Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin
Before the days of automobile transportation, microwaves, and freezers, the process of the Thanksgiving dinner started several days in advance of the actual event.
Even before the month of November rolled around, adults had begun laying in stores of food for the long winter ahead.
Back in the early 1920's the weather was much colder earlier in the fall than it is now. Neighbors gathered for the annual hog killing when the air was sharp and hard freezes had already occurred. Cold weather was a necessary ingredient in those days. Lacking electrical equipment to preserve the meat, cold temperatures were used as freezers and refrigerators.
After the hogs were killed, they were salted down. My mother Glenna Buntin Dunbar relates that it had to be cold enough for the "salt to take". After a few weeks, the salt was washed off the carcasses and the meat hung up in "the smokehouse". The smokehouse was usually a small building standing in close approximity to the house and used for storing the meat as well as smoking it. Fires were built in pans. The bottoms of the pans were filled with ashes or dirt with the fires built on top. Hickory wood was the preferred fuel used for smoking.
My mother says her job as a young child was to tend the fires in the smokehouse. The wood could never be allowed to burst into flame, the smoke was what did the job of curing the meat. This process could last daily for several weeks. When the meat was thoroughly browned it was pronounced "cured". Meat preserved in this manner would last throughout the winter if done properly. My mother says of her days tending the smokehouse fires, "I spent many a day working in the smokehouse. I couldn't let the wood go to flame, so I was kept busy smothering it out, but I had to be careful. I couldn't put out the fire entirely, I had to keep the smoke coming. My daddy was good at his job. He hardly ever lost any meat. He knew somehow when the weather was going to get cold and stay that way".
When Thanksgiving Day finally rolled around, the farmers of Hopkins County usually had enough pork on hand for the meal.
The farmers usually hunted the surrounding woods for wild game to supplement the holiday table. Rabbits were plentiful and on rare occasions, wild turkeys could be shot.
The women of this earlier era had been busy for several days. Yeast bread had been made, "set to rise", and punched down. The process was repeated until it was ready for the oven. Cornbread was also made a day or two in advance. It would be used, along with cold biscuits for the tasty stuffing always present on Thanksgiving Day. Cakes and pies had already been prepared and were sitting safely out of reach of poking fingers in the cupboards.
Men were sent to clean the game taken from the forest. Rabbits were skinned, gutted, and singed. Anyone who has ever skinned a rabbit knows first hand of the stench that accompanies the job. This was usually considered the "man's job". Singing the skinned rabbit was also necessary. Even after the animal was relieved of it's fur, some hair still protruded from the carcass. The rabbits were held over an open flame and rotated until all the hair had been seared away.
The house had been thoroughly scrubbed the day before the visitors arrived. A person couldn't have company in a dirty house; it just wasn't the way things were done.
Finally, the big day had arrived. Breakfast was usually skimpy and the family ordered to various jobs or sent "out of the way". Beds were hurriedly made, the house tidied up one more time, now the preparations began in earnest.
Father was sent to kill the chickens. For an everyday meal, the women usually accomplished this particular chore. However, this day was just too busy for her.
As a young child, I remember sitting on the well stoop watching this process take place. My mother, tossing corn and clucking to the poor fowl, tempted them into coming near. She would snatch an unsuspecting hen, promptly ring its neck, and throw it to the ground. The headless body still jumped and flopped with terrific acrobatics for several minutes. We children used to say the chicken was hunting for its head. Other birds scattered in fright emitting loud squawking and frenzied clucking. Those chickens had no loyalty though. Soon they were back scratching the dirt for more corn as their fallen sister still thumped the ground around them. That's when my mother struck again. Those were really dumb birds.
Next came the part of chicken killing that I hated, mostly because I had to participate in it. A pot of boiling water sat nearby. The beheaded chickens were dumped into the vat feathers and all. Indeed the purpose of the hot water was for defeathering the birds. If you've never had to smell this odor before, I can only say that you should thank your modern supermarket owners on bended knees.
The birds were removed and the plucking of feathers began. The wet feathers stuck to your fingers and hands and by the time the task was finished, you smelled exactly like those soggy feathers. It was not a pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination. However, it had a two-fold purpose as the feathers were saved for the stuffing of pillows and mattresses. I myself would have been content to sleep on a pile of rags if only I could have been excused from this smelly chore.
After the birds were cleaned, mothers began their preparation immediately. Necks, gizzards and backbones were put to boil. The broth would be used in the stuffing and the making of giblet gravy. Close to serving time, flattened dough would be cut into strips, dropped into the broth making the most delicious fluffiest dumplings a person could ever want. Chickens were salted and put in the roasting pan for baking. Others were cut up, rolled in flour, and fried slowly to a golden brown in a large iron skillet. The leftover grease would be made into flour gravy.
Men departed for the woods as soon as the chores were performed. It was a tradition to hunt for game on Thanksgiving Day. Men and boys met with neighbors or invited guests, setting off early in the morning. With shotguns propped upon their shoulders, game bags tied on their backs; the mighty hunters marched into the woods in anticipation of good hunting with good comrades.
Women sang and laughed as potatoes were taken from their straw winter beds usually found under the house. Turnips were garnered from their secret places as well. Great pots of home canned vegetables were already on the stove by early morning. Green Beans doctored with sugar and salt boiled away while carrots, first boiled then covered with honey or syrup were fitted into the oven. Potatoes were cooked, mashed, and whipped into creamy mounds. Corn that had been canned from the garden harvest was poured into another iron skillet. The iron skillet was used in various ways and every kitchen was stocked with several of them in differing sizes.
The kitchen was a place of bustling activity. Women and girls, aprons securely tied around necks and waists, perspired over hot stoves and kitchen worktables. Such delicious smells enticed men and children into the room in hopes of a small morsel to tide them over. Children's hands were slapped, husbands were ordered out of the room as the pace continued.
It was a good day. The laughter of children playing outside filtered through the windows; conversation flowed easily among the girls and women as they bent to the business at hand. Knives chopped onions and boiled eggs for the dressing, The rabbit was slowly frying on the stove, the hens were now stuffed, the bread was made, and the "icing" for the pumpkin pies had been whipped into perfected peaks. It was mid-afternoon and the company arrived right on schedule.
Giggling children burst through the door tossing coats and scarves in wild disarray. Any piece of furniture within thowing distance was the designated target. Ladies huffed and puffed their way into the kitchen, arms laden with boxes of even more food. If husbands were not already in the fields hunting, they helped carry the heavier items.
Platters of pork chops, mustard greens, deviled eggs, hominy and Banana Pudding were taken from the deep boxes. Jugs of tea, even more loafs of bread, cookies and cakes were added to the mountain of food already prepared.
The men could be heard returning from the day's hunt now. Tables were set with the best dishes and silverware with the whitest tablecloths while visiting ladies lent busy hands to the task. Little tables were placed around the rooms where the children were to eat their meal. Jars of homemade pickles, corn relish, beets, jams and preserves were set upon the main table for easy reaching. Bowls of homemade butter were set near hot, baked sweet potatoes, a temptation few could resist. Loaves of bread taken from the warming oven, including yeast bread, cornbread, and biscuits were placed at each end of the table. Rich, strong coffee was set to boil while the men changed clothes and washed up.
At last, all was ready. The family and friends clasped hands around each table. Usually the male head of the host house gave the blessing. One and all bowed heads with humble thanksgiving for the many blessings they had received during the year. No respectable family sat down to Thanksgiving Dinner without this tradition of prayer and love handed down through countless generations.
The men were seated and served first, as tradition also demanded in those days. The children's plates were filled and carried to the little tables scattered about the rooms. At last, the women were able to sit down as well. Hearty laughter and fellowship enveloped the group as long, sinewy hands reached across the table for one more helping of mashed potatoes. Women smiled sweetly, rosy cheeks glowing while they refilled cup after cup of strong black coffee. Children squealed and giggled, spilling their milk while brandishing heaping spoonfuls of food which dropped with a thud to the floor. Teenagers teased their siblings and drove their mothers crazy.
The traditional Thanksgiving Day was a time of great enjoyment and heartfelt togetherness. A time of sharing the work, the food and the blessings of family and friends.
After the meal, the father of the household stoked all the fires in the house with coal or wood. Rejoining the other men who had wandered into the living room, they arranged themselves and their bloated tummies into rocking chairs and couches. There they smoked pipes filled with Cherry Blend Tobacco and talked of neighborhood "goin' ons" until the late afternoon.
Babies were nursed and laid upon soft deep feather beds for afternoon naps. Faces and hands were wiped, little bodies stuffed into thick coats as younger children were sent outside to play. The older girls were made to help with the massive cleanup while the older boys gathered coal and wood for the night's fires. Later, they would congregate in the barn for talk and games of their own.
Dishes were washed in scalding water, dried and put into their proper places. The small tables were taken down and stored away. At length, the women too were able to sit down beside the cheerful fire, relaxing while talking of "women things". Cups of hot cider warmed chapped hands, as faces turned scarlet from the heat of the fireplace. Accordingly, the flames of friendship burned ever brighter, strengthening even more the bond of love that tied them together.
Visits from other neighbors proceeded throughout the afternoon. Each person was made to "sit and take a bite". Soon saucers of Pumpkin Pie with now drooping icing, sit upon their knees while tall glasses of milk or cinnamon-laced cider were placed at their elbows.
Children came in to warm themselves by the fires. Holding chubby little fingers near the flames, the children were soon ready for another go outside. Rarely did they stand still long enough for the stiffness to leave hands and feet before the door slammed behind them again.
Sometimes, if the family owned a musical instrument, hymns and popular songs of the day were heartily sung. Feet stamped to the high-pitched jigs of the fiddle while base voices and sopranos blended in sweet harmony for the hymns.
The day finally ended as the moon shone clear and white upon the home. Visitors and kin, weighed down with left over food, had bid fond farewells to the little family clustered in the doorway. Oil lamps had been lit, glowing golden inside their lighted halos, shadows danced upon the walls from flickering flames and the quietness settled in.
Sleepy children were tucked warmly beneath piles of quilts as the winter cold creeped into unheated bedrooms. Mother and father sat quietly beside the fire, she most likely mending a garment, he rocking contentedly, each wrapped in thoughts of the day.
This is how we leave our little Thanksgiving Family of those by gone days. To them the day had been spent exactly as our founding fathers had intended it to be. Family and loved ones, together in friendship, work and play. They shared their bounty, and their love with each other. They too shared in the worship of their God, never failing to give thanks to Him for all their blessings and good fortune. Those gathered inside that little house, in one mind and of one heart, also asked their Loving Father to guide them through the hard times and give them strength and wisdom for the days to come.
And HE did!
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
There will be no story next week as both Carolyn and Nancy will be busy spending this time with our families. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
Nancy Trice, © 2000