Columbus, Ohio USA
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Dr. Atkins' W-h-a-t?? Just pass the vittles, please!
By Betty Garrett Deeds
August 2011 Issue
There may very well be people in Appalachia today who are following the famous Dr. Atkins diet – indulging in the expensive high-protein plan comprised of all the meats you can eat, cheeses, even butter and fats, virtually anything except carbohydrates and sugars – but those folks need enough money to live high off the hawg (even the cow) to follow it.
The traditional Down Home diet of greens, beans (pinto and navy) and ‘taters augmented with plenty of starchy side dishes (say, homemade egg noodles), biscuits, cornbread, yeast bread, gravies and countless varieties of pies and cakes (that we were lucky to afford but could clog the cardiac arteries of a bear) are not included in the Atkins plan.
Born in 1936 during the Depression, I was well acquainted with the Down Home diet while living in southern Ohio (New Boston) with my maternal grandparents, Frank and Lula White. They owned their own house in that little steel mill town, but no land beyond our small yard, where Mamaw worked miracles with tomatoes and lettuce and yards of climbing roses.
Dr. Atkins would have had a heart attack (but died falling down the steps instead) at the thought of the small amount of meat we consumed in comparison to all the economical and filling carbohydrates and sugars. What he could not have known is just how delicious those meals were and still are. Further, while I was growing up, I saw almost no one who was morbidly obese, as is common here in Columbus, Atkins’ hometown, the Fast Food center of America.
We did have meats, but they were primarily pork products, since the homely “hawg” could provide ham (a rare luxury), pork chops, bacon and side pork, hocks for seasoning, and lard, which was used for everything from frying chicken to blending flour into pie crusts. The feet were pickled, and some of the innards were consumed in disguised forms. Fried or stewed chickens were usually a once-a-week treat unless you had a farm and could raise your own. Men hunted game, squirrels, rabbits, and sometimes deer to augment the meats on the table.
While New Boston was a steel mill town, and nearby Portsmouth was larger as well as industrialized, we were surrounded by farms between the foothills and the Ohio River. Butter, milk and buttermilk were often brought to small towns from nearby farms, as well as large amounts of eggs, fruit (other than those gathered from apple trees in backyards and berries which could be garnered from the countryside).
Citrus fruits were rare. At my New Boston Baptist Church, we lined up to receive a Christmas treat of one orange apiece.
Origins of the dishes we ate began in the late 1700s after the Revolutionary War. People in the Eastern states crossed the Alleghenies, and their counterparts in the South headed up through the Cumberland Gap into the wilderness. Colonial armies were often afforded land grants giving them title to large amounts of acreage in Kentucky, Ohio, and what is now West Virginia, among others. And some people came intent on physically staking claim to uncleared land.
Traveling in wagons, they could bring along only a few items from their original homes, largely building tools and cast iron skillets and cooking pots. But in some ways, most priceless among the things that were necessary for survival in their new surroundings were seeds – seeds to grow their own food.
Settling in mountainous areas and foothills meant “bottomland” between them was extremely valuable. There they could grow vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and the heartiest of apple trees. Sometimes a few areas at the tops of or on the sides of hills could be cleared, but it was rough going. It was a hard existence, but these were folks who valued independence enough to live without the amenities of “civilization.”
Large families were prevalent, and they depended on labor from everyone who was physically able. If they lived near a settlement, there was usually a dry goods store where they could barter their products and precious coins with merchants and other settlers for different products.
When they sat down to eat at those early plank tables, these victuals (from the Latin victua for food and victuala for provision) were translated into “Pass the vittles” immediately after grace. Most of those people, especially from New England, were quite religious, and extremely independent. But a tradition which started immediately was hospitality. No matter how meager or abundant the food on the table, it was shared with far-flung neighbors and traveling strangers who might stop by.
The core diet of greens, beans and ‘taters, I mentioned earlier prevailed during the time of those early settlers as it did during my childhood. Later, there was a larger variety of store-bought foods, of course, but economically the region was and still is what the federal government people, i.e., Appalachian Regional Commission, began to refer to as “distressed” and “economically disadvantaged.”
Beat us. We had always thought we were poor, but didn’t take it personally since nearly everyone around us was poor too.
Appalachian Down Home Diet
Here’s a sample of what a week’s diet in Mamaw and Papaw’s house resembled. Things were pretty much the same in the few hundred other homes in New Boston.
On weekdays, breakfast every morning was bacon, eggs, leftover cornbread or biscuits from the night before, or toasted, buttered slices of Mamaw’s yeast bread. There might be homemade jelly, jams or preserves or Mamaw’s favorite apple butter. We had milk, and sometimes buttermilk. A farmer from the country delivered the dairy products and abundant eggs to our house.
Mamaw was employed pretty steadily year round hanging wallpaper in houses. Before I started school, she took me with her and carried along something for our lunch, but I don’t have vivid memories of it. I think she made sandwiches of lunch meat from John Sanford’s store or took along some leftovers to snack on. Unless Papaw was away on one of his occasional jobs delivering coal for his friend Marvel Sloane, he probably had the same at home.
Weeknight dinners were simple but abundant. Sometimes we had pork chops, or more bacon, but the staples were fried potatoes, pinto or navy beans and greens. In warm weather, Mamaw would take me out into the fields near the mill to help her pick dandelions and other greens I didn’t recognize. She bought kale at the store. We always had some kind of freshly baked “quick” bread – biscuits or cornbread – which we buttered and topped with preserves or honey for dessert.
Sundays were another matter. That was Katey bar the door to no one. Mamaw got up by at least 5 a.m. to bake her apple pies (lard was always the shortening for the flakiest crusts I’ve ever eaten, and the apples were dried slices cooked into a thick sauce flavored with sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon). She purchased flour in very large cloth bags, and it was placed in a bin in the left side of her kitchen cupboard, one of the most efficient work centers ever devised.
There was a metal container for the flour with a funnel and a handle to sift it through a screen. Shelves overhead held the sugar canister and baking supplies such as baking powder, baking soda and vanilla, and other food flavorings. In the middle there was an enamel shelf which slid out of the back to an enlarged size to roll out pie crusts, knead yeast breads and biscuits. A large space beneath it on the left held pans; drawers on the right contained things such as the rolling pin and apple corer.
While the pies were baking, Mamaw kneaded the batter for at least three loaves of yeast bread to rise. And while that was occurring, she made homemade egg noodles. This required clearing the kitchen table, lining it with pages of The Portsmouth Times and dusting flour over the entire surface.
I do not know the exact recipe for this, but I think I can come close. (I made them myself while my four kids were growing up.) She skipped a bowl and placed at least three or four cups of flour in a mound at the center of the table. Making a slight dent in the center, she dropped in three eggs, a couple of tablespoons of milk and some baking powder.
These ingredients were mixed together with her hands, and if the consistency didn’t seem right, she would add more flour until it met her standards. Then she dusted her rolling pin with flour and spread that mass out into a thin sheet that covered at least half the table.
Giving them a surface sprinkling of flour, she took the pies out of the oven and, if the bread batter had risen enough, baked those. Then she used a metal egg noodle cutter – it had a wooden handle and metal discs to cut the dough – so that the dough looked like noodles. They were left to dry until after church, when she cooked them in a big kettle of water in which she placed a small precious piece of stewing beef to make broth.
Oh, I almost forgot! She took the live chickens she bought on Friday or Saturday and had tethered to the back porch and chased them around the yard until she caught them and took a hatchet to their necks, which she wrung for good measure. Then all the feathers had to be removed and the birds were singed over a stove fire before washing.
All this occurred before we went to church. Depending on how long Rev. Crane made us sing hymns until someone would confess to being a miserable sinner and “get saved,” it was a bit after noon before we returned home.
How anyone can eat Colonel Sanders greasy chicken with the secret seasonings is beyond me. Here is the way really great fried chicken is prepared in any decent Appalachian or southern home: Mamaw took one or two big cast iron skillets and melted lard before putting in the chicken which was dipped in (please pay attention) flour with a little bit of salt and pepper in it. (I used to put the flour in a paper bag and shake the pieces in that a few times.) Fry the chicken for about a half hour, turning frequently. If you like it very crisp, skip the last step of putting a lid over the chicken for a couple or three minutes to tenderize it.
When it was removed, some of the fat and little chicken pieces were saved to make gravy: just put in flour and turn it until it’s browned a bit, then put in some water and milk and stir that until it’s your kind of gravy.
While the chicken was frying, the egg noodles, which had dried a bit, were dropped carefully into the beef broth and cooked until tender. A dollop of butter was added. A lot of peeled potatoes went into a big kettle and were cooked until tender, then pounded with a masher while adding plenty of butter, salt, pepper and milk. The vegetable was usually green beans (fresh or preserved, depending on the season) and sometimes corn was mixed with that. On some occasions, there were also candied sweet potatoes.
All three leaves were placed in Mamaw’s dining room table while this was going on, and the family – me, sometimes Mom, Uncle Bud and Aunt Renie, Aunt Alice and her seven kids – and some of Papaw’s friends from A.A. who may have joined us, were stretching it to its full length and placing plates and flatware around the table.
By the time all these things were put in the “middle” of the table, there was barely room for them, as the meat platter and all those serving dishes were put out, along with relishes, sometimes a cucumber salad (slices in a sugar and vinegar solution), and of course the butter, salt and pepper and other condiments.
I never hear that Hemingway title, “A Moveable Feast,” without thinking of those spreads. Actually, the feast stayed still; the diners rotated around the table and some sat, while others sought out the living room sofa or migrated to the kitchen table.
I ate at other Down Home places over the years, and asked relatives from Kentucky and West Virginia to compare that spread to what they ate, and they were, and often still are, the same.
Just writing this has made me feel like falling over, which is what most people did after dinner, except for those taking their turns at washing dishes.
Blame it all on the countless people on Dr. Atkins’ diet who keep telling me about how much weight they’ve lost and how easy it is. I’m very glad it works for them, and I wish I could afford to try it out. The popularity of that diet has sent the price of meats, especially beef, soaring. When I go through the supermarket now, I look at the steaks and prime rib roasts – and then the price tags and wave goodbye to them. Even chicken has gotten rather costly. Need we speak of seafood? Well, I eat meat sparingly anyway, and have tossed salad at least twice a day.
I often think of a sign that used to be painted on a huge boulder on one of the hills lining Route 23 as Portsmouth and New Boston grew near: PREPARE TO MEET THY MAKER. I’m working on it, folks – I’m trying.
Until then, pass the vittles, please.
© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
First published in the January 2004 Short North Gazette.
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