I have written a little bit about my love for these mountains, about my fond – and not so fond – memories living deep in the holler. The place where I grew up was an offshoot of an area called Demory Hollow. At one point in time, Demory was a community all its own, with a church, school, grocer, and lodge.1)Somewhere along the line, the little borough of Demory became part of LaFollette. The small borough was a hop, skip, and jump from another little town called Agee. Not many people know this, but the town was named after James Agee’s great grandfather, James Harris Agee. My people and his people lived next door to one another. In 1936, the TVA flooded the area. If anything is left of Agee, it’s buried underwater. The place was renamed Grantsboro, after its founder, Revolutionary War soldier and surveyor, James Grant. Norris Lake was less than five minutes away in all directions. My father took us camping and fishing in his favorite hidey holes. He told me that a small amphitheater was near that lake, back in the day. Now, my father’s favorite “hidey holes” and the entire area is smothered with “real estate” and big, fine lakeside homes.
Some mornings, mist and fog funneled through the veins of Demory Hollow and settled down like a blanket. The morning sun pierced through the haze and its rays glistened like God was among us. We lived down one of the hollers on a hillside there, where mountains hugged our road from both sides. Some people might call it a bit claustrophobic. We lived among some of the most diverse flora in the nation, if not the world. And critters were so close they were like family. One time, I even saw a black mountain lion slinking along the side of a mountain. If it wasn’t a mountain lion, it was a Maine Coon cat, because that sucker was huge. The old ones called these cats “Painters,” or, panthers.
Food. Food was always an issue. The forest was aplenty with edibles: paw paws, mayapples, crabapples, walnuts, huckleberries, mulberries, wild raspberries and blackberries and strawberries, poke salet (click here to find out how to eat it safely), edible grasses, etc. My father worked various jobs back then. After work, he fished or frog-gigged and brought home a string or a mess of food. We had chickens and eggs. We had two slaughter hogs once. When my dad came back from the slaughter house, his face was as pale as a sheet of paper. He said he never wanted to see that again. He said he could still hear them. “They scream like a person,” he said. I guess the experience brought the war back in his mind. From then on, any pigs on the property were pets. Food was still scarce, but we survived and were grateful. On Sundays and holidays, we visited my great-grandparents or great-aunts and enjoyed big dinners. People kept coming – dozens of them. And food was plentiful.
The problem was winter. And winters were long back in the holler. Sometimes we got “snowed in” and had to wait weeks for the roads to thaw enough to get out and go to the store. My father used tire chains. Four-wheel-drives were way beyond our grasp. The trip was normally between twenty to thirty minutes (depending on how fast you took the curves). Snow and ice made the trip an excruciating, knuckle-whitening hour or more ordeal.
Please bear with me for a soapbox moment. I don’t know how many times I hear people who weren’t born, raised, or reared here laugh about how school was canceled for just a “little bit of snow,” when snow where they once lived was sometimes five feet tall (perhaps a slight exaggeration). I dare anyone of them to say that after they take a little journey in the wintertime up to White Oak or Caryville Mountain or Duff or Jellico Mountain or way back in any holler where the sun doesn’t shine for months and salt trucks are a pipedream. See if it’s possible to leave when it snows, or especially when it ices or sleets. Determine then if it’s safe for kids to go to school.
But enough of my digression and back to food. Did we prepare for a dearth of food in winter? Sure. As best we could. We couldn’t afford a pressure canner, but my mother did can in a water bath, mostly jelly, fruits, tomatoes, and ketchup. We froze what we could. To be sure, my father hunted. But hunting is a gamble – win some, lose some. Suffice it to say, we ate A LOT of potatoes: fried, baked, raw, and soup. It seemed like we had either potato soup or “cornbread and milk” (literally what it says, basically cold gruel) about every other day. We had potato soup so often, I foundered on it for life.
As I said before, winters were long back in the holler. The season started in October or November and the mountains weren’t completely thawed until about April or even May. Did I mention we had no running water in winter? The water pipes weren’t dug and covered deep enough. So, they froze from December until the thaw. We saved water all year for cooking and washing and we used melted snow to flush the toilet. Chamber pots were also a thing. Our situation improved when I was about twelve years old. My father found a steady job as a policeman. My mother worked at a textile factory. People in the holler pooled money together and had the waterline dug correctly. Of course, winter never changed. But we were better prepared every year.
I am by no means complaining. No, not that. I’m proud of who I am and from where I came. Though we were dirt poor and sometimes stuck and stir crazy, I look back on those days with fondness. Sure, we were at each other’s throats with cabin fever. Snowball fights were one cure. Reading and writing (for me) were another. At times we were hungry, but we never starved. My experiences made me scrappy. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. What I have learned is that poverty makes a person humble. Hunger makes a person grateful. Being Appalachian makes a person resourceful. Ingenuity is in our blood.
The above piece is my own story about poverty that revolves mostly around food. I have found that food can be a story in itself. Our recipes deserve to be seen, read, and experienced. From time to time, I’d like to share our mountain recipes. We’d love to read more out there. Feel free to send us your own: (email@example.com). I’m sure there are stories to tell in each one of them.
Campbell County Tennessee USA: Volume 1 by Miller McDonald. County Services Syndicate, LaFollette (1993). pgs. 106-123, 136-151).
Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash (cropped)
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