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DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH In the Kitchen Pots and Pans I

Pine Mountain Settlement School

IN THE KITCHEN In the Kitchen Pots and Pans I

Home Economics classes and the Practice House (Country Cottage) at Pine Mountain Settlement School aimed for a comprehensive education in kitchen ways and this included the many tips and tricks that women often learn following their mothers around their home kitchens.  But, most of the girls who came to the School in the early years did not have the advantage of following mothers around their kitchens, as some had no mothers, some had no kitchens to speak of, and they rarely had the time for extended instruction. Cooking had to be balanced against many other tasks including care of children, gardening, canning and preserving, weaving, sewing, and other consumers of time. The kitchen education of women in the Pine Mountain community usually gave way to the tasks of keeping ahead of economic disaster through a grinding work schedule or keeping the cycle of planting and harvesting on schedule.  “Time” in the kitchen, if a kitchen even existed, had nothing of the time many younger women now take for granted. And, the kitchens, themselves, bore little resemblance to our idea of a contemporary kitchen.

In 1940 Alice Cobb, a staff member out visiting neighbors in the community described a kitchen that belonged to the Sarah Bailey family. [See: ALICE COBB STORIES “About Sarah Bailey” 1940.]

The kitchen of Sarah Bailey was the community exception — not the rule. Sarah Bailey was an exceptional woman

“Come right in folkses. Supper’s all ready, and agittin’ cold on the table. Glyn [her son],  bring them chairs in here honey. (To us) “You set down now and go to eatin’ if they’s anything thar that’s fitten to eat.”

We were almost carried in on a wave of fragrance — a delicious combination of smells of all the good things in the world, sweet and sour and baked and fried. Glyn led the way with two chairs, we brought the other, and presently were seated saucer-eyed no doubt, if there had been mirrors to see with before the round groaning table (the work is used advisedly) in the same stout chairs we had occupied in front of the fire.

The children stayed in shy stairsteps in the doorway, watching our every move. Sarah stood by the kitchen stove, her hands folded, and with dignity oversaw the banquet.

The table was without any exaggeration covered, with no spaces between dishes. A heaping dish of spare ribs joggled against a bowl brimming with apple sauce. Piled up sausages on a platter were ready to tumble into the full butter crock. There was so much that it was hard to kow just where to start. And amid our protests at the bounty before us, Sarah brought another dish of what looked to be quarters of fresh raw apples, offered as a special treat. We were amazed.

“Not apples at this time of year!”

“Hit’s sulpherated  apples,” she explained. “They stay just like new that way.” Se promised to take us out later to see her sulphurating equipment.

We began to count them to see how much of that dinner had come out of Sarah’s own farm of four acres. The chickens (there was boiled chicken, steaming and tender) she had hatched and raised in her own back yard. We saw some of their family roosting in the apple tree outside, while we ate.

“Them shucky beans,” she saidGrowed in the garden and me and the children strung them up and hung ’em out last summer.” (One has not really tasted beans until he has had the shucky kind and there is no mountain porch complete without lacy festoons of them, which like so many of the attributes of mountain life, represent combined social, aesthetic and practical values. Bean stringing is entertainment, the decoration is lovely, and they do taste wonderfully good when they are finally eaten!)

“The sausage and pork sides was from the two hogs we raised, and I butchered just last week” she went on, and then left’ her post by the stove to hasten the passing around. “Here, have some sausage — you hain’t eat nothing!”

“You mean you butchered  yourself?”

Her eyes danced like Glyn’s as she nodded. “Law, yes!” Why there haint no man alive can cut up a hog as good as me. The men folks around here always calls on Miz’ Bailey when they got a butchering on hand to do.” (Miz Bailey” is a mite of a person not nearly so big as an average sized hog!”

“I raised the corn and canned hit last summer, and I pickled my own beets and I raised them sweet potatoes and the Irish potatoes too.”

We went on enthusiastically to note that the eggs (a platter of fried ones, and a bowl of boiled eggs in gravy) of course came from her very own chickens, and the cornbread —

“Well, I reckon you wouldn’t hardly say hit was all mine. But hit was my corn that dried and went to the mill to grind. Hit was the meal that went in to bake!”

“And the milk, of course —”

Oh yes, my cow gives good milk. Plenty for butter for us and mam’s and pap’s. Have some more bread. You haint’ touched nary a thing seems like. course hit’s just plain country cooking’ but I’d hate it a sight for you fellers to go away hungry. Have some buttermilk?”

We couldn’t!

“Now you all just have some cake, if you won’t eat no more chicken or port and beans. Seem like you’re aiming to starve.” We were faced with two enormous cakes, one dark and the other light, and a great bowl of canned peaches (from Sarah’s tree, and canned by her). It is wonderful how accommodating the stomach can be so pleasant an emergency. We partook with gusto of the cake, which she regretfully confessed was “… all furrin ingredients, ‘cepting the lard,” and the coffee with sugar which was also furrin although she explained that as a general thing her family didn’t use “fotched on” sugar at all, but the sorghum from her own cane, made at her stiroff last September, or the honey from her two bee gums ‘robbed’ last June.

At long last it was apparent even to this Sarah Bailey that her guests could hold no single spoonful more. It was time for another move.

“Well, if you hain’t aiming to eat nothing,” she spoke with a distinct tone of reproof,”I reckon you all might want to see my canning cellar and the way I sulphurated them apples.”

Before we were well out of the tiny kitchen the children had snatched our places and were diving into the remains of the feast. Certainly, this had been no ordinary supper, but very evidently prepared for the special occasion with willing and friendly hands, prompted by a warm and welcoming heart.

How do we know all this? There are many stories of visits to the homes of neighbors by the scribbling settlement workers. They often charted in detail where they ate, what they ate and how it fared with them. Even the most rudimentary meal was welcomed by the workers if they had been long in the community for it was well-understood that criticizing a meal was one of the largest insults to be given a home, but food was often raised by both workers and community women.  That food was a constant topic is well documented in the literature of Pine Mountain Settlement School eras and the documentation outlines a clear rationale for the inclusion of a “Practice House” where the foodways of both workers and students could be expanded.

Some of the lessons that Pine Mountain sought to instill in its students were common-sense, but these practical skills were also mixed with industrial training that could carry over into jobs in food service industries, domestic work, as a dietitian. nursing and nutrition specialist, and other kitchen-related or food-related employment.  The helpful kitchen hints provided throughout the student newsletter, the Pinecone, describe simple hints for the preservation of food, kitchen safety, cleanliness,  and maintenance of kitchen tools. Many of these prescriptions were part of Home Economics instruction and a requirement for most all students at some time in their education. The emphasis on foodways served to raise awareness of home-safety in the handling of foods and food preparation as well as expanding the palate of the student.  Food-borne illnesses, disease, and poor hygiene were ever-present in the homes of many in the surrounding community and particularly in some of the coal camps where close-living made for a precarious existence. The direct impact of integration of proper food handling, relationship of disease to cleanliness, transmission of common bacterial infections, etc. was high on the agendas of many of the workers at the school as their health was also at stake.  Handwashing, cooking at the proper temperature, storage, etc. were subjects integrated into classroom activities, work routines and service in the community. Hands-on food preparation and preservation of food were part of the routine work program for many students at the school and the awareness of proper handling of food and food preparation was in the interest of the entire community.

The early kitchen in Laurel House I, the first main building and dining commons for the School was exemplary for its day.  It was a large facility, outfitted with ample ovens and stoves, washing areas and food preparation areas, and the Laurel House kitchen saw a steady rotation of students through its training.

The student newspaper, the Pinecone gives testimony to the integration of kitchen work and food savvy in the lives of the students.

Angela Melville Album II, Part I. [melv_II_album_018.jpg]

Angela Melville Album II, Part I. [melv_II_album_018.jpg]

The following is a Pinecone list of helpful hints.


[From The Pine Cone, February 1938]

1.    To keep the smell of cabbage, onions, and other strong-smelling vegetables from going all through the house, burn newspaper on top of the stove.

2.    To keep smoke down from sugar and other things which have boiled over on the stove, apply salt.

3.    To keep lemon fresh in hot weather put in fresh water every day or keep buried in sand.

4.    To keep cheese from molding, wrap in a cloth wet with vinegar.


1.    Rinse and wash as soon as through using dishes if possible.  If not possible soak in cold water.

2.    Soak in cold water all dishes which have been used for batters milk or eggs.

3.    Care of coffee and tea pot —

(a)   Rinse in cold water

(b)   Wash in hot water

(c)    Scald, dry and leave open.

4.    Egg beaters —

(a)   Rinse, clean, dry and hang up as soon after use as possible.

(b)   Never put egg beaters to soak and never let the cogs get wet.


Stoves were rarely found in the early Pine Mountain community homes until coal became a common fuel and roads allowed the transport of large durable goods, such as heavy stoves, into the community. Even after the advent of the gas and the electric stove, the use of the coal stove continued in many households but, then, only in the homes that could afford the transport of the heavy metal stoves and the cost of the coal stove, itself.

“Kitchen” was also not a word that was common in many households where the cooking of food and preparation of food was not relegated to a specific room in small homes.  It was only in larger homes and cabins that “kitchens” began to appear.  Most often they were in areas often referred to as the “dog-trot”, the area that sometimes joined two sections of a cabin home or sometimes they were small sheds attached to the side of a house or cabin.  This location was for several reasons, the most common were the removal of this area to an area away from the central living space to reduce the danger of fire and injury to children. The evolution of the “dog-trot” into a kitchen was not uncommon. The small cabin at Pine Mountain School has remnants of a “dog-trot” in the center of the lower floor of the structure and when cooking moved indoors, this space was the preferred location.

Angela Melville Album II - Part III. [melv_II_album_240.jpg]

Angela Melville Album II – Part III. [melv_II_album_240.jpg]

Difficult to document because of the lack of light and windows, very few photographs exist of the interiors of mountain cabins.  Those photographs that have captured interiors sometimes show how central the fireplace was to the small cabins and homes.

Angela Melville Album II - Part III. [melv_II_album_229.jpg]

Angela Melville Album II – Part III. [melv_II_album_229.jpg]

Tracing the history of cooking and the common practice of kitchen arts in early mountain homes, the clever use of iron cooking pots stands out.  Large cast-iron pots on tripods were used heavily at Pine Mountain in its early years.  Sometimes used in interior fireplaces or on tripod supports mounted in the yards or in the “dog-trots”  or “go-betweens” of cabins, iron pots of various sizes were portable and versatile. They saw uses for many fundamental cooking projects including soap-making, dye pots and boiling down cane or maple syrup.

Before the campus kitchen was in place at Laurel House I, workers at the School used iron pots to prepare group meals, boil laundry, dye wool, make soap, and various other tasks — but not always in the same pot! Keeping the pots clean and being mindful of a pots previous use was extremely important!  There are good tales of pot confusion, however.  Iron pots were critical tools for the early mountain families and were heavily used.  Today they are treasured items of many mountain families or have been relegated to the yard when their bottoms fell out from too many lye soap batches. In their bottomless state they were still treasured for they could hold plants and flowers on porches and in yards.

A humorous story is told about the mixing up of pot contents when an iron pot accidentally became contaminated with soap and was then re-used for soup. One of the important lessons that all students were drilled on was to not criticize the food as it was served at the communal tables.  So, when the dinner soup arrived and was ladled out to the table, there was consternation written large on the faces of the students around the table.  One brave student suddenly exclaimed, “This soup tastes just like soap!”.  As the other students drew in their breath and looked to the staff member at the table for the requisite reprimand, the distressed student quickly altered his remark by saying, “…and, that is just the way I like it!”

Worker at the Medical Settlement at Big Laurel next to cooking tripod with cross-bar. X_099_workers_2478a_mod.jpg

Iron pots can hold heat for long periods of time and whole meals can be cooked in a single unit and sometimes be stretched over several days.  Flat cast-iron skillets can be used with skill to fry fat-back to render cooking lard, a staple in almost all households. In the early households, cast iron pots and skillets were constantly put into quick action for all meals, often keeping an ever-ready location on the hearth.  Often, too, they were placed where they could readily be moved over hot coals or onto metal stands. The skillets were well seasoned and could withstand the high heat of frying as well as slow cooking.

With a lid, the pans could be used for baking by being buried in the coals of the fireplace.  Like the large cauldrons used on tripods, the deep cast-iron skillet with a lid was a vital tool in common food preparation.  Corn pone, fried chicken, bacon, fried onions, greens with fat-back, fried apples, fried potatoes, fried fish— anything that would fry, simmer or bake was placed in these deep skillets and generally with a generous dollop of rendered lard.

Larger iron pots could be covered with a lid or not and could be hung from a metal “arm” and be placed or swung into the fireplace.  Into this pot could go most anything.  Squirrel stew, rabbit stew, chicken, and dumplings, or a rich vegetable stew.  Stews of many varieties were common in mountain homes as they could be kept going for several meals.  Any dish that required substantial liquid and a long cooking time were most often placed in these “slow cookers”  — the very deep cast-iron pot with a lid. If the family had a “footed” iron skillet with a lid, this was often placed directly in the coals of the fireplace and coals shoveled on-top of the lid. This “oven” vessel would bake cakes and oven recipes.  Biscuits, cobblers, and other items that required baking could be handled quite well in these small “ovens.”  Clearly, the possession of a cast iron pot was almost critical to the early settlers in the area and a kitchen item that was guarded carefully. The skills of its use were passed along in the family and readily adopted by the settlement workers.

SEE:  FOODWAYS: “Old Fashioned Dinner” 1919














DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH The Stir-Off Sorghum Molasses

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 16: Special Events


The following account details a “Stir-off” in 1944 at the home of “Uncle” Henry Creech, son of William and Sally Creech who lived approximately a mile northeast of the settlement school. “Uncle” was a common form of both respect and affection. Henry Creech, son of William Creech gave his land that Pine Mountain might begin its work educating families in the Pine Mountain valley in Harlan County, Kentucky. But,  Pine Mountain soon learned that education was born a twin and that they had much to learn from the community. The Creech home was a favorite gathering place for many who worked at the School and a rich learning environment for those interested in mountain ways and customs.  Uncle Henry was a man of many talents and one of those was his understanding of what makes a good batch of sorghum and more importantly, what makes a good neighbor.

A “stir-off” was a common community event in the early years of the School and one eagerly looked forward to by the children.  The warm, sweet sorghum, dipped out on long canes cut from the sugar cane stalk was enough to satisfy even the most discerning “sweet-tooth”.

[From 1944 NOTES]


Children's Stiroff - Mable and Ralph Cornett, Helen and Steve Hayes, David Barry, Mr. Creech, Kathy Barry, Elizabeth Dodd. September, 1946. nace_1_047a.jpg

Children’s Stiroff at Uncle Henry’s House – Mable and Ralph Cornett, Helen and Steve Hayes, David Barry, Mr. Creech, Kathy Barry, Elizabeth Dodd. September, 1946. nace_1_047a.jpg



“You who have been using the 1944 Pine Mountain calendar have during October looked many times at the picture of a “stir off” at Henry Creech’; place. When sorghum is plentiful, and the weather is right it is Henry’s good custom to invite the whole school for an evening “stirring off”. Early in September we began asking each other when the cane would be ready, and presently on the heels of our wondering. came the invitation. All of us knew that that day since dawn, cane cutting had been going along down on Isaac’s Creek, and all being well, we would “stir off” about eight o’clock.

We tramped up the creek as dusky dark changed to night, and our torches were stars strewn all down the road, from the speedy vanguard to trailers clambering over the stile above Big Log House, a shouting, singing crowd. We rounded the last bend to see the
fire glowing in a gulley below, close to the creek, and Henry Creech’s dark figure weaving shadows with the swinging lantern. Early arrivals clustered about the fire, whittling ends of cane for us to dip the foam with. While we waited for the foam to be ready the group settled here and there to sing -ballads or run sets on the grass. The steady hand-clapping of the dancers and the shrill calls of the leader accompanied strains of “Sourwood Mountain” and ‘The Ground Hog”.

As usual there were newcomers to the mountains who had never heard of a stir off and we asked Henry if he would tell the new ones all about the process.

“You have to cut the cane and then strip the stalks and seems like one or two men working on the job can do more than all the women you could set to it in a day. I don’t know why, but it’s that way. You have to put the stalks in the cane mill, and then hitch up the horse, so he pulls it around and around, and then the cane juice drips down the spout in the tub and you pour it in the trough here.”

He paused to adjust the lantern, and we looked at the trough, which was like a wide flat boat, divided into two sections, and about three quarters full of dark liquid, now beginning to foam on the top. It was not yet ready because the foam was still green, although some of us were licking green foam to Henry’s mild disapproval. He said it “would cause stomach complaints” before it was ripe.

‘Then you cook it, and it has to cook for about eight hours, ’till it boils up and foams over the top, and when the foam comes on you skim that off and throw it away—and finally it’s a nice yellow foam, and that’s when it’s good for licking—and then you decide when it’s done and pour off the molasses in a lard can, and that’s all.’

It was not all really, for by the end of the explanation the foam was ready for dipping. This, we should explain. is done with paddles, which are cane stalks with flattened ends, used like spoons. (To be sure it takes time for the uninitiated to get used to the idea that everybody can hygienically dip into a common trough of boiling sorghum.) 120 paddles dipped, 120 eager tongues tasted and licked. Before sorghum melted in the trough before our eyes.

But we tasted more than sorghum. We tasted the joy of a real country function. Here in the mountains our social occasions are made of simple homely happenings…

… The stir-off ended. But the “sweetenin” we eat some dreary day next February will bring back the wood-smoke and firelight.”

[Recounted by Robert Creech, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Creech, grandson Of Uncle William. Killed in action in the South Pacific area on Sept. 27th, 1943 [?]. Written by Alice Cobb [?]  From: NOTES – 1944]


Friends & Neighbors – VI-51 – 1717. “Black” Sol Day and family.

Sol Day‘s stir-off.  Behind the house, they had set up a great trough on stones, under which they kept a long line of fire. Three or four men with lanterns (this was an evening affair) were keeping the sorghum from burning, by stirring it with paddles and the sweet smell just filled the air. All around were neighbors with sticks of sugar-cane, which they dipped in the foam on top and then sucked — good, but awfully sweet! The moon came up and lighted the sugar patch on the hilltop where all the sweetness came from.  Finally, they drew the trough off the fire and poured the liquid off into buckets, and then we all went down to the sawdust pile and watched the set-running. A set is really a quadrille, only danced as fast as you can do it, the boys snapping their fingers to speed things up and calling out the figures, “Wild Goose Chase,  “Home Swing”, etc.

[From Evelyn K. Wells’ Transcription 1915 of her letters home.]