Supper Done Et

Late one evening, fifty or so years back, riding horseback I approached one of the tenant houses, where a couple was sitting on the porch. To Henry Marks and his wife Sadie, I called out, "Is supper ready?" Henry grinned and replied, "Supper done et." I rode on. We shared a secret: when I was about four years old I ran away from home. Beyond the windmill in the back yard of Grandma's house was a large wooden gate at the edge of the mule lot. Crawling under the gate was easy for a small child, but half way across the lot geese, honking and flapping, chased me to the far side of the lot. Just as I crawled under the second gate one bit me on the butt. I ran down the lane and clambered onto the porch of Henry and Sadie's house. They dried my tears, sat me at the table, and served me corn bread and turnip greens, then, I heard later, Henry carried the sleeping prodigal home. As James Baldwin has pointed out, it was not unusual for a white boy to get in trouble and run to the blacks for help.


Having non perishable food was imperative and not only for the pioneers, as there was no refrigeration in the country until the late 1930's when REA  reached Penhook.  Corn meal, molasses, and salt cured meats were the staples. Milk and other dairy products were kept cool in cellars or lowered down the water well in summertime.

The  first local grist mills,  were powered by a mule.  The corn was used to make such dishes as  cornbread, grits, and corn meal mush.  About a half acre of corn should produce enough meal for a family for a year, but the miller kept about  half  for his share.  Corn mash could be turned into whiskey, which was an important trade item. But to make whiskey, you would need much more corn than could be raised on  a half acre.  One problem raising  corn then and now  is  raccoons; they know exactly when corn is ready, and  make midnight requisitions. In 2009, I harvested one ear of corn from my garden; the rest went to the raccoons. Although, I constructed a two wire electric fence, three inches and six inches off the ground, around the corn, the coons still  beat me.


The mill pictured here is at The San Jose Mission, San Antonio. Until I visited the Mission, I was not clear  how such a  mill worked. The grain is fed from the top into a hole in the center. Water flows under the mill, providing the power and the groves in the two wheels move the meal out and towards  the bucket. The leaver adjust the water flow.






Folks in Georgia wax philosophical about grits, but here in Arkansas we are more particular about our cornbread.

There are different recipes for cornbread, but the two most important components are the corn meal itself and the skillet used for cooking the bread. The meal should be from white dent corn grown by yourself or somebody you trust; that way you know the shelled corn is free of trash and weevils. The meal should be ground a bit on the coarse side, meal that is too finely ground does not chew well. I am unable to detect any difference in stone ground and metal rolled, as long as no part of the grain is removed in the process.


The iron skillet should be one handed down from generation to generation. If you have to start fresh with your own skillet, purchase a heavy iron skillet and then season it. Seasoning a skillet usually involves coating the skillet with lard, inside and out, and placing it the oven, set at on low heat, for several hours. Finally, wipe the skillet clean - never, never wash the bread skillet - then place the skillet in a special place, so as not to confuse it with any other skillet in the pantry. The bread skillet is only used to make cornbread.


A friend of mine prefers cornbread made with water instead of milk or buttermilk. He says water bread will not crumble and  he can place a slice in his shirt pocket for a mid-afternoon snack or like Rooster Cogburn, toss it into the air for target practice.


My father's favorite supper dish was cold crumbled cornbread  in a glass of buttermilk. He was from Mississippi, which is further south.



"The first little mole came to the top of the hole and said I smell beer. The second mole squeezed himself to the top of the hole and said, I smell beer. The third mole could not find any room left and said, all I smell is molasses." -19th century country humor.

Molasses was the main sweetener until after World War I, when sugar became affordable.  Molasses made from sugar cane was imported from the West Indies. But settlers  made a sweet syrup  from sorghum cane, which became more popular and cheaper than sugar cane molasses.


Sweet sorghum used for making syrup is taller than grain sorghum, which is grown for its seed heads.  Some farmers grew sorghum as a cash crop, while other planted only enough for their own use.  Several farmers around Penhook had mills and copper evaporator pans. To make syrup, the farmer would harvest the cane, cutting the stalks near the ground, and then strip the stalks of leaves. The seed heads of  would be removed. At the mill the cane would be run between rollers to press out the juice.

About as simple as it gets in this 1940's photo from around Rodgers, Arkansas. Notice the cloth over the barrel to filter the juice.d>           Another type of  cane mill.


 The making of sorghum was often a community affair. Boys hauled fire wood to the furnace, women took turns skimming, workers paddled the syrup, and a skilled syrup master oversaw the  process. The workers would use paddles to move the juice along from one section to the next to move the product. Skimming removed the foaming impurities that rose to the top. The syrup was cooked for two or thee hours at about 210 degrees.  About eight gallons of raw juice made one gallon of syrup, which was drained off and cooled before being placed in jugs or gallon cans.


The typical cooking pan for sorghum was usually made of copper and  about three feet wide and up to twelve  feet long. There was a series of baffles facilitating  the movement of the liquid  from one end to the other, the raw juice gradually transforming  into syrup. 1917 image

The best sorghum is  ribbon cane. Today the  Federal Government will not permit the sale of syrup  labeled ribbon cane. I asked a producer of cane syrup in Georgia why this was the case and he said, "Since those bureaucrats in Washington are unable to distinguish ribbon cane  from other cane, they will not allow producers to label it Ribbon Cane."  But, he went on to say what he made was indeed ribbon cane. Henderson Texas even has a Ribbon Cane Festival; but don't let the Department of Agriculture know.


syrup  pitcher
This syrup pitcher has been in my possession since early childhood.

Salt Cured Meat

The main seasoning in salt cured meat is, unsurprisingly, salt; but obtaining salt was not always easy in the old days. Near Mineral Springs, Arkansas was a spring of salt water. Those settlers coming from a distance would load wagons with firewood and bring along large iron cooking pots. They would pitch camp near the salt springs and begin work. The pots were filled with salt water and boiled until all the water evaporated, then the salt would be scraped from the pots and stored in a wooden barrel. For a week or longer, this process would be repeated until enough salt was secured to last through the year.


  What's past is prologue. This new cast iron 28 gallon pot is offered for sale on the Internet for $415.  Cast iron pots were used in securing salt, making lard, and to wash cloths. This is a early 19th century version.  

 After the first very cold spell of the year, usually around Christmas, somebody would announce, "Hog killing time." A date would be set and early on the appointed day neighbors would arrive and get things started.  The process usually took place near the well,  as the pots had to be filled with water before fires were built around the pots. Next, the hog was killed and the jugular vein cut so the blood would drain away. A block and tackle was attached to a large limb on a nearby  tree and the hog was hoist, back end first, to hang from the limb. After the hog was high enough,  a 55 gallon barrel was placed underneath and filled a little over half full with hot water. Getting the temperature of the water just right was very important. Usually an old timer could pass his fingers through the water and tell if the water was hot enough. Scalding loosened  the hair making  it easier to remove. So the hog was lowered into the barrel and left for a minute or two, raised, and scraped.  The men used butcher knives to scrap off the hair, taking care not to cut the meat. This scalding process would be repeated  until  all the hair was  removed. Young boys were kept busy carrying water from the well to the pots to be heated and then, using buckets, poured  from the pots to the barrel.

Next, the hanging  white carcass was carefully gutted so that the entrails could be removed. This was tricky, as puncturing the entrails made a big mess. My father had a special curved knife for this procedure.

hanging hog
This man uses his tractor to raise the hog. This is a traditional size hog, with lots of fat.

Next the hog split down the back,  lowered and placed on a table. Using a meat saw and a butcher knife, the carcass was cut into sections; hams, shoulders, sides, and the head.  The shoulders were deboned,  seasoned,  and set aside to make sausage. When the butchering was done the helpers went home, carrying away the head (hog's head cheese), the cleaned entrails (chitlins), the feet (trotters), the maul (maul), and finally the heart. The liver was negotiable; sometimes  it was divided.
A few day later, shoulder meat would be ground with a hand cranked sausage mill into casings made of cloth or entrails and then smoked.

The next day or so, all excess fat was cut into small pieces and cooked in the iron pot to make lard. When the pot filled with grease, the pieces of skin were removed, squeezed  dry, and placed in a barrel. The resulting cracklings were used to season corn bread or as dog food. [I can no longer find real cracklings around here, but meat markets in France still have them.] The grease was poured into gallon cans and turned to pure white lard when cooled.  Later, some of the lard might be put back in the wash pot, heated, and mixed with lye to make soap.

After the hams and sides of bacon were trimmed of excess fat, they were rubbed with a combination of salt,  salt peter, red pepper, and other seasonings. Next, they were placed in the smoke house and hung from the rafters with wire. Later, this meat was smoked with hickory, pecan, or apple wood.  I usually build a fire in a black pot placed in the smoke house, then cover the  pot with a disc so the burning wood smolders, producing a continuous cloud of pecan (my preference)  smoke.  Meat cured in this way will last for years, but before eating it should be cleaned with a vinegar-water solution to remove any mold.  However, the ham will not have the great taste of  grandpa's ham:  hogs today are all lean, you  need a 400 to 500 pound lard hog to get the original taste.
The most expensive hams today come from Spain and cost about a thousand dollars each.

  After several unsuccessful attempts at curing hams as good as the Spanish jamon de Jabugo, I retired. I have no intention of raising fat hogs.  

The Southern Garden

 Field peas, okra, eggplant, peanuts, and yams are all native African foods traditionally  cultivated though out the South. The turnip was a European vegetable imported to the new world by the pioneers.  As Western African cuisine traditionally utilizes a wide variety of green leaves in cooking, the African slaves adopted turnip greens as a substitute and incorporated them into their gardens.  I favor spinach, maybe as a kid  I saw too many Popeye cartoons.
  Spinach  and lettuce can be grown well into the winter, if covered during cold spells.                                                                         

The tomato, native to South America, was introduced to the Mediterranean  cultures by the Spanish explorers returning from South and Central America. The tomato was a staple of the Italian kitchen by the late 16th century, but did not become popular in Britain until much later. The pioneers confused the tomato with the poisonous night shade and feared to eat it,  as it was said to turn the blood to acid.  Eventually, the tomato was reintroduced to the South via Europe and most Southerners eventually  learned to appreciate the fruit, except for my father. His family was firmly in the "tomatoes are poison" camp. In spite of my father I finally learned to appreciate tomatoes, but could never eat one like an apple - the skin and seeds must first be removed before a tomato is welcome on my plate.

My uncle told a story about asking the son of a sharecropper how their crops were doing. The boy replied,
"Papa ain't got no cotton or corn, but, Lord God, the 'mators!"

          The fear of the South: night shade.

Fig trees grow well in the South, but they do best if planted near and on the south side of a building for protection from freezing weather. This often resulted in a fig tree growing close to back porch, thus providing the men a great place to relieve themselves just before bed time. As a boy visiting the Jackson home place in Mississippi, I would often follow one of my uncles out onto the back porch for the nightly ritual. Uncle Warren, an old bachelor, would say in his raspy voice, "It's good for the fig tree". 

Mockingbirds love figs, so in July when the figs ripen there is a daily dawn contest between bird and human for the figs. Humans occasionally sleep in, birds never do.

 We usually ate a few figs, then made fig preserves with the rest. A taste of fig preserves on a cold winter day and you remember summer.


Once the fruits and vegetables were harvested from the garden, how is the stuff to be preserved?  Field  peas are easy, they soon dry in the sun then the  peas are place in a tow sack and beaten with a stick or a boat paddle, thus separating the hull from the peas.  The dried peas can be stored in mouse proof containers until the peas are needed. But other vegetables were perishable, so in 1858 when John Mason patented a should-seal jar with a zinc screw cap that formed a seal  the practice of preserving vegetables in  glass jars spread across the country.
Grandma kept row upon row of canned vegetables, fruits, and soup in her  pantry. During the  last few years of her life, my parents moved back to Penhook to take care of her. When she died in 1941, we moved back to town and my mother dutifully packed and moved hundreds of Grandma's filled fruit jars, some canned during the late 1930's. My Grandmother and my mother both believed the shelf life of a vegetable or fruit properly canned equaled infinity. At first Grandma's jars were stored in the kitchen cabinet of our home in Hope, but as the contents grew darker through the years, my father moved them to a store house at the rear of the property. My father wanted to throw the mess away, but my mother protested and the move to the store house was a compromise.  In 1960, when my parents retired and prepared to move back to the farm, mother wanted to take Grandma's canned goods with her. My father waited until she was away on a visit and had me dig a pit in the pasture behind the house, place the jars in the pit, and cover the whole thing with soil. The contents of the jars were frightening; there were unidentifiable  objects floating in dark murky fluids and in jars where the seal had broken petrified objects resembling stalactites hung down from the zinc lids. If the town of Hope is ever attacked by something like a giant blob, I can offer a good guess where it originated.


When we first lived in Columbus in the 1940's, Henry Marks milked and brought the milk to the milk room at the rear of the house. He would strain the milk to get rid of any trash, then after the cream rose Grandma churned.

Our house in Hope had several out buildings; a storage room adjoining the chicken house, a barn with two or three stalls and a log cabin.  My father milked in the afternoon and a neighbor milked in the morning. One evening while we were eating supper, the train that ran about a hundred yards behind our house began blowing its whistle non stop. We went out to see what was causing the commotion and there was the milk cow lying down on the tracks. She was impervious to the whistle, but ambled back towards the barn when my father waved a small stick at her. Soon after that the cow was sold and milk was delivered to our front door by the Red Ball Dairy.

As cows will swipe you with a manure laden tail, do keep your mouth closed while milking. While churning, chant, "Come butter, come. Come butter, come......"

Today, some folks are trying to recreate the cuisine of the antebellum south. I take my hat off to them, but I am no purist. If I did raise a 400 pound hog, fed on acorns, in hopes of duplicating grandpa's ham, what to do with all the meat? A  a large 19th century farm family with on farm  labor could do justice to a big hog, but not a small 21st century family.   Moreover, it would be difficult to even give away always those buckets of lard.  Everybody today thinks lard is poison; we cook with olive oil - extra virgin, first cold pressed - thank you.