Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, in another time was known as the “State of Franklin” a very unique “geographical island” with its own history, social values, and culinary traditions; at least in my opinion. Looking back over the history of food and culture in this highland plateau, there are many written observations and conclusions about how people lived, loved, thrived, or failed to thrive, and died.
We have several wonderful and excellent books about the culture of Western North Carolina such as, Cold Mountain by- Charles Frazier , The French Broad by Wilma Dykman , and Ron Rash’s Serena . I’ve recently come across another book about an earlier time, in another place, but it resounds with me about the parallels with early life in Western North Carolina. I invite you to read all of the books mentioned above and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, 2012 Grove Press.
John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, takes place in a time in England when religious power, the turmoil among the governed and the governing, and the ignorance of much of the population, brings a deep darkness onto an idyllic countryside. The cast of characters, their loyalty to each other, their injustices to each other, their hardships, and their heartfelt love and longing are staged in a not too distant past.
This represents to me the story of our “Drovers Road” here in WNC, a time when self-sufficiency, the interdependence of small communities, the need to Feast in times of plenty, and to dream of the Feast in times of Want, was so much part of the history of our region.
One apt comparative description in the novel is the search under the snow for acorns to make bread and chestnuts to roast when there were no grains. In times of plenty they reveled in the herbs that brought flavors to their food and their sharing of the banquet table. Everyone contributed to the feast. Their everyday lives reminded me of past professions that have mostly disappeared in WNC; the miller, the livestock drover, the mid-wife, the butcher, the traveling minister. But there is one occupation that has thrived here in WNC, the culinary master – the cook (chef). John Saturnall’s Feast is a description of not just a cook, but one who embraces the FEAST.
In Cold Mountain, I’m reminded of the description of the soldier returning home from the war of succession and their fare as they transversed the mountain ridges of WNC. “The soldier will eat what he may find. His kitchen is a corner of a field and his safest bed is in a thicket of brambles. Gather there for much you may from the hedgerows and snare the same in the woods, and if fortune smiles broadly upon you that you do take a fat rabbit, then follow these instructions…. first skin the beast and draw it then spit it upon a hazel twig that, twisting and turning in the heat of the fire according to the woods miraculous character, the rabbits scant juices do baste the lean meat that lies close upon its frame. Take sprigs of Rosemary too if you will, and stitch these beneath the flesh to sweeten it with the oils of the herb. When a dagger pressed into the fat part of the thigh brings juices running clear, then the meat will be cooked…”
Several years ago, Slow Food Asheville gathered near Max Patch to celebrate such a FEAST, much similar to the following description: “Take these carcasses, as many as may be gathering fitted together: a boar, a sheep, a kid, a lamb, a goose, a Capon, a duck, a present, a Partridge, a quail, a sparrow and a fig pecker . Clean and bone the beasts. Pluck and clean the fowls all save the fig pecker which should be plucked only. Sew the meat inside the last and roast them over Coals or billets whose flames have abated…. Two days and a night is an apt period. Then run the meats through with a sword and be certain the juices run clear.”
We once knew the mighty chestnut trees that held their majestic mast above our forests. The baskets of acorns from which many folks made their bread’s before wheat could be grown and milled or after the wheat ran out. As the early settlers ventured into our forest, the smell underneath their boots was not just of the moist rich soil but a familiar smell, a smell known to them in their native highlands, the smell of ramps. We knew that deer, rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs, beaver abounded in our forests, catfish and trout swam in our streams, bears and feral pigs foraged under the newly planted apple trees, turkeys, quail and grouse graced our fields. The spring harvest of morels, Chanterelles and Hen of the Woods in summer, and Oyster mushrooms in the fall, all were in abundance for the stewpot. Muscadine grapes, black berries, huckleberries, wild strawberries colored our tables. Spicebush, yarrow, stinging nettles, garlic, onions; all kinds of herbs and spices were nature’s bounty
Hunting, gathering, farming, bartering, allowed the people here in Western North Carolina to bring together a bounty to share with neighbors and friends. A feast to celebrate when there was plenty to share, and a remembrance of the feast when there was none to share.