Isn’t food wonderful? It fills the empty spot; it nourishes our bodies; it gives us pleasure and energy; and it creates a space and reason to engage in fellowship, laughter and love. I hope everyone had that experience this past Thanksgiving. My mother and I certainly did celebrating with one of my cousins’ family. Excellent food and an opportunity to get to better know some of my cousins; once, twice and three times removed.
This time of the year we get to have food do all of the above with our celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and maybe New Years. Many of the religions that have holidays during this time of the year also include “breaking bread” with family. Have you ever wondered what our ancestors ate during special holidays, or for that matter throughout the year? Those of us with ancestors that settled the northwest Florida panhandle can imagine them in wagons crossing southern Georgia and Alabama on the Federal Road but most of the time we don’t think about the food part of that journey or what was necessary when they arrived at a spot in the piney woods of Florida to ensure their families were able to eat through the coming year. There were no grocery stores, no fast food restaurants and no magically packaged meals for consumption. If they didn’t come prepared and do the hard work when they got here, eating might be really iffy during the coming year.
With that in mind let’s explore the trip over and the work to clear and settle a piece of land and then provide food for the family.
As I mentioned in a previous post many of the early settlers of Oak Grove were from other parts of the south, particularly Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Some of these did a brief stay in Alabama and then crossed the border into the new territory of Florida. Settlers from other areas of the south would have likely been true for most of the northwest Florida panhandle, though I’ve not done as extensive a study of the rest of Florida. I do know that the middle part of the panhandle was settled by a few more South Carolinians and the far northwest panhandle more by Georgians. That could be a factor of geography; the soil of the middle panhandle was more conducive to plantation agriculture and our area of the panhandle was more conducive to yeoman farming. Regardless of the origin of their journey they had to leave with enough supplies to feed the family, any enslaved persons, and the animals across the Federal Road and into the Florida panhandle. This was no trip for sissies or buttercups.
The road was horrible, weather could be challenging and the Cherokee and Creek sometimes attacked. Today, we can drive from Pensacola to Jacksonville in about eight hours, less if you have a lead foot; and drive northeast across south Georgia in just a bit more time. Attacks are generally only love bugs in May and September and a few 18-wheelers. In 1818 that same trip would have taken many weeks. It would have been important to start early enough in the year to at least arrive in south Alabama before winter arrived. Many of my ancestors appear to have stopped in Alabama and temporarily settled the family while the men looked for the right place in northwest Florida. Near a river, if possible, with fertile land and no one else obviously settled on it. Once that new homestead was found the men got busy and cleared it; made a place for the family kitchen garden, one or more fields for crops, one or more pasture areas, a chicken coop, a barn for the milk cow, a hog pen, a well, and a place for a house. If they were lucky they picked a year in which the winter wasn’t too nasty and all of that was accomplished before Spring. Because as soon as the weather was transitioning to Spring you needed to get your garden and field crops planted. To do that they needed to have brought their seed or made a trip to Pensacola to purchase some from the traders and merchants that were there.
They planted corn, beans and squash/pumpkin; various greens, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other lesser used items (onions and tomatoes come to mind) if the family liked them and had the seed. This had to be enough to feed all of the humans and the animals so the corn and beans/peas especially were planted in acreage size fields and often one or more varieties. And it had to be enough to save the best seed from each crop for the following year’s planting.
It was not uncommon to move at least some of the animals across Georgia and Alabama along with the human travelers. Chickens provided daily eggs for a good part of the year, chicken on special occasions, fertilizer and a bit of help with the insects that wanted to eat the garden plants. I suspect these were the easiest to acquire once near a settlement or from an already settled neighbor. The milk cow provided milk and butter and fertilizer, the hogs provided meat and would free range in the field come the following Fall clearing any plants and stubble and fertilizing and the mule or horse that likely pulled the wagon would also pull the plow. Homesteads were well integrated systems in which various parts supported other parts in a way that required thought and planning and constant engagement. Unlike today when we might sit down and make a list before driving to the grocery store to buy stuff. A bad year of little rain and hot weather might mean near starvation through the following winter. So nothing was wasted, blemishes and bug spots didn’t matter and the womenfolk preserved everything.
When it came time to harvest meat that might be an all day affair (as with hog killing) or just a short one with one chicken cleaned and prepared for Sunday dinner, homecoming or someone special passing through. Wild game was heavily depended on and plentiful in the panhandle. Deer, turkey and raccoon probably topped the list of extra sources of meat, but squirrel, rabbit and possum were also turned to when needed. Local blackberries, cherries, mulberries, persimmons, chinkapins, hickory nuts, and Chickasaw plums were sought and cherished. And over time some families planted pecans, pears and sometimes locally adapted apples and satsumas once they were available. Honey bees escaping captivity from the folks who raised them took up residence in the woods and provided fresh honey for those who knew how to find it.
With all of this work facing our ancestors in getting settled, what might a day of thanksgiving or a church homecoming look like after a year or so in their new location (see photos above of Yellow River Baptist Church 2016 Homecoming)? In the earlier years it might have been deer or turkey, sweet potatoes, some kind of peas and/or beans, cornbread, turnips or collards, a squash or pumpkin pie or sweet potato or corn pudding, drink was likely water or maybe coffee or tea for the more well-to-do. Over time the wild meats might be replaced with pork or chicken and the vegetables and peas and beans might be more varied. Sugar cane was grown for molasses. Sugar was available but precious and used mostly for canning fruits. The women of the household would have made jams or jellies and relishes and/or pickles to compliment the meal. Drinks might have been cold water from a spring, an infusion of water with some kind of wild berry for the children and the men might have taken a nip of the moonshine jug after dinner; though probably not at the church homecoming!
Now if that doesn’t sound too different from what you grew up with, I would suggest it probably isn’t. I will say the dessert table was a good bit bigger for our family by the 1950s and there was always a green bean casserole and potato salad; the meats were ham and chicken and not wild and the drink was sweet tea, the rest was pretty much carried forward over 130 years. While Southerners do like to develop new dishes, the underlying ingredients really haven’t deviated all that much. I would challenge anyone alive today who experienced good old-fashion southern meals to think of one that didn’t include fried chicken, ham, a huge pot of peas and beans, sweet potatoes in various forms, collards and/or turnips, cornbread, pecan and sweet potato or pumpkin pie, topped with sweet tea and lots of chatter and fellowship (see photos below from two of our family reunions).
In these early days there was no refrigeration or electricity. Cooking was over an open fire in a large fireplace or on a wood-burning stove. The kitchens were often separate from the house because they unfortunately went up in smoke on occasion. I can’t imagine cooking over an open fireplace in Florida in July. Just saying.
Keeping foods cool was tricky. The creeks in the panhandle were cool water and some families would keep butter and milk in a sealed container and float it in the creek, if one was close-by. Once ice was available you could put it in an ice house (if you had one) and keep things cool. Then ice boxes allowed more convenient storage in the house though you still had to purchase the ice. If this sounds like a LOT of work, it was. Keeping a household in enough food and then keeping that food edible and preserved was the primary jobs of these yeomen farmers and farmers’ wives.
I love to cook and I like to can, make preserves and pickles, spruce up a little brandy occasionally with some pears from my trees (closest I get to my ancestors’ moonshine operations) and of course garden. I am thankful that I don’t have to do it over an open fire in a long dress or plow with a mule and plow. Mama’s stories of “Ole Doc”, granddaddy’s mule, have convinced me that I’m likely more tolerant of my electric tiller or my raised garden beds than I would be of an ornery mule. In my next post I’ll share some information on making-do during the Civil War, details on a couple of my ancestors’ farm production during the 1880s and some photos from one of the last Thanksgivings for my Mom and her sisters. They had Thanksgiving in a log cabin that belonged to their great-grandparents, Allen and Mary Jane Gaskin Hart and cooked some of the food on a wood stove. Now while this sounds interesting and fun to try (at least for me), I’m betting most of us have one more thing to give thanks for this holiday season. Not having most of this on our daily activity list.
Until next time have a blessed and safe holiday season.
- The Federal Road in Alabama
- Federal Road in Georgia
- The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation and Alabama, 1806-1836 by Henry DeLeon Southerland, Jr. and Jerry Elijah Brown
- Cottage Economy by William Cobbett, originally publish in 1821. A fascinating look at how-to advice from our early history. Available for Kindle for free.
- The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge, originally published in 1847.
- Seeking the Historical Cook: Exploring Eighteenth-Century South Foodways by Kay K. Moss
- Log Cabin Cooking: Pioneer Recipes & Food Lore by Barbara Swell