HISTORIES Farm Foodways and War

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 01: HISTORIES
Farm, Foodways, and War

HISTORIES PMSS Farm Foodways and War

0057a P. Roettinger Album. “Getting dinner at a ‘workin’.'” Three women at left by a tripod of three logs, three women at a table of food at right, and two boys in the background. [roe_057a.jpg]

TAGS: foodways, food preparation, iron pots, tripods, open-air cooking, Pine Mountain Settlement, Appalachian foodways, table manners, food preservation, diet, Appalachian traditional foods, food preparation, hog-killing, kitchen photographs, molasses, sorghum, maple sugar, maple syrup, camping, shucky beans, leatherbritches, beans, WWI, WWII, Mable Brown Ellis, the agrarian myth, Katherine Pettit,


The pages and posts related to foodways at Pine Mountain Settlement School and in the surrounding community are rich in social and cultural history. They describe table manners, diet, traditional food, and food preparation including preservation, hog-killing, pickling, molasses, sorghum production, tapping maple trees for syrup, and other practices common to both the School and the community at large. Foodways are also social indicators in hard times,, times of war, famine, natural disasters, and political turmoil. The greater the distance we grow between our food sources, our foodways, and our famines, the greater the dangers we all face.

In May of 1919 Ethel de Long reported the following:

For several years the old ladies of our neighborhood have wanted to come and show us how to cook an old-fashioned dinner over the open fire …

On March 14, 1919, the women joined the workers at Big Log house at Pine Mountain Settlement School in eastern Kentucky.  They came with sunbonnets and kerchiefs on their heads and in dresses of gingham and hand-woven linsey-woolsey.  Their dresses were covered with fresh aprons and their hickory baskets were filled with contributions for the proposed meal.

Ethel de Long continues:

… dinner was prepared about all available information about old-fashioned cookery and the result was not far different from a typical dinner today in the mountains.  Over the hearth, they cooked chicken and dumplings, stewed dried cushaw, and baked parsnips boiled the shucky beans, and made a peach shortcake, the mountain “high pie” in our old-fashioned iron pots and skillets.  There was every variety of cornbread, ash-cake, hoe-cake, chip-cake. One of the women whittled out a chip, greased it, and spread and patted the dough thin, propping it up to cook before the hot coals.  The business of eating was too serious for much conservation beyond comments on the cooking and modern improvements, and there were frequent interruptions, — a mule that broke loose, a fretting baby, a hog to be chased out of the garden.  It was only when we had finished and had gone into the other room sitting in a big circle about the hearth, that tales began.*

*[NOTES from the Pine Mountain Settlement  School, Vol. I, no. 2, May 1919.]


Appalachian Settlement Schools are often described as education, medical, and social service centers for impoverished and isolated rural communities.  The communities on the Northside of the long Pine Mountain chain in Harlan County were certainly roadless and isolated at the beginning of the twentieth century and the households were without wealth as understood in contemporary terms.  Yet,  Pine Mountain Settlement School and the community served by the settlement workers demonstrated a certain sophistication of skill and amazing practical resourcefulness that carried over into their foodways.  But, still, both the School and the Community, lived within a conflicted landscape. The families in the surrounding communities were large without full literacy, but in the words of the folklorist, Cecil Sharpe,  they were ” cultivated illiterates,”  a designation that Ethel de Long and others, for better or worse, were fond of citing.  “Cultivation” was a practice that both the School and the community knew well how to do. Schools and communities knew that cultivation included people as well as land.

The foodways of the Southern Appalachians grew and changed within the diverse surrounding environments that many Harlan County communities shared. The influx of many ethnicities when coal mining was “booming”, of tinkerers (itinerate traders) and large and diverse logging operations, added international components to the foodways. The railroad was the conduit.  Early settlement of the Appalachians was far more diverse than often assumed by many. The literature regarding Appalachia rarely explores the roots of the people in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Africa, France, Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, and later, the Middle East. Early history books pay little to no attention to off-continent roots.

A remarkable omission is the mention of African Americans and Asians in the large body of early literature on the Southern Appalachians. Tinkerers, traders, coal camps, and other outside influences brought individuals from many areas of the nation and world to Appalachia. The unique and welcoming environment created by the rural settlement school, particularly Pine Mountain Settlement School and its surrounding community, is rich in its stories of “cultivation”, an idea that is integral to the Settlement Movement.  An exploration of foodways within the rural Settlement School movement opens a unique window into the broadly studied social formations spawned by the introduction of “outsiders” and settlement work in rural Appalachia.

When, or, even where, many of the mountain dwellers found certain sensibilities toward their food remains only partially explored. There are many unanswered but an exploration of possible origins has begun to open larger conversations. Food is almost as sensitive an issue as questioning religion for many who live in Appalachia.  Praise of a plate of well-prepared shucky-beans can bring as much rapture on the face as the discussion of the Second Coming and a perceived insult of food not appreciated can simmer for years and sometimes become feudalist.

Foodways in Appalachia are unique and cookbooks and descriptions of food preparation in Appalachian households have been growing in number in recent years.  But, there is scarcely any literature that provides focused research and discussion of settlement school foodways and the social formations that grew and changed around food in their common communities.  It is a research project worth pursuing.

Together with their rich cultural history and rugged self-determination and sufficiency, the southern Appalachian natives in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee, hold in common a unique set of food traditions that regularly show up when food is discussed.  Often these are traditions passed along through many generations, and they served to confound the settlement workers when they attempted to have dialogues about food nutrition. Sometimes the workers were puzzled by the unusual, direct, and sometimes oblique systems of human interaction and dialogue of their rural neighbors in the course of introducing new food ideas. New food, new suggestions regarding preservation methods, new serving suggestions, or proffered remarks regarding sanitary precautions, could elicit a range of responses from bewilderment to anger with native Appalachians.

But, most often, the community folk were puzzled by the “fotched-on” ways and the impractical behavior of the “furriners.”  It is fair to say that most mountain families were at once suspicious of criticism or change that might be introduced by the “furriner” but contrary to logic they rarely turned away a visitor to their homes or failed to hear out the suggestions.  It was common practice to welcome strangers to their homes and ask them to sit down for a meal, spend the night, or, importantly, “sit a spell” and talk as these were obligatory customs in the mountains. This openness to strangers was a mandatory function of their foodways and a universally cultivated practice.

It was common practice and courtesy to welcome strangers to their homes and to ask them to sit down for a meal or to spend the night.  Importantly, to “sit a spell” and talk, was almost always offered, as this was understood to be obligatory custom in the mountains. The difficult travel often obligated the travelers in the early years to call upon the hospitality of mountain families to put them up for the night and provide a meal. Rarely was the traveler refused either accommodation or a meal.

Food was often a pivotal point in the rich cultural dialogue of the southern mountaineer, a dialogue that was both the “sit-a-spell” and the more global dialogue surrounding cultural differences. The generous tradition of offering food to strangers was a way to engage news and customs from outside their community and cultural range.  Importantly, the practice became a way for workers in the settlement schools to share foodways and expand families’ food sensibilities and food habits.  Certainly, the custom of sharing food and home with strangers in the Appalachian mountains was quickly adopted as a mechanism for both assuring the preservation of local foodways while introducing variance which expanded the food health of the region.

Impromptu visits and over-nights in rural homes were recorded and preserved and provided material for travelogues, personal letters, and a variety of published work, No matter the quality of the meal or food, the experience of eating with a mountain family found its way into almost every journal, diary, and letter to family and friends of settlement school workers.  Most all workers had the opportunity to share personal time with Appalachian families in their homes and their accounts provide consistent patterns of food preferences, preparation, and eating patterns in the home.

Home for most Appalachian families was an isolated existence. The isolation of the mountain populations for many years has long been recognized as the central factor in preserving traditions and habits. This isolation secured the long and sustained history of pioneer foodways and gave to the region a long and sustained foodways history.  However, that same isolation is often confounding to researchers.  Tracing the migration of foodways is a complex process when the trajectory is a long one. Similar to the actual migration paths of early settlers in the Appalachians, the migration of foodways often mingles with the deeper roots of ethnic and geographic sources making it much more difficult to figure a foodway’s trajectory.

The Appalachian mountaineer population is rich with life lessons and complex in the variety of migration patterns.  While the foodways themselves are relatively simple in their preparation and presentation and limited in the broad range of variants, if the researcher digs deeply for meaningful patterns in their civic education and their heritage consumption patterns, the landscape becomes much more interesting. While the research into foodway origins is very complex, the mixture of the transparent and simple foodscape with an obfuscated idea, symbol, myth, or memory, makes the research journey a lively and engaging one.


The visitor at the door has often been the best source of information. For example, the respect learned from the sharing of the table is no small lesson.  Even the most remote families had visitors and the number of visitors who appeared at the doorstep of mountain homes left a lasting legacy of “stories”.   The table manners varied in mountain homes but the respect of families for strangers and the restraint of women who often served and watched the family eat before taking the meal themselves was widely reported.  In the mountains surrounding the settlement schools, very few mountain women would sit down for the meal with guests. Preferring to stand ready to serve, they took their meal only after all visitors had eaten and left the table. This was a pattern that was widely reported as a tradition. On the other hand, the “family-style” meals often served at the settlement schools emphasized manners and decorum that were consistent with the “refined” behavior of the urban environment, — largely Northern. and patterns that were familiar to most of the staff.  This was eating by the rules.

Manners and decorum are important to any research on foodways and to a fundamental understanding of the social formations that evolved around settlement schools in the Appalachian mountains.  Many of the Appalachian rural settlement schools had specific rules for the dining room.  At Pine Mountain, for example, the home economics classes emphasized proper serving, table settings, and table manners. Hygiene and planned menus that provided “balanced meals” were encouraged. Foodways were also directly included in the School’s industrial training programs.  The skills of well-trained food service workers were known to be transferrable.  The trained workers could be transferred into jobs in the food service industry upon graduation and the geography made no difference.  During their time in the Pine Mountain Settlement school work program, almost all students rotated into some aspect of food service work.


The food service experiences of students at Pine Mountain Settlement School were not far removed from those found at Hindman Settlement and John C. Campbell Folk School. For example, at the Brasstown location of John C. Campbell Folk School, there was a direct transfer of foodways and food service training through the influence of important staff who left Pine Mountain and took up jobs and residence at the Brasstown Folk School.  The most important staff who moved to John C. Campbell Folk School were those central to Pine Mountain’s kitchen, farm, and forest.

Individuals such as Marguerite Butler who had supervised the kitchen at Pine Mountain, brought many of her managerial skills to North Carolina when she joined the staff  at John C. Campbell.  Another key member of the Pine Mountain staff, Leon Deschamps had married into the well-known mountain family of the Ritchies and May Ritchie and Leon Deschamps brought her Kentucky foodways heritage and his Belgian food sensibilities along to the folk school not log after Marguerite Butler.   Many of the lessons learned at Pine Mountain were adapted to the folk school at Brasstown.  While many of the lessons at Pine Mountain were passed along by women, the influence of John C. Campbell who strongly believed in the Folk School ethoss and was skilled at community organization and industrial education was a representative of the influential Russell Sage Foundation. As a persuasive figure in the early Settleent School Movement, John C. Campbell stayed in close contact with Katherine Pettit and Ethel de Long as they shaped their early programs at Pine Mountain. As both schools grew the exchange of ideas, information, and foodways was near-constant. Untangling the threads of influence between the various mountain settlement schools can be very complex but rewarding in its sociological undercurrents and there is much yet to be discovered.


Settlement schools in the southern Appalachians ultimately derived their basic lessons from the urban settlement houses that were, in turn, inspired by British models first put forward by  Canon Burnett at Toynbee Hall in London.  The most striking difference between the two settlement movement models, urban and rural, is the agrarian focus found in almost all the rural settlement schools, folk-school settlements, and residential mission schools in the Southern Appalachian mountain region.  While there are many differences among institutional types —- urban and rural — they all share agrarian interests to some degree.  A strong commitment to health literacy, and an unceasing discussion of foodways as the grow from an agrarian base, serve to inform or, sometimes,  fail to inform social and civic actions in the two distinct settlement school types.


During WWI and WWII, food became a major concern to institutions trying to balance their budgets and keep within the government guidelines for food conservation.  During the Hoover years, there was a national movement to try to educate the citizens to both conserve and eat healthily.  The two topics did not necessarily make good dinner conversation but the schools soon began to take up the task of educating the public in healthy eating and associated foodways that could be used to improve the health of the general public. The following is a flyer produced with the help of the government to distribute short plays that might be performed to get the message of food conservation to the people during the Hoover administration.

The Kentucky Division of the U.S. Food Administration, located in Louisville listed a series of Plays, Stories, and other entertainments meant to get Hoover’s message across. “The Little Miracle,” by Hortense Flexner, an educator and founder of the Kentucky Moonlight Schools Movement, was one such play that “showed the delight of French children over chocolate sent them by American children. Another was a play “The Patriotic Lump of Sugar,” described as a “dialogue between Tommy a small American, and Captain Sugar Lump of the American Army. In an attempt to break the unhealthy habit of too much sugar in the diet.  The plays, and stories promoted by the U.S. Food Administration were aimed at the children who had developed a taste for sugar products during the period of sugar rationing during the war. The audience was encouraged to think of the war effort and “…not spend money on candy but to save it for Uncle Sam.”

A flyer sent to Pine Mountain and found in the correspondence of the school director (Ethel de Long Zande) only served to reinforce the rationing activities that were found during war-time. Life in the dining room at the Pine Mountain School during the two major wars, saw trimmed-down menus and repeated efforts to bring awareness to the children and to the staff that such sparse dinners of rice and cocoa could result in a “teaching moment,” The cost of a full meal mixed with as pared-down version could build funds that could be sent to support the war efforts and also help with the war-time expenses of running the School. The efforts would provide valuable educational lessons for the students that many carried through the hard times in their future lives.


The soils of the Southern Appalachians are some of the least productive in the country in their required chemistry.  Many soils in the region are thin in nutrients, rocky and often found on the steep sides of mountains.   The quality of over-farmed Appalachian land is known to be limited in its management over time and considerable acreage was also underutilized due to poor stewardship. Nonetheless, the people of the region produced a wide array of crops that provided basic sustenance for their families.  Their farming practice is often referred to as subsistence farming. A review of subsistence farming is important to an understanding of foodways in the southern Appalachians.  Many of the recent literary aggregations of foodways and farming are found in works such as Wendall Barry’s   Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food. (2012), can be found in the works of Appalachian writers

The attention to food and farming practices in nearly all the settlement institutions is considerable up to the early nineteen-fifties and that writing confirms the prevalence of subsistence farming to the region. Farming practice within range of the various settlement institutions was largely subsistence farming and like their neighbor’s farm it was integrally bound to common foodways. The farming practices of the settlements while encouraging new farming methods, also borrowed from the local practice. Like the surrounding community dependence, the survival of the settlement schools depended on their harvest from the farm to offset costs to the institution. A poor harvest meant a poor year for the school.

The dialog between the settlement institution farmers and their communities is just as conflicted as the conversations regarding foodways and just as “cultivated” as the marketing seen in the government publications.  Polite exchanges regarding soil preparation, rotation of crops, fertilizer, appropriate seeds, and planting time, and other agrarian practices could yield profitable changes or daunting challenges for the School and its neighbors. War, drought, rain, insects, blights, and a myriad of other interventions in the farming cycle could damage food supplies of both community and School.  Local farms and gardens continue to provide value to the quality of life of communities and continue to have profound impacts on the evolution of foodways within these many rural Appalachian communities. The 100-hundred-year history of foodways at Pine Mountain Settlement School and its similar institutions have much to teach us all about our relationship to our food supplies. our farm cultivation, and our agricultural practices.

** A comparison of the foodways of the rural Pine Mountain Valley against the foodways of the multiplying coal camps just a short distance away in the same Harlan County, Kentucky is another important lesson to be told.  See the remarkable 1920 essay written by Mabel Brown Ellis, a specialist in Juvenile Courts working for the National Child Labor Committee’s  publication, the American Child  who contributed an article on ‘‘Children of the Kentucky Coal Fields,” that fully addresses the dramatic shift brought on by the mining industry in Harlan County.

See also comments on coal-camp diets by Wiley H. Swift,  an Avery Co. native and Secretary of the North Carolina Child Labor Committee,  the National Child Labor Committee’s special agent on Law and  Administration and Superintendant of Greensboro Schools, NC. [Asheville Citizen Times, 1949]