Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Over the River and Through the Woods...and Around the Hills and Hollers

- So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided." (Genesis 22: 14 NIV)

My grandad and granny had 11 children in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, with births spanning from 1912 to 1940.  They were a very poor farming family, and Grandad confessed in his later years that there had been times he didn't know where the next meal was coming from.  But, you know what?  My dad, their youngest son, says that not once was their table ever bare.  Despite hard times and a limited income, they always managed to have something on the table. And for the holidays, they always managed to have extra foods and treats to celebrate the occasion too. Like so many other Appalachians of their era, they knew how to make something special out of little. Grandad and Granny had a tremendous faith and a resilient work ethic...and in their mountains, the Lord did provide!  

Grandad and Granny
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I can't help but think about the role of food in Appalachian culture. (It's my favorite holiday, by the way.  'Cause I like to eat and I like being thankful.  It's a win win situation there!)  If there was ever a culture so intrinsically entwined with its cuisine, it would have to be ours, wouldn't you say?  And big gatherings for holidays like Thanksgiving are when, at least in my experience, we pull out the big guns!  No, I'm not saying we have shotgun meals, I mean the table gets laden! Traditional Appalachian culture is synonymous with knowing how to really celebrate with food.  As my husband would say, "Y'all aren't playin' around!"  

Actually, when my husband and I started dating he was quite taken aback by the sheer amount and variety of foods my mother would put on the table when he would come over as a guest for a meal with my parents.  I think he got confused and checked his calendar to see if it was late November!  I believe he did even remark to me once that every day looked like Thanksgiving in my parents' home.  He didn't yet realize that there is kind of an unspoken rule in Appalachian culture, that when company comes or a group gathering occurs, you put out a LOT of food!  You know what I mean, don't you?  Ever been to a dinner on the ground...a family reunion in the hills...a southern funeral?

Me chowing down at one of our family reunions in Kentucky.  Just keeping it real, and humble...oh, so very humbling!
Through the years now, my husband has had a chance to experience a number of our family gatherings that involve food (Wait now...I don't think I've ever experienced a family gathering that didn't involve food!) and he has sometimes remarked how there was more food than what we really needed for the get together.  I've tried to explain it to him like would be like an embarrassment, a head hanging low in shame moment of utter sin to run out of food at an Appalachian gathering.  Yes, I'm jesting and exaggerating a little (but maybe JUST a little).  Ever heard the Bible verse from 1 Peter 4:9..."Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling." NIV? When it came to cooking for company or a group, that is the kind of attitude I was taught growing up.  Having a full table, and plenty to go around for guests was a form of hospitality that was almost biblical.  You brought out your best for the guests!  

So in my family, we go a little crazy with Thanksgiving to say the least!  If it's a day when even non-Appalachians are laying out an abundant can bet that many a family with Appalachian roots is planning a true feast of all feasts! 

For years most of my Thanksgivings were spent on my mamaw and papaw's farm in Eastern Kentucky.  It was such a special time each year.  Many times we would pack in the vehicle and head south the night before.  Course we would be sandwiched in between the items we were bringing to contribute to the meal, and our little minds were filled with anticipation for the next day's festivities.  It seemed like everybody in the world was also headed south on Route 23 for heartwarming little places tucked deep in the mountains, where loved ones eagerly awaited the return of the "far flung." 

"Over the river and through the woods" was more than just an old Thanksgiving song for us...of course we could add hills and hollers to the geography we needed to traverse, and the river was the Ohio.  

On the way down, night inevitably crept in and we would catch glimpses of premature Christmas decor...twinkling lights that would catch young eyes by surprise as we emerged from the curves around the hills.  And then the final curve around the final hill would bring us to the point where we could see in the darkness a little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon, tucked neat and cozy between the hillsides at the mouth of a little creek. 

The little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon
We had arrived...and inside waited Mamaw, Papaw, and Aunt "Oh So Sweet" to greet us with hugs before we were tucked into bed to awake the next day to the smell of items already cooking for the big feast. 

The smells pouring from that tiny little farmhouse kitchen were as mouthwatering as they come.  Aunt "Oh So Sweet" is a legendary cook, and she always outdid herself for big family get togethers like Thanksgiving.  The food was so abundant that the dishes inevitably spilled over into the adjacent enclosed back porch, where mamaw's old chest freezer became a makeshift dessert buffet.  And if you were lucky enough to capture a seat on one of the old bark bottom chairs that set there between the kitchen and the back porch door, you could catch the constant wonderful aromas of the roasting turkey, savory mashed potatoes, dressing, gravy, cream corn, and the ever present large pot of white half runners simmering on the stovetop.  While perched there enjoying the sights and smells, Aunt "Oh So Sweet" would sometimes ask us to run out to the warm house, where all the canned goods were kept, to retrieve a can or two of cranberry sauce.  The chill and frost to the late November air would kiss the skin as the screen door slammed when we hurried to avoid the cold.  The earthy smell of the warm house was a shock to the senses after the long exposure to the warm smell of roast turkey.

The old warm house
 And when we would finally sit down for the Thanksgiving meal and the blessing was said, it never failed that Papaw would grin and say, "Now you see what 'tis."  That was his way of saying this is what we have, here it is, so we want you to dig in and enjoy it.  

In later years, as our family in Ohio grew larger, and Mamaw and Papaw grew older and needed more care from Aunt "Oh So Sweet", we would bring the majority of the items for the Thanksgiving meal and cook it for them all as a special treat for our hardworking aunt.  We would all head down together the night before in an RV...turkey in towwatching with as much anticipation as we did as kids for all those glimpses of beautiful twinkling Christmas lights hiding until the last minute between the dark hills.  

It has now been years since we have spent the holiday in Eastern Kentucky.  Mamaw and Papaw have both passed away, and our family has grown so much that it is hard for us all at one time to cram into that little white farmhouse, glowing like the moon, for an event like Thanksgiving.  So my parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, husband, children, and I all gather together here in the north.  There is a lot I sure miss...going "over the river and through the woods" (and around the hills and hollers) for the holiday IS now just a song and a distant memory. I miss the glimpses of those twinkling lights as we would cut through the mountain night.  I miss smelling that good turkey roasting as I sat upon an old bark bottom chair. And I pine for the scent of that old warm house as I would fetch things for the kitchen.  And oh how I wish I could sit down for one more Thanksgiving with Papaw presiding at the head of the table with his welcoming mountain speech and generous, "Now you see what 'tis." 

I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year, so there will be no traveling at all. So much is different now, but you know, I'm trying to dwell on the things that are still the same.  We may not be in the mountains any more, but we will always be of the mountains...and many things will continue to live on because of that.  Family will still gather, the blessing will still be said, my mother will still bring a big old pot of white half runners, the conversation will still be peppered with mountain phrases and words--because Mom and Dad haven't changed their talk one bit. And we will still go crazy with the amount of food! 

Desserts at one of our Thanksgivings (There's an apple stack cake somewhere on that table!)

I have no intentions of hauling my chest freezer up from my basement to lay out our dessert buffet, but I do own a bark bottom chair.  And,who knows, I might just take a notion this year to pull it in close to the kitchen to watch and smell the turkey roast.  And maybe I will sit there a spell, close my eyes, and allow myself  to daydream about all those beautiful mountain Thanksgivings I still cherish and am so thankful for.  

My old bark bottom chair
Oh, and don't forget to say a little prayer that I buy a big enough turkey, 'cause Lord knows this girl doesn't want one of those Appalachian "head hanging low in shame utter moments of sin" 'cause I underestimate what sized bird I'll need! 

May you have a blessed holiday with your loved ones this year, and don't forget to take a moment to praise God for all the wonderful mountain memories and customs he has gifted you with over the years. Those of us with Appalachian roots certainly do have much to be thankful forbecause on the mountain of the Lord, even through hard times and heartache, it truly HAS been provided!