Grandpa Joe didn’t particularly care for the month of February. It tended to bring bitter weather, with more than a fair share of cold rain or snow, and as someone who had, for his entire life, spent most of his waking hours outdoors, that was disgruntling. He held strong opinions about the month and as was his wont on any subject when he was around me, he never hesitated to express them. “February needs to be short,” he would mutter in his barely audible manner, “because if the month was any longer I don’t believe a body could tolerate it.” I have to muse a bit on what he would say were he alive today, because this has been the most rain-laden February in my memory. Although I know better, I’m beginning to wonder whether the ground will ever get dry enough for me to run a tiller. And just think, some years I’ve had green peas and onion sets in the ground by now.
One thing about Grandpa though; at heart he was an optimist. Mind you, he may have had an overly healthy streak of distrust in mankind in general, and during the years I knew him he had no truck whatsoever with the government, bureaucrats, or organized religion. Still, he always looked ahead to coming spring with eagerness, and by the latter half of February, no matter how miserable the weather, he would be talking about planting by the signs, getting his garden spots “laid off,” ordering a bunch of peepers (baby chickens) through the local Farmers’ Federation, and fishing experiences which lay ahead. Those mental exercises dominated our conversation in the dead of winter. He variously described them as “figurin’,” “dreamin’ and schemin’,” or just “looking down the road.”
February’s good for that if not a great deal else. For the gardener, colorful seed catalogs promising more and prettier bounty than one ever actually manages to grow have arrived. They lend themselves to sessions of dreaming, whether or not you buy seeds from them (Grandpa bought locally from bulk seed and if you want to save money, get seed suited for your area, and deal with local merchants, that’s still a good way to go).
For the sportsman, the month can be something of a wipeout. Sure, squirrel, rabbit, and bird seasons were still open, and when I was a boy we hunted hard right through until closing day. However, bushytails tended to be mighty wary by this time of year, and usually we had already pressured all the nearby prime cottontail places hard. In today’s world, thanks to changes in equipment and even in seasons, trout fishing is possible. When I was a boy that wasn’t the case. Trout season in both Park and state waters in the Smokies was closed until April or early May.
Nor did I enjoy the opportunity, as a youngster, to do something which has long become a standard part of February for me in today’s world. It’s a month for sporting shows and expos. They likely existed in faraway places all those decades ago, but back then a sporting show involved a visit to Doc Woody’s tiny sporting goods store or an hour-long gander of wishful thinking browsing the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Grandpa enjoyed the latter activity as well, although to my knowledge he never ordered a single item from that catalog or transacted any business whatsoever through the United States Postal Service. I doubt if he would even have known how to make a mail order, and he was far too proud to ask someone else to do it. He didn’t receive any social security, his children attended to matters such as taxes, and he functioned exclusively in a realm of barter and occasional expenditure of something he had precious little of, cash money.
While aspects of my current approach to February, at least when it involves matters such as tax preparation or perhaps attendance at a regional or national sporting goods show, is a dramatic departure from youthful days, others remain closely attuned to what the month. Every returning February finds me indulging in my own dreamin’ and schemin’, scouting for turkeys, making arrangements for a trip or two, planting some early garden items if the soil permits it (not this year, we are not far removed from the Biblical “40 days and 40 nights,” with it having rained 11 of the last 14 days and it’s raining right now), and getting ready for more serious garden work lying not far in the future.
Thinking about and doing such things gets me through February, as was the case in the 1950s when Grandpa would start talking about spring fishing. Never mind that his planning involved nothing more than a trip up Deep Creek or maybe just down to Devil’s Dip in the Tuckaseigee River a short way below his house. That stands in marked contrast to the cross-country and even international travel I’ve been privileged to enjoy, but the month’s sense of building anticipation, with realization that the worst of winter will soon be gone, sustained me then as it does now.
Thanks to a grand old mentor’s outlook from long ago, that planning and preparing for the immediate future fun offers an ideal way to dispel any temporary blues associated with cabin fever in the present. When all else failed, I could always heed the advice offered by a couplet associated with the month:
Curl warm in a corner with a book as a friend,
And your February blues are soon at an end.
It’s a nostrum which has served me well for many a February, just as Grandpa Joe found refuge in reliving past glories and planning future triumphs.
*A warm October means a chilly February.
* If February gives much snow, a fine summer it doth show.
*When February brings Snow and ice, look for June to be mighty nice.
THIS MONTH’S BOOK SPECIALS
A REAL TURKEY BOOKS BLOW-OUT—MY BIGGEST EVER
One of the paucity of blessings offered by February is that its arrival means turkey hunting season isn’t too far distant. As these words are being written, with grey, grim skies, temperatures in the low 40s, and misting rain, it seems impossibly far off. In truth though, opening day for me lies less than a month away. With that in mind, all this month’s special offers focus on turkey books. Please note that for these I’ll only take payment by check, money order, or cash—no PayPal. Postage is $5 for the first book, an additional $2.50 each for the next two, with the maximum for any order being $10. Insurance, at $3.00 per $100, is extra if you want it. I have multiple copies of all the books listed, so unlike what is sometimes the situation, this isn’t a first-come, first-served situation.
I’ll start with two turkey hunting books of my own.
Jim Casada, Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting’s Old Masters. An award-winning work profiling 27 of our country’s turkey-hunting icons from yesteryear, complete with plenty of photographs. Hardbound in dust jacket. $25.
Jim Casada, The Literature of Turkey Hunting. A limited edition (750 numbered and signed copies) in a slipcase with Skivvertex binding to both the book and the slipcase in which it is inserted, gilt imprinting, and much more. Retails for $100; only $55.
Now let’s turn to a whole bunch of books where I’m overstocked or just need to move some copies. These are bargain prices and are good ONLY on orders placed between now and the end of March, 2019.
Gerry Blair, Turkey Hunting with Gerry Blair. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1991. Hardback. 280 pp. Illus. Insight from an old-time hunter who was associated in various editorial capacities with Turkey Hunter and Turkey & Turkey Hunting magazines. As new. $9.
Dwain Bland, Turkey Hunter’s Digest. Northbrook, IL: DBI Books, 1986. Paperback, large format. Illus. 256 pp. Fine. A detailed “how to” treatment. $12.
Philip Bourjaily, The Field & Stream Turkey Hunting Handbook. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999. Paperback. X, 115 pp. Illus., index. A useful primer. As new. $7.
James F. Brady, Modern Turkey Hunting. NY: Crown Publishers, 1973. Hardback in dj. Illus. 160 pp. One of the early books of the modern restoration era, with an Introduction by Wayne Bailey. $12.
Toby Bridges, Hunting America’s Wild Turkey: Proven Techniques form the Experts. Accokeek, MD: Stoeger Publishing Co., 2001. Paperback. 288 pp. Illus., index. New. $12.
Bristol, Hunting Wild Turkeys in New England. Thorndike, ME: North Country Press, 1986. Paperback. 170 pp. Out-of-print now for many years. As new. $10.
Richard Combs, Turkey Hunting Tactics of the Pros. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2002. Hardback in dj. viii, 200 pp. Illus. New. $10.
Richard Combs, Advanced Turkey Hunting. Bellvale, NY: Woods N’ Water, 2002. Hardback in dj. viii, 165 pp. Illus., New. $10.
Daniel A. Dia Paul, Turkey Hunting’s Finer Points. Bloomington, IN: 1st Books, 2000. Paperback. 108 pp. Illus. New. Signed and inscribed. $14.
James G. Dickson (Compiler and Editor), The Wild Turkey. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books (for the NWTF), 1992. Hardback in dj. 463 pp. Illus., extensive bibliog., index. New. A coffee table size book of great importance. A real bargain at $20.
Simon Everitt, Tales of Wild Turkey Hunting. Medon, TN: Old Masters, 1984. Hardback. A delightful collection of stories by an old-time North Carolina hunter who styled himself “The Kurnel” makes fascinating reading. The original is almost impossible to find and there is no other reprint. New. No dj (as issued). I recently saw this reprint advertised for $135! Only $35.
Rich Faler, Urban Turkey: Hunting Spring Gobblers Close to Civilization. Greenville, PA: Beaver Pond Publishing, 1992. Paperback. 96 pp. Illus. As new. $10.
Wayne Fears (editor), The Wild Turkey Book. Clinton, NJ: Amwell Press, 1981. Illustrated by Tom Hennessy. 274 pages. Hardback copy of the trade edition (2nd printing—lacks box and signature pages of limited edition). 1982. Good. $20.
Gesna Felts Griffith, Happy Times Hunting in Alabama’s Beautiful Woods. No date or place (privately printed). Paperback. Illustrated. 58 pages. Very fine. Rare. Signed. This is a reprint of the original, and can be distinguished primarily by the paper stock. $20.
Earl Groves, Talking Tomfoolery 2000. Wildwood Publications, no date (c. 2000). Wraps. Xiv, 347 pages. Illustrated. Signed and inscribed. $10.
Michael Hanback, Spring Gobbler Fever: Your Complete Guide to Spring Turkey Hunting. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1996. Paperback. 256 pages. Fully illustrated. Wisdom from a skilled hunter whom I consider one of the best modern writers on the sport. Covers all key areas of the sport. New. $8.
Frank P. Harben, Hunting Wild Turkeys in the Everglades. Safety Harbor, FL: Harben Publishing Co., 1982. Paperback. 341 pages. Illus. Very fine. Becoming quite rare. Signed copy and a bargain at $20.
Dave Harbour, Advanced Wild Turkey Hunting & World Records. NY: Winchester Press, 1983. 284 pages. Hardback, illustrated. Fine in dj. The best-known book from one of the sport’s best-known modern personalities. $20.
Dave Harbour, Hunting the American Wild Turkey. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Press, 1975. Very fine in dust jacket. Hardback. 256 pages. $25.
Bob Humphrey, New England Turkey Hunting: Strategies for Success. (Foreword by Jim Casada—I’ll gladly inscribe if you wish). Pownal, ME: Sport-Ventures, 2003. Paperback. 278 pp. Illus. A fine new book by a dedicated hunter. While its title and a portion of the book are region-specific, most of it has applicability all across the country. $15.
Ransom Jones, Turkey Tracks: From Hatch to Harvest. Brookhaven, MS: Larsen’s Outdoor Publishing, 1995. Paperback. 288 pp. Illus. Inscribed copy of a detailed, insightful work, which the author calls “a complete textbook,” giving an old-time hunter’s insights on the sport he loves. Folksy and fun, this is a book missing from many turkey hunting libraries. New. $20.
Tom Kelly, Better on a Rising Tide. NY: The Lyons Press, 1995. Hardback. 2nd printing. Getting hard to find. Signed. $35.
Tom Kelly, Dealer’s Choice. NY: The Lyons Press, (1998). Hardback. xi, 116 pp. Reprint of the 1983 original. New in dj. $23.
Tom Kelly, A Hat Full of Rabbits! Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, 2006. Hardback in dust jacket. 12 rollicking tales, 150 pages, of the inimitable Colonel Tom’s stuff. Signed. $16.
Tom Kelly, Take Back in Fancy. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2005. Hardback in dj. 169 pages. Fourteen more timeless tales from the master. Signed. $20.
Roger M. Latham, The Complete Book of the Wild Turkey. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1976. Hardback. New, revised edition Illus. by Ned Smith. 228 pp. Illus., bibliog., index. Fine in dust jacket. Important and becoming difficult to find. $24.
Brian Lovett (Editor), Turkey Hunters’ Almanac—2005. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2005. Paperbound. 208 pages. Illustrated. As new. Signed. Although the date in the title might suggest that this was to be an annual publication, such was not the case. This is the only Almanac published. It is missing from most collections and is little known. $15.
John McDaniel, The American Wild Turkey: Hunting Tactics and Techniques. NY: The Lyons Press, 2000. Hardback. 248 pp. Arguably the most important book on turkey hunting to appear in a generation, this is a must for every serious turkey hunter’s collection. Now out of print and already becoming difficult to locate. If you don’t have it, get it now. $15.
John McDaniel, The Turkey Hunter’s Book. Clinton, NJ: Amwell Press, 1980. Paperbound. 148 pp. $12.
Edward A. McIlhenny, The Wild Turkey and Its Hunting. Camden, SC: The Premier Press, 1986. Hardback. With a new introduction by John Randolph. From a limited, numbered edition of 3000 copies. As new. Leather bound (beautiful red binding), gold embossing, all edges gilt, ribbon marker, marbled end papers, indeed, all, the appurtenances of the finest in book binding. A true collector’s item. $110.
John H. Mettler, Jr., Wild Turkeys: Hunting and Watching. Pownal, VT: Storey Books, 1998. Paperback. Viii, 167 pp. Illus., index. Particularly useful on the habits of turkeys and on dressing and cooking your bird. A straightforward “how to” book. New. $7.
Earl Mickel, Longbeards, Callmakers and Memories. Privately printed for the author, 2005. Large format hardback. Xiv, 258 pages. Illus., index. The final book of Mickel’s trilogy. The author covers another 100 or so callmakers and gives state-by-state accounts of hunts that led to killing a turkey in every state except Alaska (which has no turkeys). Sure to become a classic, as have Earl’s earlier works. Signed copies. New. $25.
.Mossy Oak, Adventures of the Camo Cameras. Brandon, MS: True Exposures Publishing, 2001. Hardback. Illus. 144 pp. Includes my “The Camo Cameras in New Zealand.” Beautiful photos. I’ll gladly sign if you wish. $13.
Outdoor Life (Editors), Turkey Season. Minnetonka, MN: Cowles Creative Publishing, 2000. Paperback. 224 pp. Illus. A collection of 28 pieces by various writers covering all aspects of the turkey hunting experience. New. $10.
Michael Pearce, Hunting Wild Turkeys with Ray Eye. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1990. Hardback. 208 pp. Illus. As new in dj. Rare. Signed by the author. $50.
John E. Phillips, Outdoor Life Complete Turkey Hunting. NY: Outdoor Life Books, 1988. Hardback. 318 pp. Illustrated. Very fine in vf dj. Signed copy. $15.
Phil Phillips, The Grand Obsession: A Half Century of Hunting the Wild Turkey in Florida. NY: Vantage Press, 2001. Hardback. xvi, 176 pp. Illus. As new. This book wins my award for the finest title adorning any modern turkey book. It is a delightful work, full of storytelling of just the sort one encounters around campfires and in hunt camps. Highly recommended. Warmly inscribed and signed. $45.
Another copy. Lacks dust jacket. $35.
Rod Pope, Wind from the Cow Pens. Ocala, FL: Privately published, n.d. (2009). Hardback in dust jacket. vi, 120 pages. Illustrated. A philosophical look at turkey hunting from a fine teller of tales. Signed, as new. $24.
Bill Privette, Shake a Tailfeather One More Time. Paperback. Signed and numbered copies of a limited, numbered edition of 500. 208 pages. The subtitle pretty well says it all: “Tale Tales & Folderol, Balderdash & Tomfoolery while Hunting Wild Turkeys.” I have the following numbered copies: 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37. $14.
Roger Raisch, Turkey Hunting Secrets. West Des Moines, Iowa: American Heritage Publishers, 1990. 2nd printing. Paperback. 240 pp. Illus. $12.
Jerome B. Robinson, In the Turkey Woods. NY: The Lyons Press, 1998. Hardback. 207 pp. Illus., index. $17.
Bob Saile, The Sultan of Spring: A Hunter’s Odyssey Through the World of the Wild Turkey. NY: The Lyons Press, 1998. Hardback. 163 pp. Illus. New in dj. $11.
Jim Spencer, Bad Birds (with an Introduction by Brian Lovett and a special contribution from Larry Dablemont). Bolivar, MO: Lightin’ Ridge Books, 2010. Paperbound. xii, 224 pages. Illustrated. Signed and inscribed. Great stuff from one of today’s best writers on the sport. $12.
Jim Spencer, Turkey Hunting Digest: Words of Wisdom on a Grand Spring Sport (with a Foreword by Tom Kelly). Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2003. Large format paperback. 336 pp, lavishly illustrated. Signed by both the author and Tom Kelly! As new copy of a grand book by a guy who really knows his stuff. $15.
Mike Strandlund and Earl Hower, Wild Turkey Hunting. Washington, D. C.: NRA, 1988. Paperback. X, 182 pp., Illus. A volume, quite well done on the whole, in the NRA’s “Hunter Skills” series. About fine. $7.
Same book in hardback. Fine in dj. $11.
Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, The Truth: About Spring Turkey Hunting According to “Cuz.” Brandon, MS: True Exposures Publishing, Inc., 2000. Hardback. 116 pp. Illustrated. Signed. Cuz Strickland is one of the wisest, wittiest men in the turkey hunting field, and this book, the first in a trilogy (you guessed it, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth are the scheduled sequels), is a pure delight. You’ll laugh and you’ll learn. $15.
Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, The Whole Truth. With an Introduction by Jim Casada. Accokeek, MD: Stoeger Publishing, 2003. Hardback in dj. 120 pp. Illus. Now out of print and increasingly difficult to locate. I’ll gladly sign if you desire. $25.
Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, And Nothing But the Truth. Brandon, MSS: True Exposures Publishing, 2009. Hardback in dust jacket. With a Foreword by Tom Kelly. 120 pages. Illustrated. Signed. $20.
SPECIAL OFFER—SET of all three “Cuz” books. $55.
John Trout, Jr., The Complete Book of Wild Turkey Hunting. NY: The Lyons Press, 2000. Paperback. 266 pp. Illus., index. Detailed coverage from a prolific writer on the sport. With the author’s signed business card tipped in. $16.
Lovett E. Williams, Jr., After the Hunt. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1996. Paperback. 255 pp. Lavishly illustrated. An interesting, informative look at all sorts of details associated with hunting – making calls, trophy uses of your bird, cooking tips and recipes, and the like. Highly recommended. New. $8.
Wade Wineman, Bird of Courage. Greenville, MS: OK Publishing, 2007. Hardback in dj. xvi, 184 pages. Sequel to East of the Slash. Splendid storytelling. New. Signed. $45.
I’ve always had something of a propensity for working in fits and starts. At times I’ll be busy as a bee in sourwood season; at others lazy as a yard dog in the summer sun. Of late, thankfully, I’ve been in the busy bee mode. I have no real explanation for the upsurge in industry although unquestionably miserable weather keeping me indoors and the fact that writing provides something of an escape from stress have been factors. Whatever the case, I’ve been reasonably productive of late.
Far and away my most important accomplishment has been completion of the book manuscript which, for now at least, bears the title “A Smokies Boyhood and Beyond: Mountain Memories and Musings.” I finished it and have submitted it for a publisher’s consideration. It’s a long leap, and often a bunch of them, between submission and having a book in print. The standard procedure begins with the prospective publisher expressing potential interest (I’m past that point—they are keenly interested). Next comes submission of the manuscript to the sometimes not-so-tender mercies of multiple readers. I’ve been on the reader end a bunch of times so I know what is involved. Those readers judge the merits of the book from a whole bunch of perspectives including how well it is written, originality, potential interest to readers, marketability, whether there are similar books already in print, and more. If they collectively feel good about the book, or maybe if just a majority of them reacts favorably, the publisher decides whether or not they want to offer a contract. If they do, then comes the sometimes tedious necessity of contract negotiations.
In truth a lot of authors are so excited that they are about to be in print they essentially ignore this vital step. I don’t. The laborer is worthy of his salt and unless you stick up for what you think is fair and just, chances are you’ll get trampled in the contract. They are ALWAYS written, whether intentionally or simply as a boilerplate practice, in favor of the publisher. I believe in give and take and always go into the guts of any contract with a keen eye out for clauses or approaches I find problematic.
Right now things stand at a distant remove—probably two or three months at earliest—from reaching that stage. I’ve long since learned that it doesn’t do any good to wonder and worry, and in the case of this book it will get published regardless. If it comes to that, I’ll print it myself and I’ve done enough of that to know the basic road map. However, I’d prefer it didn’t reach that point. I’ll keep you apprised but meanwhile, to channel my mind in other directions, I’m busy on another manuscript which is a direct outgrowth of the “Smokies Boyhood” effort.
I started out thinking I’d include coverage of food-related matters in the boyhood book, but realization soon dawned that there was simply too much subject matter in that particular field; hence, I decided on an entirely separate book. Its working title is “Mountain Fixin’s: A Smokies Food Memoir.”
I’m already 50,000-plus words in, so I’ve made major strides. The book will combine perhaps 125 to 150 recipes, all strictly traditional mountain foods, with abundant narrative material encompassing my memories of Smokies foodways and food lore. As I did with the boyhood book, I’m going to share the working table of contents with you, my readers. Several of you had helpful, meaningful suggestions when I did so with “A Smokies Boyhood,” and I’m again asking you to offer you wisdom, insight, and thoughts. If you see and obvious oversight or would like to have coverage of a given topic (just remember this is a book focusing strictly on mountain approaches to food) please share your ideas with me. I’d be greatly appreciative, and here’s the table of contents as it currently stands.
A SMOKIES FOOD MEMOIR
STAPLES OF LIFE
CHAPTER 1—CORN IN MOUNTAIN LIFE
CHAPTER 3—YARD BIRD
CHAPTER 4—DOMESTIC FRUITS
CHAPTER 5—GARDEN VEGETABLES
CHAPTER 6—DRIED FOODS
CHAPTER 7—WINTER SQUASH
CHAPTER 9—CHEROKEE FOODS
FOODS FROM NATURE AND SEASONAL FARE
CHAPTER 10—WILD GAME AND FISH
CHAPTER 11—WILD VEGETABLES
CHAPTER 12—WILD FRUITS
CHAPTER 15—SWEETENINGS—MOLASSES, HONEY, MAPLE SYRUP, AND MORE
PREPARING AND PRESERVING
CHAPTER 17—SALTING AND CURING
CHAPTER 20—NEW YEAR’S FARE
CHAPTER 21—SPRING TONICS
CHAPTER 22—EASTER EATS
CHAPTER 23—HOMECOMING DISHES
CHAPTER 24—DINNER ON THE GROUNDS
CHAPTER 25—FAMILY REUNIONS
GLOSSARY: SMOKIES FOOD TERMS
AFTERWORD: SUGGESTED READING AND RESOURCES: A BIBLIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY
In addition to this effort, I’ve been beavering away on a short overview of the history of Mossberg, a classic American gunmaker celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019. The Mossberg tale is one of family efforts through the generations, the type of work ethic which underlies much of what has been great about this country, and well-made firearms at an affordable price. I finished that endeavor this past week. Beyond that it’s just business as usual—a good many hours daily in front of the computer, plenty of reading connected both with work and for pure pleasure (I’ve been on a Southern writers kick of late, with Pat Conroy, Wiley Cash, Fred Chappell, and Eudora Welty figuring in the mix), and when the weather admits, plain piddlin’ outside.
As the table of contents for the food memoir I’m busy working on indicates, my tentative title for the book is “Mountain Fixin’s.” With that in mind, this month’s recipes are devoted to some of the most memorable dishes from my boyhood, and they range widely.
In logging camps in the Smokies, and it was true of Civilian Conservation Corps camps as well, gravy was a daily standard on the breakfast menu. There wasn’t any “make a roux” approach you might get from a trained chef, and flour didn’t figure in the approach. Those hard-working men needed vittles which would carry them through the day, and gravy was an integral part of it. Sawmill gravy was normally made using the hot grease left from frying streaked meat (salt pork, middlin’ meat, streak-of-lean, and fatback were other terms for the pork). Since the meat was largely fat it produced plenty of grease. Corn meal would be dumped into the huge iron spiders in which the port had been cooked and stirred vigorously as it browned. This happened quickly and once the browning reached a point the cook deemed suitable, he would add milk to thin the grease-meal mix and continue doing so until satisfied with the end result. Incidentally, I say “he” because logging camp cooks were normally, though not always, males. The existence was a rough and rowdy one ill-suited to the tastes of any but the hardiest and most self-sufficient of women, although females who did cook in such situations were almost always beloved characters. Note: If you make sawmill gravy, and I do fairly often, just keep in mind that you need to get it thinner than you think appropriate when it comes off the stove. It thickens rapidly.
MOMMA’S FRIED CHICKEN
Chicken, which today usually ranks as the cheapest of the meats you can buy at your local grocery, wasn’t the meat of choice for mountain folks of my youth. Pork held pride of place and you only got to enjoy yard bird (chicken) on special occasions. At our house that translated to Sundays and holidays, although lyrics for the old Bobby Bare song running “chicken every Sunday, Lord, chicken every Sunday” were quite accurate. I’ll acknowledge at the outset that try as I might I’ve never quite been able to match Momma’s fried chicken, and I don’t think anyone else has either. Grandma Minnie was a wizard in the kitchen, but when it came to frying chicken Mom had her beat. My brother Don fries first-rate chicken as well, but somehow it’s never quite as succulent or melt-in-your-mouth tender as Momma’s.
1 or 2 whole chickens, cut into pieces (legs, thighs, wings, and breasts) with skin left intact
1 or 2 eggs beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Drench each piece in the egg wash and then coat thoroughly with flour (mix your salt and pepper in with the flour) before placing in piping hot oil in a cast iron spider (I think cooking in cast iron makes a difference, but don’t ask me to prove it). Cook slowly until thoroughly brown.
All of this seems normal enough, but it is Mom’s final step that made all the difference. Once she had all the chicken fried and placed atop paper towels to drain a bit, she would clean the cast iron skillet and put the fried chicken back in it. She would then turn the oven on at low heat (200 degrees or maybe a bit less) and put the skillet in the oven. She normally did this just before heading off to church on Sunday. After church she would pop the skillet out of the oven once she had readied the rest of the meal. I don’t recommend leaving it for a couple of hours the way she did, or at least not until you figure out the right timing and temperature of the oven. Being in the oven seemed to do two things—cook away some of the surplus grease and make the chicken so tender it almost fell from the bones and melted in your mouth. Mercy was it fine!
CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS
1 large (mature hen or rooster) chicken cut into pieces (legs, thighs, wings, halved breast, neck, back)
1 large sweet onion
4-5 large carrots scraped and cut into two-inch sections
4 stalks celery cut into sections
8 cups chicken broth, equivalent amount made using chicken base, or the equivalent from chicken stock you have made
Salt and black pepper to taste
Green peas or spinach
Cook the chicken pieces, carrots, onion, celery and seasoning in a large stew pot for an hour. At the end of the hour add ¾ cup of green peas or a double handful of washed spinach and cook for an additional 15 minutes. At the end of the cooking process you can thicken the chicken and broth, if desired, with a bit of cornstarch. I personally like the broth somewhat “runny” because it seems to mix best with the dumplings. Add cooked dumplings to the chicken-vegetables-broth and serve piping hot.
½ cup milk
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Slowly add milk to dry ingredients. Drop by teaspoons into boiling liquid. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until dumplings are done in the center.
TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN CORNBREAD
I think it likely I’ve shared this recipe before, but I enjoy cornbread so much, and bake a pone so often, that I’ll do it one more time. In my view the keys to making really good cornbread are: (1) Cook it in a well-greased cast iron skillet, (2) Grease the skillet with streaked meat or bacon, (3) Use stone-ground cornmeal from white corn, and (4) Include the right ingredients. Most store-bought cornmeal has been ground at too high a temperature and this does something to the flavor. Also, stone-ground cornmeal, even if it is sifted, has more body or “crunch” to it. Buttermilk, eggs, and lard are essential if you want really moist cornbread. This simple recipe has served me and my family well for as far back as my memory stretches, and I know Grandma Minnie was preparing it this way, though she never measured anything, before the turn of the 20th century.
2 cups cornmeal (white or yellow corn, although I think that by far the best meal comes from a white field corn such as Hickory King)
1 cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
3 tablespoons grease from streaked meat or bacon
Prepare skillet in advance (using the streaked meat you cook to get grease). Mix the buttermilk, salt, baking soda and egg with cornmeal and stir thoroughly. Pour streaked meat grease into the batter and stir in well. Pour batter into pre-heated skillet and bake at 425 degrees for a half hour or until the top crust is golden brown. The bottom crust should be dark brown and the whole pone perfect for crumbling up in a bowl of pot likker. You can sop with cornbread if you wish, but for the ideal marriage of pot likker and cornpone, a big soup bowl is the way to go.
Cracklings are, in my lexicon, what’s left over when you render hog fat into lard. I regularly read cookbooks from outsiders which describe cracklin’s broken up pieces of fried streaked meat, pork rinds, and even tidbits left over from cooking a whole hog. Maybe they are all right, but for this son of the Smokies who has been a hands-on participant in the bloody, messy, arduous, and smelly work of hog-killing time, I’ll go with those greasy little chunks of cholesterol-laden delight we skimmed from the huge cast iron pot where lard was being rendered. I might add that’s usually not what you get when you buy cracklin’s from the grocery store. All that aside, and all pronouncements from medical Nazis notwithstanding, properly made cracklin’ cornbread is a culinary gift from the gods. Here’s a recipe, although you can also infuse cracklin’s into the recipe given above.
1 pint cracklin’s
1 quart slow ground cornmeal
1 pint buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
Generous pinch of salt
Use a rolling pin to crush the cracklin’s into small bits. Make dough of cornmeal, buttermilk, baking soda, and salt. Heat the cracklin’s in a frying pan and then stir them into the dough, which should be fairly stiff. Shape into small cakes or bake the entire batch of batter in a well-greased pan. TIP: Heat the cracklin’s in the pan you plan to use to bake the bread. They will ensure it is nicely greased. Cook at 375 degrees until golden brown.
If there’s anything better than a bowl of soup beans cooked with some streaked meat, I don’t know what it is. Come to think of it, I do know. It IS two bowls of this delicacy. Give me some cornbread with a bottom crust brown as a buckeye, a bowl of soup beans with steam rolling of the top and a chunk of streaked meat peeking through the surface, a glass of sweet milk, and some hot stewed apples with a bit of butter in the center looking like the heart of a field daisy, and I’m in hillbilly heaven.
Soup beans are the essence of simplicity. Clean and wash them (and it’s not a bad idea to shake the dry beans thoroughly in a colander to get out any unwanted bits of trash) the soak all day or overnight in a big pot of water. Then cook, bring the pot to a rolling boil before backing down to a slow simmer, with a few chunks of streaked meat. Do not salt. It’s likely the streaked meat will be seasoning enough, and if not, you can always rectify the situation. Continue cooking until done. I like to crumble cornbread up in the bowl with the soup beans, but if you prefer to have a slice from the pone separately, that’s fine. With some slaw or maybe a side dish of turnip greens, you have some fine eating.