The best recipes always come with a story

Locally published recipe books, such as Smoky Mountain Vittles, often include bits of local history.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a cookbook I didn’t like.

Our kitchen includes three shelves devoted to cookbooks of all sorts, many of which have been published locally by churches, clubs, and other groups. Two of our favorites are Until It Tests Done and Until It Tastes Done, both published by Library Friends.

When we compiled those cookbooks, we asked that the stories of the recipes be included, if possible. For example, where did you get the recipe? Is this something that has been handed down over generations or was it passed along to you by a friend? Many people told us later they enjoyed reading the stories as much as they liked the recipes.

I recently came into possession of Smoky Mountain Vittles, a small collection of recipes compiled by residents of Regency Health Care Center (now Newport Health and Rehabilitation Center). Sadly there is no publication date, but many of the residents, whose recipes are included, were living there in the late 1980s with my father.

At the time, the care center’s address was Route 1, Box 1008. Janice Johns-Parton, Activities Director, apparently oversaw the collection and arrangement of the recipes. Also mentioned are John David Ford, Activity Assistant, Keela Phillips, Activities Director, and Doris Douglas, Food Service Manager.

The book is delightful, filled with all sorts of “good country cookin’” recipes with the addition of comments and stories from the residents.

The book’s dedication, written by Johns-Parton and Ford, speaks powerfully.

Reaching back and tugging at old and almost forgotten memories—that’s what Smoky Mountain Vittles is all about.

This cookbook is brimming with page after page of nostalgia and recipes for good old-fashioned, calorie-ladened, county-style cooking.

During interviews with the residents here at Regency, it quickly became evident that we must include folklore, humor and short anecdotes in our cookbook. That was how the recipes came to us from the residents—always with a story. They depicted a way of life scarcely recorded in the history books.

Our elders have a proud heritage that must not be tucked away and forgotten. The recipes included are simple and delicious, reflecting hard times and a love of good cooking. We dedicate this book to every wife, mother and daughter who toiled over a hot wood stove, ‘making do,’ with whatever was available to provide her family with a tasty meal, and to our residents here at Regency who gave so generously of their time and memories.

“Always with a story!”

That sums up Southern cooking.

My family teases me saying I can’t tell any story without going back four or five generations. My daughter calls it “peripheral information.” I call it “laying the necessary groundwork” so that my listeners can fully understand the tale.

The same rule applies to talking about food.

The other night cousins Chris and Christy Edmonds had me over for supper. Topping off the evening were large wedges of angel food cake made by Chris’s mother, Ila Ruth. When he served me, Chris said, “Now this is a true Sisk recipe. We know it dates back to my great-grandmother, Rhoda Sisk Cooper.”

I responded, “We’ll just see how it measures up to my mom’s angel food cake.”

When I took my first bite, it simply melted in my mouth. I was transported back in time over 60 years and could see Maude Sisk O’Neil separating a dozen eggs as she prepared to bake an angel food cake.

Ila Ruth’s cake was pure bliss, so light that it nearly floated off the plate. It was truly equal to my mom’s!

I also remember my mom using the yellows from those dozen eggs in another cake she called a Sunshine Cake. That way nothing went to waste. (Just to “waist!”)

Twenty-six residents are mentioned in the Regency Center’s cookbook: Alma Addington, Bessie Ball, James Beck, Dillard Black, Earl Brady, Billy Brown, Helen Clevenger, Rhoda Coggins, Kathryn Dalton, Vesta Ellison, Anna Fann, Floyd Gowan, Alice Hall, Bernice Henderson, Maude Norris, Martina Ottinger, Esta Phillips, Robert Ragan, Minnie Rolen, Addie Sisk, Flora Spurgeon, Ernest Stokely, Jess Stokely, Charles Swaggerty, Margaret Teague, Evelyn Turner, and Martha Whaley.

Many of these were born in the late 1800s, so when they talk about their parents and grandparents, we’re getting back to Civil War times.

Iron skillets, grease, and plenty of butter are mentioned in nearly every recipe. Apparently the grease and butter didn’t do these folks too much interior damage. Minnie Rolen lived to be 100.

In speaking of cobblers, Dillard Black, Margaret Teague, and Ernest Stokely all offered comments. Black said, “It (peach cobbler) is good cooked in a regular iron skillet. My wife used to make that on a cold winter’s day and we’d pour over the cream she had just skimmed from the milk.”

Teague, in giving her recipe for a fruit cobbler, began, “For my cobbler, first I wash my hands real good. ‘Course you know that already!”

In his reminiscences, Stokely recalled, “We mixed up apples, pears, berries, and whatever else we had and made a cobbler pie. We called it Flugg Dugg.”

Perhaps no dish is as truly Southern as soup beans. Eight residents shared their secrets to good soup beans.

“...a big piece of meat with lots of grease on it. Boil all the water out to get to the grease. If you can’t see the grease in the soup, the beans’ll give you a belly ache.Ernest Stokely

“...soaking overnight takes all the color out. They’re better with lots of grease in them...all vegetables taste better with lots of grease. When soup cooks down, only add HOT water.Margaret Teague

“...soak in ½ teaspoon soda and water overnight. It makes ‘em cook faster.” Minnie Rolen

...if soup is too salty, add 1 teaspoon of vinegar and 1 teaspoon of sugar...soak overnight. Put on high to boil and put on low heat to cook. Don’t change the water.Maude Norris

“...if you put too much salt in your beans, add a potato and cook it in the soup. It will take the salt out.Flora Spurgeon

“...put in a little onion when you cook ‘em. That makes ‘em real good.Billy Brown

“...keep a teakettle of hot water on the stove. When the beans are cooking and get low on soup, just add hot water. Must have good, thick bean soup to be good beans...put meat skins in the water in a cast iron kettle. Add dried beans and hang over a fire in the fireplace. Cook real slow. Add salt and pepper. The skins would be good and tender; you ate them, too.Rhoda Coggins

“...add 1 tablespoon of sugar when nearly done. It make that good, thick soup even better.” Bessie Ball

The residents also shared their methods of making lye soap.

Verlie Norton (from the family of Jess Stokely) said, “Cook outside in an iron kettle over an open fire. Use 5-6 pounds of clean grease, add a little water, and 1 can of lye. (The lye will eat the grease up.) Boil until thick. Take fire out from under kettle. Let set and cool overnight. The soap will rise to the top and can be cut into chunks. Use it to take a bath or wash clothes.”

Apparently Flora Spurgeon’s lye soap was a little stronger, for she included a warning in her comments: “When you make your own lye, the soap won’t get hard. So we bought our lye there at the last ‘cause we liked hard bars of lye soap. You wash clothes with it. It’s so strong it’ll take the hide off’n you if you take a bath in it.”

These were people who grew up hunting, cooking, and eating game, and there are recipes for ground hog, ‘possum, ‘coon, bear, deer, rabbit and pigeon.

Earl Brady added a hysterical story to his recipe for cooking game. It seems he had once known two brothers.

“They had treed a nice ‘possum, and the first brother took it home to cook it. He had finally placed it in the oven to brown it; being tired from hunting all night, he laid down and took a nap. The second brother came in and smelled the good food cooking. He sat down and ate the whole thing, leaving only the bones on the plate, and left to plant his garden. The first brother awoke, saw the bones, and said, ‘If I et that ‘possum, it laid lighter on my stomach than any I ever et before!’”

Always with a story...when recording your family recipes for your children and grandchildren, don’t forget to add the stories. They are the most important ingredient.

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