One of the beautiful things about the Appalachian Mountains is the abundance of food and fresh water available in some areas. However, until one knows the lay of the land, basic survival can be a challenge, especially food preservation. Electricity and appliances make our lives easy, but hill folk had limited power. An ice box was a luxury most couldn’t afford. The ancestors learned to work within the sustainability of the mountain, and some folks still do.
How do you preserve food in the Appalachians? Dry, can, smoke, salt cure, and store what you reap from the harvest and the hunt. Winters could be harsh and provisions had to be made for several months; don’t take more than you need, so that nature can replenish.
The settlers that made their home in the Appalachian Mountain were a melting pot of cultures, wisdom, and ideals. Most were of Scottish, German, Irish, and Cherokee descent. Some of their descendents still live in the sustainable terrain. The original immigrants brought with them a variety of food preservation techniques.
Jams and jellies were one way to preserve fruits and berries, and could be used in a variety of ways. Jelly on bread was a real treat during the Great Depression, as food was scarce. Jam or jelly could be used to sweeten flour cakes. Dates or gelatin thickened the fruit and juice mixture. Starch from potatoes could be used if neither was available. The boiled canning method was most common for storage.
The boiled canning method was used for fruits, vegetables, and soups. The produce was often blanched, and then placed in jars with a salt and water or a juice mixture. The jars were boiled in a pot with a towel on the bottom till they sealed.
Potatoes, rutabagas, onions, carrots, and other root vegetables kept in a root cellar about 6’ under the surface. Cellars stayed cool without a freezing temperature. Root cellars were common on most properties. The canning jars were sometimes also stored on shelves with the vegetables.
Fermenting and pickling was another method to preserve foods. Pickling used vinegar, salt, and spice, much like pickling today. Pickled foods stored well and were a popular treat all year round. Pickled beets, cucumbers (pickles) squash, peppers, onions, etc. were very sustainable foods.
Check out Abby J’s Blackhawk Sweet Fire Pickles here on Got Mountain Life!
Much of what wasn’t pickled or canned was often dried. Beans and seeds for the next harvest were hung in a barn or small shack to dry. Boiled beans and bread was a hearty meal when food was scarce. Apples and other fruits could be laid out on cloth to dry in the sun and store.
Hunting provided meat, as beef was a delicacy many in the Appalachians couldn’t afford. Some folks had chickens, milk cows, or goats, which were only eaten when they quit producing, or if the family was starving. The mountain provided meat in the form of wild hog, turkey, rabbit, possum, squirrel, groundhog, raccoon, fish, or venison, if you got lucky. For immediate use, meat was either tossed in a hearty stew, roasted, pit fired, or ground for sausages.
Options for preserving meats were limited. Many hillbillies would smoke meats in the smokehouse. It took months to dry out, but the flavor was exquisite. Real smoked meat is much better than the instant “bottled smoke” you find in stores today. Different wood was used for flavor. Hickory and Oak were among the most common. Any molding would be cut off.
Salt packing was another popular means of preserving meat. The secret was to make sure the entire portion was covered in salt. Salt packing dried after several months. Salt packing extended the life of the meat.
The rule of the day was “waste not, want not”, so most of the animal was used in some way; the parts that weren’t used for food were often used for food preservation. Lard would act as a preservative. Cured meat could be packed in jars or canisters of lard for storing. The fat taken from the animals was also used for cooking and soap making. The intestines held sausages or became thread for sewing. Intestines could also be utilized to stitch people up when injured. Even the blood could be transformed to blood sausage or blood pudding.
Appalachian Mountain folk were masters of sustainability and green living via natural means. They didn’t have much, but they made due and survived. Our ancestors survived on simple, hearty, but delicious foods. What are your food preservation techniques? Have you ever had home canned food or real smoked meat?
We invite you to read about herbal, root and healing remedies in the Appalachia Mountains with Part 3, “The Sustainable Living of Traditional Appalachian Folk: The Mountain Provides.”