Appalachia Appalachian Food Folklore Ghosts - Haints - Spooky

The Tradition of the Dumb Supper

Dumb Suppers in Appalachia

A few years ago Mel Hawkins left a comment on the Blind Pig asking if I knew about Dumb Suppers. I told Mel I thought I had heard of them before, but to please enlighten me if he knew about them. Mel sent me the following:

“My little grannie on mama’s side used to entertain us kids with stories of young girls looking to get ’em a husband setting “Dumb Suppers.” They would prepare the meal and table silently, set the table backwards (silverware arranged backerds, etc.), and then await the arrival of their, as of yet unknown, swain…this resulted in many “quare” things like big night bugs flying in and biting off the flame of the lamp (indicating death perhaps), ghosts and haint-like apparitions, and one time two handsome soldiers in Confederate grey eating, kissing the girls goodbye and disappearing–and this was in the late 1800s!”

Mel is from the North Georgia Mountains-just a hop, skip, and a jump from me. After reading about the stories his Granny told him I had to do a little research.

Fellow Western NC writer Gary Carden has written about Dumb Suppers here: First Footers and Dumb Suppers. Carden describes the dumb supper ritual as taking place on New Year’s Eve.

The book American Regional Folklore: A Sourcebook and Research Guide edited by Terry Ann Mood, describes the ritual of dumb suppers as:

“…the custom of “dumb suppers” during which young girls prepare a meal in total silence, then sit down to eat it with an empty chair between each two girls. If a man comes in and sits in one of the chairs it is thought that he will marry the girl he sits next too.”

Mary Briggs from Life In A Cordwood Cabin wrote a post about dumb suppers back in 2009. Mary said:

“The purpose of a dumb supper is for a young, unmarried woman to see the ‘spirit’ of the man that she is going to marry. The meal is prepared in complete silence~no talking (dumb) whatsoever. Most people believed that you had to walk backwards while cooking and serving the dumb supper.

When the dinner is done, an extra place is set at the table and the young girl (or girls if done in a group), open all the windows and doors and take their place at the table and bow their head. Sometimes all the lights are blown out, as well. The ‘phantom’ husbands are supposed to enter in silence. Each girl should be able to recognize the ‘husband’ that sits down beside her. If no one appears, it means that she will never marry. If only a dark blob appears, it means she will die within the year.

There are quite a few versions of this ‘supper’. Some involve making the dinner using thimblefuls for ingredients instead of spoons and cups. In some versions, they see the ‘reflection’ of their husband’s face in their empty plates.”

Vera, a commenter on Mary’s blog had this to say about dumb suppers:

I have heard my mom and aunts talk about dumb suppers. My Aunt Irma told me that her and two or three friends started a dumb supper one time but they got too scared to go through with it. Everything had to be done backwards, you had an empty chair beside everyone for their future husband to sit in. No one could talk while this supper was being prepared. Maybe I have heard about this because I am a lot older than most of you.

I’m glad Mel sent me down the road of dumb suppers-fascinating folklore. Makes me wonder if there are any girls out there using dumb suppers to catch a glimpse of their future husbands today.

The dumb supper custom is one Chatter and Chitter could never participate in. If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting them you’ll know the reason why: They could NEVER be silent!

Have you ever heard of dumb suppers?

Tipper

You Might Also Like

15 Comments

  • Reply
    Sheila Kuhn
    April 14, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Well, well, well! Bless Pat! I’ve never heard this version.
    My version of the dumb supper is to invite your beloved departed friends and ancestors in to dine with you, on or around Samhain (October 31st) when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest. Some folks also do this around May 1st. The meal is served in silence and messages are left to those that are extra sensitive to communicating with those souls that have gone on ahead. We have attended a Dumb Supper in Salem MA. and we have held three such suppers in our home. We usually get around 30 diners. It’s the most meaningful night of our year, many diners quietly weep over their plates. Dumb Supper’s here in our part of Appalachia still continue and they are no joke. I wish I could post pics from our dumb suppers. Thank you for your version, fascinating information.

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    October 20, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    Strange the things some people believe in, but then, strange things do happen from time to time, don’t they. LOL
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    Sherry
    October 19, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    Well I never!!! I have never heard of dumb suppers. That’s a new one on me.

  • Reply
    Ava Abbott
    October 19, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    I just read the Sharyn McCrumb book! She has written several books based on Appalachian ballads or stories. This one was inspired by true events surrounding the last public hanging in the U.S. It took place in Kentucky in 1936.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    October 19, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Did Dumb Suppers go the way of the Hope Chest? I have found many of the old traditions to be very charming–had not heard of the Dumb Supper. It is just as well, as I daresay I would have had as much trouble staying quiet as Chitter and Chatter. Tamela suggested the possibility that technology would keep a true chatterbox quiet–NOT!

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    October 19, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Tipper,
    Whoa, I wouldn’t want to do a dumb supper if I were a young lady.This is streching the immagination to it’s limits.
    Mary Lou McKillip

  • Reply
    Ken
    October 19, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Tipper,
    One of my favorite videos is when you, Paul, Chitter and Chatter went looking for Pap’s spring. You were behind, narrating and filming, and the other three had gone on ahead. As you caught up with them, I could hear the Girls in a rough, arguing over something. You stopped talking for a minute and then started up again as if nothing had happened. Poor ole Paul was silent for that one, he didn’t want to get told off.ha
    That was a Classic moment…Ken

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    I’ve never heard of a dumb supper but Jim is 100% correct, Chitter and Chatter would never make it through a meal without chittering and chattering.
    I really like Brian Blakes family tradition of welcoming the absent guest!

  • Reply
    Ken
    October 19, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Tipper,
    I never heard of “dumb suppers”, maybe because there was no girls in our family. But if there had been, all six of us boys would have been there to Protect her. …Ken

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    October 19, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Tipper–You for sure said a mouthful when you suggested that Chitter and Chatter (apt monikers for those two, I might add) have no future when it comes to participation in dumb suppers. With those two, silence is decidedly not golden.
    That makes me wonder about something. I’m pretty sure I remember one or the other of the girls telling me about killing a turkey or a deer. In either case, I have to wonder how in the world the Deer Hunter kept them quiet enough and still enough to succeed.
    He must have worked some special fatherly magic.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Tamela
    October 19, 2016 at 10:00 am

    This is a new one on me! Sounds like a good idea for a Halloween sleep-over. At first I thought, “there’s no way the girls could stay quiet!” The I remembered, “Technology! The story didn’t say nothin’ about their thumbs staying still!”

  • Reply
    BRIAN P BLAKE
    October 19, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Charming! This is a very old Jewish tradition as well. Admiring the sentiment, at our family reunions we set a chair for “the absent guest” and the senior person present recites this welcome:
    “Time was when those of us gathered here had not been born, and those who honor our traditions today will be one with history tomorrow. Others undreamed of will occupy our chairs at this bountiful table. They are our Absent Guests, with standing invitations. We welcome them, our fondly anticipated descendants, in the parade of life that never ends.
    “Jesus said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.’ Therefore, if another guest in whatever form, great or humble, should happen to appear before us, we shall make room and declare him one of us.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 19, 2016 at 8:51 am

    Dumb suppers must not have been a folkway where I grew up, leastwise I never heard of them. Unless being a male kept me from hearing about them. Doesn’t seem to be something the men would talk about much. But, in my family anyway, anything that involved the occult would have been frowned on I think. Isn’t there a variation that involves an single woman seeing her prospective husband in a mirror? I don’t know where that memory came from but I seem to recall some talk like that………

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 19, 2016 at 7:53 am

    I had heard the name, but not what all it was about. Interesting.

  • Reply
    Candy Davis
    October 19, 2016 at 5:56 am

    I had heard of dumb suppers, again because of a book by Sharyn McCrumb. The book is called Prayers the Devil Answers. It starts with a dumb supper and goes on to tie it in with the events that happen in the life of the main character. I didn’t know it was a real thing though. I though she had made it up. I sure learned something today!

  • Leave a Reply