Life lessons from my Appalachian hillbilly grandparents, my links back to Ireland and how to make a hillbilly staple.
My grandparents, Rosa Dell Curry Hughes and Robert Lincoln Hughes, Sr., MoMo and PoPo to us 27 grandkids, were hillbillies. They liked that label, even though some consider it to be derogatory. MoMo claimed that a hillbilly, a person who lived in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States, could trace their ancestry back to Irish and Scottish followers of William of Orange. As devout church members, my grandparents admired “King Billy,” who ruled much of the British Isles in the 1600s and was a protector of the Protestant faith. Therefore, being called a hillbilly was an honor of sorts.
“Never-you-mind” what biggity people in other parts of the country thought about them. MoMo was a kind soul who forgave their ignorance.
Born in 1888, MoMo knew that her ancestors had been in the eastern mountains of America for generations but originally came from Northern Ireland and the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. My recent ancestry research afforded me the privilege of visiting the area outside of Belfast from which one branch of her family hailed. They led tough lives as farmers on both sides of the big pond.
Most people today can’t imagine life back then, tucked away in the Appalachian mountain hollers. Self-sufficiency, a new buzzword in our modern society, was life and breath to them. MoMo and PoPo raised their eight children on a farm in their holler (pronunciation of “hollow,” which means a valley). She gardened; canned; raised, killed, and cooked chickens; raised and milked cows; dried meat; cooked up a storm; made clothes; drove a buckboard; and more. Rumor is she had an affinity for her shotgun.
A staple food was scrapple, the making of which she passed on to some of us granddaughters because she couldn’t imagine not knowing how to feed our families. MoMo didn’t have written recipes or measurements, but here’s my version of what she taught me:
MoMo’s Scrapple recipe
*About one quart of water
*About half a pound of sausage (or whatever meat you have around the farm that you can grind up)
*Salt to taste
*A bunch of yellow cornmeal (If you’ve ground your own cornmeal as she did, all the better. But let’s assume you have not, so store-bought will have to do)
In a stove pot, crush the meat in the water. (I use a potato masher.) Boil for about five minutes. Then thicken with handfuls of cornmeal, little-by-little, until it begins to get hard to stir. Turn the mixture into a buttered bread pan and let cool overnight. (Use the frig if your kitchen tends to be warm). In the morning, turn it out of the pan, slice it in thin pieces (like bread), and fry in a smidgen of lard, butter, or oil). Fry until crisp. Slather with butter, and sorghums or maple syrup if you wish. It is delicious!
Don’t worry about calories and cholesterol. They hadn’t been discovered yet when this recipe was conjured up.
MoMo also made “dough-gots.” She’d let her homemade bread dough rise, they would break it into pieces, flatten each piece into a patty, and fry them (in lard again, from the jar kept by the stove). We ate them hot with butter. I’d think it’s a miracle we all survived, except we spent so much time playing outdoors, we worked most of that fat right off.
We also had plenty of fresh vegetables from the garden and apples and pears from their fruit trees. With no chemical fertilizers or debuggers – dried cow dung worked fine – we were blessed with a healthy diet in spite of the lard. In fact, we ate so many veggies right out of the ground and washed off at the rain barrel that once a year MoMo would declare it was time to make sure we didn’t have anything untoward in our bellies. She’d give us each a spoonful of castor oil and something else I forget, out of pure misery. What wretched stuff. But to my knowledge, none of us ever had any creepy-crawly critters in our guts.
MoMo and PoPo had to move out of their beloved mountains toward the end of the Depression in the 1930s so that he could find regular work. They ended up in Michigan, where I was born and raised. I think she always missed her holler. But she loved her kids and grandkids more and seemed content as long as we surrounded her.
When I was 12 my parents packed my younger brother and sister and me into our beat-up station wagon, and we headed for the hills on vacation. We went back to the family’s original home, Earnshaw, West Virginia, and visited MoMo’s brother, Uncle Lemon Curry, on his peanut farm. I sat spellbound upon hearing story after story about my grandparents’ youth, and about my dad and his siblings. Relatives and neighbors came and went, joining in the Celtic tradition of storytelling. Good food showed up. We heard about all the Curry folk who had spice nicknames like Cinnamon, Pepper, Sage, Thyme, Ginger, and Dill.
Lots of family recipes were bantered about, with some insisting that pickled pigs’ feet and wild blackberry cake with brown sugar frosting were favorites. And scrapple, of course. Most of all, though, I loved the stories about MoMo when she was a girl.
“Lan’ sakes alive,” she’d been spirited and pretty and in love with grandpa. And she still was.
As I write, I think about how there were so many women like MoMo, women who inherited their ancestors’ recipes and beliefs and ways of life that have filtered down to us. Our forebears, yours too, lived lives that brought us to where we are today.
Every time I make scrapple, I think about that. I cook it up remembering how important it was to my grandma that it be shared with love. Thus, I give you her scrapple recipe and her story in the spirit of that love. May it warm your heart, as well as fill your belly, like it does mine.
Visit my website at www.lindahughes.com to learn about my romantic suspense and ancestry quest novels. Bits of MoMo and PoPo often sneak into my characters. How could I resist?
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