowed out black gum trees) or they raided wild honey-bees' hives. Cane was grown on the farms and made into sweet molasses Come harvest time, the cane was cut, and the stalks loaded into the cane mill. A horse or mule was hooked to the mill by means of a pole. As the animal walked in a circle around the mill, the pole activated the crusher roller in the mill which in turn engaged another roller thereby squeezing the juice from the cane. Recipes such as molasses cakes, honey cakes, honey cookies, molasses cookies, gingerbread and shoo-fly pie (named so because its sweet molasses aromas was so tantalizing as to draw flies).

Various grains were also necessary to the early Southerners. The farmer took weekly trips to the community mill to have their flours and meals ground up. Upon their return home, some of the ground grains would be used by the women and the rest stored for later use. Bread of some sort was available at every meal--three times a day. One day's meals might see hot biscuits for breakfast, cornbread for lunch and cracklin' bread for supper. Ash cake, cornmeal muffins, corn sticks, gritted (grated) cornbread, soda biscuits and buttermilk biscuits were all served at one time or another. Other grains and cereal were cooked into oatmeal, boiled rice or mush.

Meats, both wild and tame, were eaten by the pioneers. Usually the women made do with whatever the men brought home. It might have been a deer or a squirrel, a rabbit or a goose. During hunting season, there was always some sort of fresh, wild meat for the table. Butchering time in the late fall saw the use of the livestock and made it possible for the settlers to live through the winter when hunting was near impossible.

Peaches were eaten fresh, pickled and preserved as jams and conserves. Pawpaws, a fruit somewhat like a banana and tasting a bit like a mango, were eaten raw or cooked for custards and pies and other treats.

Fruits like apples, plums pawpaws and persimmons were orchard grown and picked wild. Berries of all varieties--blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, huckleberries, mulberries, strawberries--grew wild up and down the hills.

Greens harvested fresh from the hills were nutritious additions to the meals. Come spring time, greens harvesters gathered their baskets and sharp knives and set out to the fields and forests. Streams were checked for watercress, fence rows for poke and sunny areas for dandelions, lamb's quarters and docks. Wild green onions and wild lettuce were available for those who had not planted the cultivated kind. The greens had to be gathered when they were young and tender, for they became strong and bitter as the plant matured. Pike sallet, turnip greens, fried poke stalks and fresh watercress salads were some of the dishes utilizing the picked greens.

Garden vegetables were picked and made into such tasty fare as green beans and ham, shuck beans, fried okra, parsnips and salt pork, potato cakes, baked potatoes, pumpkin butter, fried green tomatoes and, a mixture of many, vegetable soup. Many vegetables were canned and pickled including cucumbers, onions, eggs, beans and corn. Corn relish, chow-chow, tomato preserves, turnip kraut and onion relish are just a few of the preserved vegetables used by the pioneer women.

Of the vegetables grown in the family garden the most important was corn. Corn was a major staple in the early pioneers' lives. From it was obtained fresh corn for roasting and for use in many dishes and ground meal to be used in many more. The women made such tasty dishes as corncob jelly, fried country corn, corn fritters, corn pudding, cornbread (a delicious accompaniment offered with many meals), hominy (grits--another Southern tradition), cornmeal mush, corn dodgers and Johnny-cakes.

Pioneers didn't buy items that could be raised, cooked or handmade at home. The men worked in the fields and forest harvesting, hunting, fishing, working hard to supply food and other provisions for their families. The women worked just as hard using what the men supplied and fashioning them into useful items. Whatever meat he brought home, she would cook into something tasty and nutritious. She would use the vegetables and greens to vary the food served and add delicious new tastes. She also cleaned the home, made clothes for the family, washed those clothes and cared for the children. Everyone was busy from dawn to dusk, and life was difficult, but they managed with what they had.

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