Thursday, November 16, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- THANKFUL

I decided to do something a bit different this week. Since Thanksgiving is coming soon, I chose THANKFUL for my Appalachian Word of the Week. Please join me as I remember. Perhaps you are THANKFUL for these, too. Or, you can add your THANKFUL memories to the Comments below.

I am THANKFUL that no matter how poor we were, we had a turkey on the table and plenty of food to eat as we celebrated Thanksgiving. I’m also THANKFUL for my family members who gathered with us—even those who were a bit challenging to get along with the rest of the year. On this day, we put it all aside to stuff ourselves with turkey, apple salad, stuffing, pea salad, and, if we were lucky, a dessert. My favorite dish, not because of flavor but because of uniqueness, was the bird’s nest. My mom filled a huge bowl with mashed potatoes, used a large spoon to make an indentation in the top, and filled it with peas. Hence, a bird’s nest.

Dad loved the turkey neck. We tried to leave the room when he got started on it. He’d sit there and eat the meat off the bones by sucking it off. Yuck. Disgusting. How I wish he was still here to suck on my turkey’s neck this year. I’d sit right there with him.

Having extended families with us made me even more THANKFUL. Granny, aunts and uncles, and cousins made the celebration even better. Laughter filled the house. Even the year Aunt Joyce helped clear the table and carried a pile of bowls to the soapy dishwater and dropped them in. Mom noticed chunks of food floating in the water and realized Aunt Joyce had dropped the apple salad leftovers into the water. Disaster! That was one of our favorites. I was not THANKFUL that I couldn’t have those leftovers. But, we laughed and gave her a hard time about it for years.

I am THANKFUL I grew up in a place where character and integrity were more valuable than money. No sense in putting on airs. You were either poor or poorer. What we were rich in was spirit, determination, strength, and faith in God. Doing good wasn’t expected, it was normal. Honesty came naturally. If you needed help, someone always rallied to your aid. And you returned the favor.

I am THANKFUL for the clear springs of water that worked their way through the limestone and bubbled to the surface for perfectly filtered water. Springs flowed into mountain streams that danced down the mountainside and into the creeks below. God spoke to me through those streams of pure water. I could almost hear his words speak to me as the water crashed over rocks and fallen trees and rushed past me, inviting me to rush along with him. I still find refuge in the presence of a fast mountain stream.

Dad, Mom, and my son
and the porch swing
I am THANKFUL for my porch swing, where I could while away the hours each day by reading or writing poems. My mountain feist dog swung with me as I dreamed of a future of experiencing the world beyond the mountains or crying to the one creature (my dog) who understood my disappointments, fears, and failures.

That swing served as my therapist in hard times and my motivator to kick-start my creative juices when life looked promising. Everyone should have a porch swing (and a dog) to be THANKFUL for.

Coal kept us warm
I’m THANKFUL for coal. It provided heat, even if we only had a pot-bellied stove or later a Stokermatic stove that monitored the temperature and kept it safe. Coal also provided for our cooking when I was younger as Granny or Mom cooked on a coal cook stove. Coal also provided a livelihood for my brother and hundreds of other Appalachian families in my county. If not for coal, many would not have survived until Thanksgiving.

Loyall High School
I’m THANKFUL for my school where I had fabulous teachers who opened my world beyond the mountains that surrounded me, teaching me literature, social skills, and thinking skills to expand my options beyond my na├»ve worldview. They prepared me to step beyond those mountains with confidence to go wherever God led me.

The garden
I’m THANKFUL for the garden on the mountain behind our house that provided food year-round as Mom and Dad canned extras for the winter. That garden taught me that hard work reaps benefits past the here and now. It also showed me God’s bounty provides for needs if you put forth the effort to nurture it.

Loyall Church of Christ
I'm THANKFUL for my tiny church where I learned the meaning of unconditional love. My church family served as examples of true love and guided me along my path to maturity. The most important day of my life took place among those friends when I accepted Christ as my savior and was baptized as they sang and prayed for me.

3rd grade class at Loyall
Most of all, I’m THANKFUL for all the friends who blessed me as a child and who have continued to be dear friends into my long-past-childhood stage in life. Many things have changed for us all. Some are delightful changes (like grandchildren), some heartbreaking. But the constant in our lives is the heritage we shared in Appalachia. We are all blessed.

What are you THANKFUL for this Thanksgiving season? I’d love to hear your stories.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- SHUCK BEANS

Thanksgiving is almost here. What does that mean for an Appalachian family? It means you'd better have your SHUCK BEANS ready.

If you grew up in Appalachia, you know what a SHUCK BEAN is. You may also know them as shucky beans or leather britches.

Whatever you call them, they are a necessity for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a few other special holidays.

SHUCK BEANS are dried green beans that are reconstituted and cooked until the bean itself is moist and creamy and the hulls are soft enough to dissolve in your mouth.

My SHUCK BEANS are hanging in my window, drying, right now. They still have some time to go before they are dry enough to rattle when they are moved.

Stringing your beans
How do you make SHUCK BEANS? You take green beans--preferably fresh white half-runners or little greasies for me--clean them, then string them. Stringing a green bean is the process of snapping off each end and pulling the string all the way to the other end. Then you snap off the other end and do the same on the other side.

When you have all your green beans ready, you take a large needle and thread it with heavy duty cotton thread (I prefer thread for putting buttons on a coat, some people use dental floss.

Push the needle through one sturdy bean and tie a knot around the bean. This will keep the SHUCK BEAN from sliding off the string. Then thread the beans onto the string until it is near the end of the string. Repeat what you did with the first bean and tie the string around the last bean to secure it.

Next, hang your beans to dry. You can hand them outdoors, but you'll take the risk of squirrels or some other hungry critter eating them. I put mine on a clothes hanger and hang it near a window.

How to prepare your SHUCK BEANS:

The night before you need to cook your SHUCK BEANS, snip the strings and slide them into a large pot. (Discard the strings) Cover them with water and leave them to soak overnight.

The next morning, strain the water from the beans and refill the pot with clean water. Add some meat. Generally, I use a slab of fatback. You can also use salt bacon, bacon, or ham hocks. According to how salty your meat is, add a bit of salt. Then get the water boiling to where you have bubbles rising to the surface.

SHUCK BEANS after cooking
Cook the SHUCK BEANS for about three hours. Check on the water level often. If the level gets below the SHUCK BEANS, add more water.

After three hours, test your beans. If the bean part is soft and silky, they're ready. If they are a bit hard and mealy, keep cooking. You can adjust the salt levels now, too.

Check them again every 30 minutes to see if your SHUCK BEANS are done.

When they are just right, turn off the heat and let them sit for another 20-30 minutes.

Then you're ready for some Appalachian heaven.

SHUCK BEANS have always been one of my favorite side dishes. Each time I visited my mom in Harlan County, KY, I expected her to fix some and to have a couple of strings in her freezer for me to take home with me.

Looking for an interesting and historical side dish for your special holiday celebration? Try some SHUCK BEANS.

Did you grow up eating SHUCK BEANS? Do you still eat them? Did you ever string them and then hang them to dry?

I'd love to hear your SHUCK BEAN stories.

Happy Thanksgiving SHUCK BEANS to you.

*Special thanks to my cousin, Carol Nolan Cavins, for her SHUCK BEANS photos.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- BLACK WALNUTS

Growing up in the mountains, we had lots of different nuts available in the fall. Last week I shared my memories of chestnuts. If you missed it, you can find it HERE. This week, I'm going to share the BLACK WALNUT.

Probably, most of you know about BLACK WALNUTS, whether you harvested them yourself or not. You can buy them in the grocery store, after all.

But--do you cook with them?

This time of year, my dad took us on excursions on Pine Mountain where he knew BLACK WALNUT trees grew. He had gathered them from his youth.

One particular Saturday morning, we gathered a stack of potato sacks Mom had put aside during the year (the old red ones with webbing and a drawstring, not the plastic ones like today). We all loaded into Dad's Willis car and drove to the mountain using Laden Trail. If you don't know about Laden Trail, I'll be talking about it at a later date.

We piled out of the car, eager to go into the woods and collect BLACK WALNUTS. However ... the area Dad wanted to get to happened to be on the other side of a field, with a fence. We shorter ones squeezed through the slats in the fence and Dad climbed over.

Halfway through the pasture, we discovered what the fence had been intended to enclose -- a bull. An unhappy bull!

We took off running across the field like lightning. That bull ran faster than my short legs could go. Mom, although she was only five feet tall and had short legs, too, grabbed me and dragged me across that pasture. Thankfully, we reached the other side before the bull caught up to us. I don't remember clearly, but I think we flew over the top of that fence.

Picking BLACK WALNUTS can be dangerous. At least we didn't see any bears, venomous snakes, or wildcats.


With blood pumping like a coal train carrying a heavy load, we continued to climb the mountain and reached the tree stand Dad had remembered. BLACK WALNUT trees had dropped more BLACK WALNUTS than we could have carried home. We each began filling our bags.

If I close my eyes I can still remember the fragrance of an old-growth forest in fall -- the fallen and drying leaves, earth, moss, and nuts. I smile when I think of it. I also loved the sound of us walking through the thick leaves as they rustled and crunched beneath our feet.

One negative of picking up BLACK WALNUTS is that the hulls turn your hands black. Especially the ones that have already turned black after being on the ground for a while. It takes a while for the stain to disappear, too. Soap and water don't do the trick. The stain is so effective that some people boil the hulls and use the strained water as hair dye or dye for wool.

With each of our bags filled with BLACK WALNUTS and tied shut, we made our way back down the mountain. Daddy ended up having to carry most of the bags.

Since we were weighed down and couldn't run as fast, we decided to walk around the fenced-in pasture this time. It was a bit further, but safer.

At home, Mom took the bags of BLACK WALNUTS and laid them out in the sun to dry. Then she got busy with a hammer. First, she hammered off the green/black husks and collected the black, wavy nutshells into a large pan. Then she sat on the concrete floor of our laundry room and hammered BLACK WALNUTS into small enough pieces to retrieve the meats inside.

That hammering could get on your nerves. I usually found something to do outside during the process. I'm sure her arm was sore by the time she finished. Those BLACK WALNUT shells are hard and thick. Funny how they look a lot like the bark of a BLACK WALNUT tree.

After the hammering part was done, we each gathered pieces, a nut pick, and settled down in front of The Ed Sullivan Show to pick out the BLACK WALNUT meats for upcoming Christmas recipes.
BLACK WALNUTS -- hand-picked or
purchased from a store -- they're
great in your holiday recipes

BLACK WALNUTS have a unique woodsy flavor. Mom used them in her chocolate fudge and family recipe fruitcakes. It was about the only time of year my mom made sweets. I felt it was worth the wait. It was also worth the effort and danger required to get the BLACK WALNUTS. Nothing topped her fudge or fruitcake.

Have you ever harvested BLACK WALNUTS? Did you have a tree in your yard? Do you have a favorite way of using them in your cooking?

Would you like to go into the mountains and collect BLACK WALNUTS? I recommend a pair of heavy gloves. Oh, and you may want to avoid any fenced-in pastures.

I'd love to hear your story.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- CHESTNUTS

It's that time of year when special treats fall from the trees. I don't mean acorns. They may be a special treat for the squirrels, but not for people.

No, I mean treats like apples, walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts--and CHESTNUTS.

CHESTNUTS bring back fond memories of my childhood. They also bring back painful memories.

Have you ever harvested CHESTNUTS? Have you had a CHESTNUT tree growing in your yard?

CHESTNUTS roasting on an open fire
At least most of you know what a CHESTNUT is, right? I mean, if you've heard the song about CHESTNUTS roasting on an open fire, you have a general idea. Or CHESTNUT dressing for your Thanksgiving feast. When I lived in New York City, I loved smelling CHESTNUTS roasting at night by the street vendors.

Cooler weather means CHESTNUTS to me.

You may know what a CHESTNUT is, but do you know how they are harvested? I'll give you the low-down from my memories of childhood.

CHESTNUTS in a burr
As my friends and I walked home from school in the fall, we passed nearby a CHESTNUT tree. We could hardly wait for the seed pods (CHESTNUT BURS) to drop from the tree so we could gather them for a snack.

Walking under a CHESTNUT tree can be hazardous. CHESTNUT burrs are large, needle-spiked balls. If they hit you on the head, it hurts like crazy. Besides, the quills on the burrs feel like a porcupine dropped on your head--sharp end first.

Picking up CHESTNUTS
The CHESTNUT burrs that have already fallen on the ground are dangerous, too. Those quills will stick right through your shoes. Especially if you're still wearing flip-flops or sandals. Never mind what they'll do to your fingers when you attempt to remove the CHESTNUTS from them.

If you're fortunate enough to find a CHESTNUT tree that has dropped its nuts, look for the burrs that have already dried out and changed from bright green to brownish weapon color. Most should have popped open, exposing the CHESTNUTS inside, or dropped them on the ground as they fell. Most pods contain three CHESTNUTS.

Now, to eat your CHESTNUT! Some people warn you not to eat them raw or the tannin in them will cause gastric distress (tummy ache). I don't remember that ever happening to me or my friends. We gathered the CHESTNUTS and opened the tough skin much the same way the squirrels do--we used our teeth. It's a wonder we have any teeth left.

Roasted CHESTNUT meats
Inside the skin is a sweet, luscious nut that is more akin to a fruit than a nut. At least, it has a lot more carbohydrate than fat.

Some people, who gather more than a few CHESTNUTS, roast or boil their CHESTNUTS before eating them. The recommendation is to score an X into the skin of each nut before cooking. I think that would be much more dangerous to my fingers than the burrs themselves. The reason you should score them is that when they heat up they build up steam inside and will explode (like an egg in your microwave).

Sounds like fun to me.

No matter how you prepare your CHESTNUT, it's worth the effort.

Have you ever harvested CHESTNUTS? Ever been stuck by a CHESTNUT burr? Have a favorite way to eat them?

I'd love to hear your story.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- KATYDID

When you step outside at night, before the cold snap of fall, you hear all kinds of sounds coming from the more wooded areas around your home. Some of those sounds may be the chirping of crickets. You may also hear cicadas (jar fly), or even bullfrogs. But, the most common sound you hear is the KATYDID.

In England, they call the KATYDID a bush cricket.The KATYDID is related to a grasshopper, however, not a cricket.  In Appalachia, it is bright green and allows it to be camouflaged in the trees and bushes where it spends its time. 

One difference in the appearance of the KATYDID and a grasshopper is the length of its antennae. They are especially long. Also, some varieties of the KATYDID look much more leaf-like, thus allowing better camouflage.

Several varieties of KATYDID exist around the world. There's even a pink one. Another variety is about six inches long. Yikes. Some resemble the bark of a tree and some are just down-right scary and other-worldly.


Our smaller, bright green KATYDID, is generally calm and stands still when you approach it. That's probably because it thinks it is completely camouflaged and doesn't need to flee. Since it is a leaf-eater, you don't need to worry about the KATYDID trying to make a meal out of you.

I love to listen to the KATYDID at night--even if it does sound a bit like my tinnitus.

I've embedded an audio file of KATYDIDs here for you to listen. Click on the link below, when a blue box pops up, click on it, and it will take you to YouTube. 

Do you love the sounds of the night? What's your favorite night creature? With fall's lower temperatures upon us, there aren't many nights left to listen to the KATYDID. Walk outside tonight and tell us whether you were able to hear any singing their song near your house.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- SIGOGGLIN

Do you know what it means for something to be SIGOGGLIN?

Origins of the word seem to originate from the Irish/Scottish heritage brought to the mountains of Appalachia (Apple-AT-cha). It means anything that is crooked, off-skew, or just plain wrong.

One of the most famous examples of SIGOGGLIN is the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy. I couldn't understand how something so wrong could be so famous. Seems that SIGOGGLIN buildings are a rage now. Go figure.

There were many examples of SIGOGGLIN when I grew up in Harlan County. Most people couldn't afford to hire a professional to build or fix things for them, so they took their limited know-how and did it themselves.

Houses, fences, sheds, and your outside coal house could all make people wrinkle their noses, cock their heads, and say, "That's a bit SIGOGGLIN, ain't it?"

Of course, the mountain roads are all a bit SIGOGGLIN. I'll never forget traveling Laden Trail on Pine Mountain. That gravel road that wound around enough for you meet yourself going around a curve was a great example of a crooked SIGOGGLIN road.

I've met a lot of boys and men with SIGOGGLIN noses. They got that way from either meeting a fist nose on or from some crazy stunt where they ended up on the ground or against a wall nose first.

Ouch. That's gonna be a SIGOGGLIN nose
Back in grade school, our principal at Loyall made a point to tell us all NOT to slide on the icy streets at recess. My friend Jackie ignored the command. He left a fair share of blood on the ice as he slid down the street nose first.

The first time I tried to crochet, my project ended up SIGOGGLIN. I'm sure, with practice, I could have done better. But I gave up. My first cake ended up a bit SIGOGGLIN, too. Didn't affect the flavor, but it definitely looked a bit wrong.

Have you seen anything that's SIGOGGLIN?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Appalachian Word of the Week -- PERSIMMON

Every fall, my mother gave me the dire warning, "Don't eat a PERSIMMON before the first frost."

Of course, not heeding that warning would usually result in the PERSIMMON PUCKER.

That pucker was bad enough to make you never eat a PERSIMMON before its time ever again.

An unripe PERSIMMON has tannin in it. Tannin is the chemical that causes an astringent effect in your mouth. Tannin is bitter tasting and is what causes the skin inside your mouth to tighten -- making you pucker.

Basically, tannin can suck the moisture right out of you. It can feel like it's sucking the very life out of your body! Not a pleasant experience. Tannin is also what makes a dry wine dry. Fortunately, they don't use very much tannin in dry wine.

However, when the PERSIMMON is ripe, there is very little tannin left and the fruit is extremely sweet.

My mom's warning about the first frost, however, was a tad unreliable. Although it's true that PERSIMMON is generally ripe starting in October (the time of the first frost in the mountains of Kentucky), not all PERSIMMONS are ripe immediately.

A better gauge of when you can avoid the tannin PERSIMMON PUCKER is when the flesh of the fruit is soft to the touch. It should feel like there is jelly inside the skin of the PERSIMMON. It will also have skin that looks a bit wrinkly.

I always ate PERSIMMON right from the tree. I made sure I used extreme care to make sure it was ripe enough. I only took a slight nibble to test it and hoped for a sweet taste instead of a nasty pucker.

PERSIMMON is also used for other eating pleasures. Some use them to make cakes and beverages. My friend, Michelle Medlock Adams, an award-winning author, creates a PERSIMMON pudding that is drool-worthy. Here is a photo of her latest creation. I've also included her recipe (for those of you who give me a hard time when I don't include recipes for the yummy foods I highlight on this blog).

Photo courtesy of Michelle Medlock Adams 
Recipe courtesy of
Michelle Medlock Adams

PERSIMMONS have several other uses as well. The seeds are collected and sliced open each fall in an effort to predict the type of winter to expect. Inside the seed, you will either see a spoon, fork or knife. The spoon means there will be heavy snows (bad winter), the fork means the snows will be light, and the knife means it will be extremely cold.

PERSIMMON seeds are dark brown
The report is in and PERSIMMON seeds are displaying a SPOON this year. If you're in a snow-prone area, prepare for a snowy winter season.

The seeds can also be used for other purposes. If ground, a "tea" can be made. Interestingly, this tea was a coffee substitute for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The juices from the seeds can also be used as a gargle for sore throats and a cure for things like warts, cancers, heartburn, diarrhea, and stomach aches.

Who knew how amazing the little PERSIMMON could be?

Have you eaten a PERSIMMON straight from the tree? Have you ever experienced the PERSIMMON PUCKER?

I'd love to hear your stories.