HISTORIES PMSS Farm Foodways and War

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Farm, Foodways, and War

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

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


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.

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.

Through travelogues, personal letters, and published work, the impromptu visits and over-nights in rural homes were recorded and preserved.   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.  Almost all workers had the opportunity to share personal time with Appalachian families in their homes.

Home for most Appalachian families was an isolated existence. The isolation of the mountain populations for many years secured the long and sustained history of pioneer foodways and gave to the region a long and sustained foodways history.  But, that same isolation is also confounding to the researcher.  Tracing the migration of foodways is a complex process. 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.

While the foodways of the Appalachian mountain population are rich with life lessons and complex in their migration patterns, the foodways themselves are relatively simple in their preparation and presentation, deeply meaningful in their civic education, and memorable in their consumption. While the research into foodways origins is very complex, the mixture of transparent and simple foodscape with an obfuscated idea, symbol, myth, or memory, makes the research journey a lively and engaging one.


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 was widespread in the mountains surrounding the settlement schools. Few mountain women would sit down for the meal with guests, preferring to stand ready to serve, they took their meal only after all had eaten and left the table. This was eating by 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 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 programs of industrial training.  The skills of a well-trained food service worker could be transferred into jobs in the food-service industry. In the Pine Mountain Settlement school work program almost all students rotated into some aspect of food service work.

The experiences of students at Pine Mountain Settlement School were not far removed from those found at Hindman Settlement and John C. Campbell Folk School. 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. Marguerite Butler had supervised the kitchen at Pine Mountain and brought many of those managerial skills to North Carolina. 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.  Many of the lessons learned at Pine Mountain were adapted to the folk school at Brasstown.  However, many of the lessons at Pine Mountain were also passed to them by John C. Campbell who, as a representative of the influential Russell Sage Foundation, stayed in close contact with Katherine Pettit and Ethel de Long as they shaped the 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.

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 region.  While there are many differences among institutional types, they all share agrarian interests, a strong commitment to health literacy, and an unceasing discussion of foodways as they inform or fail to inform social and civic actions.


Particularly 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 took up the task of educating the 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 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 habit of sugar, the plays, and stories were aimed at the children who had developed a taste for sugar products that were rationed during the war. They were encouraged to think of the war effort and “…not spend money on candy but to save it for Uncle Sam.”

The flyer sent to Pine Mountain and found in the correspondence of the school director (Ethel de Long Zande) only served to reinforce the activities that were similar at the school during the two major wars, such as sparse dinners of rice and cocoa with the savings on a full meal sent to the war efforts.


The soils of the Southern Appalachians are some of the least productive in the country in their required chemistry.  Many are rocky and steep, as well.  The quality of over-farmed Appalachian land limited its management over time and considerable acreage was underutilized 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 as seen in the recent aggregation of foodways and farming found in Wendall Barry’s   Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food. (2012). 

The attention to farming practice in nearly all the settlement institutions is considerable up to the early nineteen-fifties and confirms the importance of subsistence farming to the region. Farming practice within the various settlement institutions was also largely subsistence farming and like the neighbor’s farm was integrally bound to foodways. The survival of the settlement depended on the 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.

What is consistent, however, is the fact that local farms and gardens continue to provide value to the quality of life of communities and have profound impacts on the evolution of foodways within those rural communities. The 100-hundred-year history of foodways at Pine Mountain Settlement School has much to teach us all.