High Country Thanksgiving Traditions

Today I have an extra special treat for you-a guest post written by Jim Casada. I know you’ll enjoy Jim’s memories and thoughts on the tradtional Thanksgiving he enjoyed as a boy growing up in the Smoky Mountains. And he even shares one of his favorite recipes to boot!

Thanksgiving in Appalachia

HIGH COUNTRY THANKSGIVING TRADITIONS by Jim Casada (copyright 2011)

Most high country families, and certainly those whose roots run deep in the soil of the Smokies, have food traditions associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. They may have other cherished practices as well—maybe a game of flag football, a rabbit hunt on the opening day for cottontails, a hike to an old home place where ancestors lived prior to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or something similar. Whatever the case, it is a day not only for giving thanks but for reflection and warm remembrance.

For me personally, it is a day when nostalgia reigns supreme. Much of my thankfulness involves looking back on my youth and early days of manhood with fond recollections of family folkways associated with Thanksgiving. Many, although by no means all, of those enduring memories revolve around food. They encompass not only the actual menu items but how they were procured, the methods of preparation, and the simple fact of identification with the holiday.

Meats of mountain Thanksgivings are as good a place as any to start when it comes to the foodstuffs which have always held my heart (and my stomach, I guess) and meant the most to me. Typically, up until about the time I became a teenager and Grandpa Joe stopped raising hogs, we enjoyed not one but two meats. Since hog killin’ time had, likely as not, occurred only a few days earlier, there might be fried tenderloin for breakfast. Served along with cathead biscuits, sawmill gravy, eggs, grits, and a variety of what Grandpa Joe “extras” with choices including sourwood honey, molasses, jelly, and a commercial corn syrup known as Dixie Dew, there was fodder aplenty to start the day. If perchance hog killin’ time that particular year had taken place earlier in the month, canned sausage or pink, moist, and indescribably delicious slices of home-cured country ham left from the previous fall would take the place of tenderloin.

On Thanksgiving we ate only two meals—the aforementioned hearty breakfast and the family feast in mid- to late afternoon. If one got peckish in the middle of the day, a state which was pretty much perpetual for greedy-gut teenagers such as yours truly, there was always a cold biscuit or some leftover cornbread, along with a glass of milk, for temporary sustenance.

Although I recall having store-bought turkey once I reached early adulthood, the centerpiece on the festive holiday table for many years was baked chicken. One chicken wouldn’t suffice, thanks to the fact that an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would all enjoy the feast. The manner in which the free-range chickens were procured fascinated me, and I loved joining Grandpa in what he called the “getting and killin” of chickens.

Grandpa Joe kept a goodly flock of laying hens throughout the year, and this flock was regularly expanded in the spring by the addition of a bunch of “biddies” (newly hatched chicks). Sometimes these were obtained at the local Farmers’ Federation store and on other occasions they were hatched by the resident hens. Either way, most of these additions disappeared over the course of the summer and early fall, since young, tender fryers provided the standard makin’s for Sunday dinner. In our family, as Bobby Bare sang in a moving song, it was “chicken every Sunday, Lord, chicken every Sunday.”

These fryers were dispatched the same way all chickens for the table were handled in that time and place—either by wringing their necks or chopping off their heads. There’s no pantywaist prissiness and lollipop sentimentalism when it comes to living close to the good earth. You understand the cycle of life and the necessity of death, and it is done in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

It was the way the chickens destined for the Thanksgiving table met with the executioner (Grandpa) which fascinated me, and rest assured I understood where meat came from in a manner which probably nine out of ten of today’s youngsters don’t. I may not have been exactly bloodthirsty, but I would be lying if I said I took no interest in the dispatching of hogs, chickens, or, for that matter, wild game.

Grandpa staunchly maintained that lifting a hen or two from the roost at night, or worse still, chasing them all over the chicken lot until one was cornered, constituted bad business. “Ain’t no one with any sense going to get their table hens that way,” he would say. In his view it put them off their laying, not to mention involving expenditure of way too much energy. Accordingly, Grandpa “fished” for his chickens, no matter whether they were summertime fryers or Thanksgiving baking hens.

He had an exceptionally long cane pole of precisely the same kind he used for fishing. It rested atop two nails in the chicken house except when put to its intended purpose. The only real difference between this cane and the ones he used for fishing was its length—the better part of 20 feet. Attached to the end of the pole was a short strand of the old-time black nylon line once commonly used with casting outfits, and the line was equipped with a medium-sized fish hook.

Grandpa’s use of this tool was the essence of simplicity. He would scatter a handful of scratch feed in an open area of the chicken lot, back off until the hens were busy pecking away, and then present the hook, baited with a small bit of corn, to the chickens. This presentation was not a willy-nilly one. Instead, he tried to place the bait in front of hens which had been remiss in their egg-laying duties.

Once a hen swallowed the hook, she would be pulled in, squawking and flopping in indignant protest, as Grandpa progressed hand over hand from his end of the pole to the one holding the chicken. He would dispatch that hen and catch a second one the same way. Then it was time to remove the entrails, carefully setting aside the giblets for use with gravy and dressing, dunk the carcass in scalding hot water, and pluck the birds. With the birds duly plucked and singed, they were turned over to Grandma Minnie. She would work her magic with them the next day, and the mere thought of getting into the middle of one of those baked hens, where miniature yolks of eggs in the making provided a special treat on Thanksgiving Day, still sets my salivary glands in overdrive.

Along with baked hens, there would be a splendid array of side dishes, pickles, relishes, and other provender. Standard fare include an aunt’s ambrosia, a big pot of either leatherbritches or October beans cooked with streaked meat, greens with small cubes of turnips blended in, creamed corn, sweet potato casserole, cranberry relish, sweet pickles, watermelon rind pickles, pickled peaches, chowchow (for the leatherbritches or October beans), pickled okra, pickled beets, hominy, and more. Other than the baked chicken though, two dishes stand out in my mind as truly emblematic of a mountain Thanksgiving.

One was the dressing which went with the turkey and giblet gravy. It was prepared with cornbread made from stone-ground meal, but the key to its distinctiveness was inclusion of plenty of chopped chestnut meats. Alas, these weren’t the American chestnut which my father and grandfather had known, but instead mast from a Chinese chestnut which grew on our place. To me they were delicious, but Grandpa would often say, about as emotionally moved as you would ever see this hickory-tough old man, “they just ain’t the same.”

A half century has come and gone since those halcyon days of youth, but in a few days (I’m writing this on Nov. 13) my wife will be preparing chestnut meats and putting them aside to make dressing. It is a continuation of a family tradition which means a great deal to me; a memory to cherish and a foodstuff to fancy for all my days.

The other item which had special appeal, then and now, was stack cake. This was one example of many in which Grandma Minnie’s culinary genius came to the forefront. She always made her stack cakes using six layers of cake and applesauce from fruit she had dried in the late summer or early fall. The cake would be prepared three or four days in advance, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around the sauce between each layer had mixed and married with the cake in a marriage of tastes which was almost magical. No matter how much I ate, there was always room left for a big slice of stack cake along with, for good measure, a slightly smaller slice of pumpkin chiffon pie which Mom prepared,

All of the above-named dishes, with orderly ranks of biscuits, hot cornbread, rolls, and maybe some type of sliced tea cake arrayed alongside trenchers, bowls, and platters, would go on display as the women folks worked their collective wonders and brought it all together in a fragrant, delectable finish. The bounty atop the big old dining room table and sideboard at the home of my paternal grandparents was a joy to behold. When the time was at hand and all was in readiness, the entire family would gather around the food, linking hands in a sense of thankfulness and togetherness.

Then in a voice so soft you had to strain to hear him, Grandpa Joe would bless the feast. He always concluded with the same words: “You’uns see what’s before you. Eat hearty.”

Rest assured I followed his suggestion with a degree of gustatory delight that must have been a source of amazement to my elders. Looking back though, it is not only the wonderful food memories of those simpler days and simpler ways of long ago Novembers which warm my heart and fill me with thanksgiving. I now know that all aspects of a Smoky Mountain boyhood formed a treasure which provided me pleasure beyond measure.

***********

SMOKY MOUNTAIN STACK CAKE

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup shortening

1 cup sugar

1 cup molasses

1 cup sweet milk

3 eggs

Sift dry ingredients except sugar together, cream the shortening, then add and mix in sugar a little at a time. Add molasses and blend thoroughly. Then add milk and eggs, beating until smooth. Pour batter a half inch deep in greased nine-inch pans. The batter will make six layers.

After layers of cake have been removed from the oven and cooled, add sauce made from dried apples between each layer and place stack cake in a closed container or the refrigerator. You can also use peach butter made from dried peaches or blackberry jam as a filler between the layers.

***********

I hope you enjoyed Jim’s memories as much as I did. Be sure to jump over to his website and check out his books. While you’re there sign up for his monthly newsletter-its free, interesting to read, and always has recipes to try out.

Tipper

 

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32 Comments

  • Reply
    Becky
    November 25, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Very interesting read!
    And thanks for the recipe, too.

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    November 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Amazing! What a mind that man had. He’s right, you don’t want to go upsetting the chickens 🙂
    I have always wanted to make a stack cake. Now I just need six cake pans and I’m in business!

  • Reply
    Cyndi
    November 21, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    I loved your re-telling memories but somehow it sure doesn’t seem like the
    “Simpler Days”
    That was surely a lot of work!
    Smiles, Cyndi

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    November 21, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    loved the chicken story,. and as always love the memories shared here.. with you all… i wish you all a blessed holiday.. filled with family and good health.. big ladybug hugs
    lynn

  • Reply
    RB
    November 21, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I surely remember all the “chicken processing stuff” as I helped with it many a time as a young teen, but Lord, the cake sound scrumptious.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    November 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks to Jim for sharing! My dad taught me how to paralyze my chickens when I was a girl. I would flip them over in my lap on their back with their head facing out. Gently stroke their breast and they were “out like a light”. You would take your hands away and they would lay there a long time before coming to. Fortunately for my chickens, they were pets and didn’t experience the part that came next while laying paralyzed on a chopping block. My mom’s family wasn’t as gentle about it, they used a quick ring of the neck – I grew up hearing about a chicken that went running around after the deed was done. Certainly glad I never saw that!
    Loved reading about the stack cake. One of my strongest memories of my “Grandma on the Mountain Road” was of her making stack cake. She made the layers really really thin – maybe a quarter inch at the most. They were stacked up about ten deep with filling made from home dried apples. I know it was a labor of love – you could taste it in every bite!
    Happy Thanksgiving to all you kindred spirits – I am thankful to Tipper for bringing us together!

  • Reply
    SandyCarlson (USA)
    November 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for this glimpse into your part of the country and how Thanksgiving is done! Touched my heart.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 21, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you Jim for a fine tale well told. We have a wonderful tradition to uphold. Most folks nowadays are far removed from their food. I’m speaking of the growing and canning part as well as the raise and slaughter part.
    I think we may have been almost destroyed with plastic packages in the grocery store. Seduced by the ease of it.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    November 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Tipper, Jim Casada’s Thanksgiving memories first made me slobber and then evoked very similar memories of fall and Thanksgiving here in the mountains of east tennessee in the 40’s and 50’s .
    Grandpa Joe’s method of catching the chickens sounds great. I personally can see my mama throwing out scratch feed and all the chickens eating . She would strike like a snake and have a hen by the neck , give it a quick flopping jerk and that chicken would be flopping all over the back yard. I begged till she finally let me try it one time but she finally said , let me have that chicken. My mama was a stout woman. My wife said the other day about her granny’s telling her about having to kill a chicken to cook so the children would have something to eat for breakfast. In America today we are 2 generations away from having to process our own food from the field to the table. Part of my grandchildren’s summer education from grandpa is learning the old ways of our people and putting food on the table from the field. Larry Proffitt

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    November 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Tipper,
    and Jim….I am here to tell you that my Aunts and Grannies on both sides had very few free range chickens…except the Banties…They had large chicken lots and houses and treated those chickens, like my Daddy said, “bettern’ than the childern”. They got every little piece of cornbread or scrap between breakfast, dinner and supper that slid down in them big old apron pockets..plus a bucket of corn or grain…so they of course would not be skittish..I can still hear’em holler “Here biddy, biddy, biddy or here chickeeeee, chicky, chicky, chicky” in the sweetest old voice ever was, knowing all the time that the next company Sunday supper would be snatching up and chopping day…!!
    Now then, I got over my sensitive and teary eyed nature after I got married and moved back to the country…Where a straight run of chickens involved weaning out the young roosters to go in the pot…
    One time I was so mad at a old rooster that wouldn’t go back to roost and kept coming on my porch messing around..I run out the door one evenin’, grabbed the axe proped up there and flung it and you know I cold-cocked that old rooster deader than a doornail as he was running off down in the back yard! It went to floppin’ and I got sick my friend had to finish him off…
    Also have cooked the squirrel, rabbit, deer, turtle and many a mess of fish…It’s funny how when your belly gets hungry that your survival mode kicks on…I loved the “release to grease” especially if pine needles happen to be dropping near the fire!
    PS…We used to take fishin’ rods, hook on a beetle, and toss them in the air where the bats swarm at night…in other words we fished for bats…I am over that now..but our boys loved doing it…We just had too many bats!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 21, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Wanda–I certainly wasn’t trying to disturb anyone, but I also was determined to describe things precisely as they were.
    Getting the chickens in the manner I described was quick, efficient, and avoided the problems I mentioned. Mind you, B. Ruth’s alternative approach intrigues me, but I also remember Grandpa’s chickens being skittish as a gun-shy dog even when he scattered scratch feed.
    Of course I guess hog-killing time could have been considered even more gruesome, although I remember it with great fondness and would love to be a part of that tradition again. Participating in hog butchering (killing the pigs, scraping the hide, draining the blood for blood pudding, rendering the lard, fried brains for breakfast, making sausage, pickling the feet, making scrapple or livermush, and generally utilizing everything but the squeal) was hard but wonderfully rewarding work. It was not for the squeamish, but it’s real life as it was in yesteryear.
    I think it’s vitally important we don’t lose our links to the realities of a hardscrabble way of life. It may have been harsh but it also involved real harmony with the natural world. Butchering hogs, wringing or chopping off the necks of chickens, hunting meat for the table, and much more were integral and important parts of life.
    The thought of the fish hook may have been what Grandpa would have described as “off putting,” but look at it in another way. That’s the same sort of thing that happens every time a trout is hooked and ends up on the table. Mind you, there is the option of catch-and-release with trout or other fish, although my inclinations there lean decidedly in the direction of release to grease.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    November 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    MAD–I am intrigued that you had a Kentucky neighbor named Merle Casada. The last name isn’t exactly common, and I don’t know of any relatives with that name in old Kentuck. I do have a cousin living there, but she married a ‘coon’s age ago and with that her maiden name vanished.
    I’ll be sure to pass this on to our sort of unofficial family historian.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    LINDA L. KERLIN
    November 21, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks Jim for a wonderful story and now I am hungry—it sure is interesting to hear how each individual family celebrates and the foodstuffs that accompany that-Often at Thanksgivin’ Dad would have been out a n hunting and came back with a wild turkey and mmmmso good but those days are over and now to market I go and get a fresh turkey but there is nothing as good as wild game- but time moves on and so new traditions need to be added to the family events–I guess most importantly is the fact that we all come together for these special days and then new memories are made for the newest generations..May you all have a blessed Thanksgiving. Linda

  • Reply
    mad
    November 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    my best friend in Kentucky was Merle Casada, also she was my neighbor. i feel the same way you do, about the picture use. I love that photo today

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    November 21, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Several weeks ago, one of my wifes Aunties was talking about Stack cake, and asking if any of us had a recipe. No one did, so we looked on the internet, but nothing we found seemed quits right. I’ll pass this one along, and see if this is close to her WVa memories. Thanks!.

  • Reply
    Shirley Owens
    November 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Tipper, the last time I tried a stack cake, my husband said it was grainy and too dry. I guess the secret is to make the filling a little juicier and let the cake set a couple of days (but it never did get to tasting any better)hehe. These Thanksgiving memories are for me revisiting my precious grandparents and the way of living that they taught me. I’m so grateful to know the old ways and proud to live as close to them as possible.
    By the way, it may not be true but we always hold the chicken upside down until it “goes to sleep” before we chop off it’s head. They do seem to be in a trance of sorts. Many thanks for the recipe, I’ll use it this year for sure.
    Happy Thanksgiving to Chitter and Chatter and Tipper and The Deer Hunter and your whole family. You give me such good pleasure year round.

  • Reply
    Ken
    November 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Tipper,
    Thanks for letting Jim share his
    traditional Thanksgiving Spread. I
    can relate with many of our Smokey
    Mountain meals and the way we got
    them.
    After helping mama prepare most of
    the food the day before, Daddy would get us boys up early on
    Thanksgiving Day to be in the woods before daylite, hoping to
    surprise a big buck. We never let
    him down! Soon as we got home a
    rope was thrown across a big limb
    of a Winesap tree and we went to
    work. By early to mid evening we
    had finished and ready for mama’s
    call to our Thanksgiving Dinner.
    …Ken

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    November 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks, Jim, for a very enjoyable story that stirred lots of memories of Thanksgiving on my grandparents’ farm in Sylva, NC. The memories occurred before my grandfather’s death and sale of the farm when I was 6 years old in 1954, which is a testament to how deeply burned into the mind those memories are.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all the “Acorns”!

  • Reply
    warren
    November 21, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for the great story Jim…I still love coming together in my grandparents’ too-small-for-that-many-people house and eating our mid-afternoon meal before we all take to napping…your memories are great and fun to read about

  • Reply
    Tipper
    November 21, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Stacey-its just regular whole milk : ) And yes-you could use store bought apples!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia
    http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    Tipper
    November 21, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Wanda-that part made me cringe too-yikes! But like Jim said when you live close to the Earth-especially in those days-you just did what you had to do. I’m just glad I don’t have to live that close-And I’m glad any killing or slaughtering that happens around here is handled by The Deer Hunter not me: )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia
    http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    Bradley
    November 21, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Great post with all those memories of Thanksgivings past and those magical words (especially for me) HIGH COUNTRY & SMOKEY MOUNTAINS. They draw me in like a magnet. Still there is a sad reminder that the past has finally slipped into a collection of memories. However, on a brighter note, our memories are what keep us warm!

  • Reply
    Uncle Al
    November 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

    What an excellent story by Jim. I have many similar fond recollections of childhood Thanksgiving days. In addition to my family, I am thankful for the many wonderful people the Lord has seen fit to cross my path. All the ones on Tipper’s page, affectionately known as the “Blind Pig Family” and many other folks have made living in this world a treasure. I am also most thankful for living in the “high country”. Thanks for sharing those memories.
    P.S. Tipper I made the “lunchroom cookies”, chocolate with oats. Oh my goodness they are good. My wife likes them too. (maybe too much) 🙂

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    November 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Tipper,
    and Jim…what a great story of Thanksgiving feasts…
    My Grandmother and Aunts hens trusted them so much and since their memory was so short lived they forgot that another of their (older hen) siblings had went missing!..My relatives would just throw a little grain on the ground, walk in the middle of the trusting hens and just pick one up and walk away…LOL..no trauma until…tucking the head under the wing, move it around and around in the air putting it into a state of confusion and sleep, then take its swimming head out from under the wing and give its’ neck a good jerk…or sometimes immediately chop it off….
    When I was a child, to soften my very sensitive and teary eyed nature they would let me hold it, head under its wing, move it in a circle, putting it to sleep!! I then would hand it to my relative who would walk off with it so I didn’t see the deed, and it made me feel much better that it died in its sleep!..Did you ever put a fowl to sleep before slaughter?
    Thanks for the memories, and Stack Cake, Ambrosia, Fresh Pumpkin Pie, plus in hard times, just the bird, dressing, taters, home canned green beans and the beloved creamed onions…NOT…LOL

  • Reply
    Rick Kratzke
    November 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

    That certainly was a nice guest post Tipper, thank you Jim.
    Thanksgiving has always been my favorite as well. It is a time when most if not all of the family get’s together and shares dishes and eat’s a lot (my favorite as well). I am sad though because I think the traditions and the meaning of thanksgiving don’t mean the same to a lot. My meaning behind that is thanksgiving day is not here yet and the stores and tv commercials are already advertising for christmas. There is something wrong with that I feel. Yes, money is important to everyone but money isn’t everything.
    I hope you and your family have a very nice thanksgiving and enjoy your time together as well as Tipper and her family and the rest of her readers too.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    November 21, 2011 at 8:49 am

    We have our traditions too although we don’t hunt and butcher the turkey ( I think that would have turned me into a Vegan) we tend to eat the same things every year as each of my children married and our extended family grew we added their spouses traditional foods. Now we are over 30 for the holiday meals. We have our old and new favorites every year and a sense of what is ‘right’ for our meals.

  • Reply
    Canned Quilter
    November 21, 2011 at 8:42 am

    That thanksgiving sounds wonderful!

  • Reply
    Debby Brown
    November 21, 2011 at 8:14 am

    I enjoyed Jim’s sharing his memories. I wanted to add that those old stack cakes were a staple in the mountains. For big events such as weddings all the women from the various families would make a one layer cake and bring it. The the women would put all the stacks together and put the apple or jam filling between each layer. That way they had enough cake to go around. Thats the origin of the stack cake that I was told of, and I love that story! Once again, loved Jims memories so much too!

  • Reply
    stacey
    November 21, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Sounds wonderful those are some great memories, and I would love to give the Stack Cake a try but I don’t know what sweet milk is. Is it regular milk with some sugar added? And can I just use store bought applesauce?
    Stacey
    SWPA

  • Reply
    Eva M. Wike, Ph.D.
    November 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Thanks Jim & Tipper: I am tempted to take Jim’s post to my family Thanksgiving Dinner and read it to my three grandsons and ALL! I am even tempted to make a stack cake – but I have never made one – and I know it is not as simple as it appears!!!
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    November 21, 2011 at 7:41 am

    That is a wonderful story full of delicious memories, Jim! I guess this is why a “sideboard” was often called a “groaning board”– all that food put upon it and into hungry stomachs would elicit groans of pleasure and satiety. Happy Thanksgiving —

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    November 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

    I am disturbed by the way the chickens were caught–reminds me of a story my brother told me of a psychotic “friend” who laughed while telling him of how he did this to a cat. To each his own but this is a little too much for me.

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