Backcountry Food Ways: North British Origins of Southern Highland Cooking

In regard to diet, the southern back settlements differed fundamentally from other regions of British America. Samuel Kercheval recalled that the "standard" supper dish in the mid-eighteenth century was a wooden bowl of milk and mushseasoned with a splash of bear oil. The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason regarded these backcountry meals with horror, and complained incessantly about what he was expected to eat. "Crabber, butter, fat mushy bacon, cornbread," he wrote, "as for tea and coffee they know it not . . . neither beef nor mutton nor beer, cyder or anything better than water." When he visited a community of Ulster emigrants, Woodmason noted that "the people are all from Ireland, and live wholly on butter, milk, crabber and what in England is given to hogs.115

Many visitors remarked that backsettlers ate food which other English-speaking people fed to their animals. This observation was repeated so often that it became a clichi of travel literature in the southern highlands. It is interesting to discover that precisely the same statements were made by English travelers in the borderlands of North Britain.116

Backcountry food ways are sometimes thought to be the product of frontier conditions. So they were, in some degree. But mainly they were an expression of the folk customs that had been carried from the borders of North Britain. Strong continuities appeared in favored foodstuffs, in methods of cooking and also in the manner of eating.

One important staple of this diet was clabber, a dish of sour milk, curds and whey which was eaten by youngsters and adults throughout the backcountry, as it had been in North Britain for many centuries. In southern England it was called "spoiled milk" and fed to animals; in the borderlands it was "bonny crabber" and served to people. Travelers found this dish so repellent that some preferred to go hungry.117

Another important foodstuff in the borderlands and the back settlements was the potato. This American vegetable had been widely introduced to western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and became especially popular in Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. Despite its American origins, the potato had been uncommon in the English colonies until the North Britons arrived during the eighteenth century, and made it an important part of backcountry diet.118

Yet another staple was a family of breadstuffs variously called "clapbread," "haverbread," "hearth bread," "griddle cakes," and "pancakes." Sometimes they were also called scones, after an old Norse word for crust. Ingredients varied, but methods of cooking were often the same: small cakes of unleavened dough were baked on a flat bakestone or a circular griddle in an open hearth. These breadstuffs were brought from the borderlands to the backcountry, where they remained a major part of regional cuisine for many generations.119

In other respects, backcountry food ways necessarily departed from the customs of North Britain. Oats yielded to maize, which was pounded into cornmeal and cooked by boiling. But this was merely a change from oatmeal mush to cornmeal mush, or "grits" as it was called in the southern highlands. The ingredients changed, but the texture of the dish remained the same.

Another change occurred in the consumption of meat. The people of North Britain had rarely eaten pork at home. Pigs' flesh was as loathesome to the borderers as it had been to the children of Abraham and Allah. But that taboo did not survive in the New World, where sheep were difficult to maintain and swine multiplied even more rapidly than the humans who fed upon them. Pork rapidly replaced mutton on backcountry tables, but it continued to be boiled and fried in traditional border ways.120

New American vegetables also appeared on backcountry tables. Most families kept a "truck-patch," in which they raised squashes, cushaws (a relative of squash), pumpkins, gourds, beans and sweet roasting ears of Indian corn. Many families also raised "sallet" greens, cress, poke and bear's lettuce. Here again, the ingredients were new, but the consumption of "sallet" and "greens" was much the same as in the old country.121 The distinctive backcountry beverage was whiskey. A taste for liquor distilled from grain was uncommon in the south and east of England. But it was highly developed in north Britain, and was brought to the American backcour try by the people of that region. "'Wheyski,"' the Marquis de Chastelleux wrote in backcountry Virginia, "was our only drink, as it was on the three days following. We managed however to make a tolerable towdy [toddy] of it."122

A change of ingredients was made necessary by the new environment. In the back settlements Scotch whiskey (which hadbeen distilled from barley) yielded to Bourbon whiskey (which was made mainly from corn and rye). But there was no other change from the borders, except perhaps in the quantity of consumption. Whiskey became a common table drink in the backcountry. Even little children were served whiskey at table, with a little sugar to sweeten its bitter taste.123 Temperance took on a special meaning in this society. Appalachia's idea of a moderate drinker was the mountain man who limited himself to a single quart at a sitting, explaining that more "might fly to my head."124


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