by Denise Weimer
Many of my historical novels are set during the time all but coastal Georgia was still a frontier. My most recent work-in-progress, A Secondhand Betrothal, takes place in 1813 on the border of Creek and Cherokee territories. Research for the time period and location can prove daunting, but it’s important to depict what daily life was like as accurately as possible. These frontier families wouldn’t have access to all the goods of their counterparts in Savannah or even Augusta, yet their diets wouldn’t exactly mirror that of their Native American neighbors either. So what did they eat? Here are a few facts uncovered in my research.
Plantation kitchen at Stone Mountain
They lived off the land as much as possible. The Early History of Jackson County, Georgia, tells us that the Upper Creeks lived on “fish, turtles, apples, pawpaws on small bushes now extinct, pig potatoes or oskones which came from the swamp, wild beans, wild grapes or unups.”
A genealogy of Turner County, Georgia, south of Atlanta, revealed that
game was plentiful, chiefly deer and turkeys. Hunters also brought home
partridges, turtles, and squirrels. In fact, Georgia squirrel stew
closely resembled the Brunswick stew popular in other parts of the South
(foodtimeline.org). Herbal foragers could find a bounty in the woods
and streams, including blackberries, wild strawberries, muscadines,
persimmons, and various types of mushrooms in season. Honey mushrooms
could be soaked in salt water, then cooked. Chantrel mushrooms were a
late-summer favorite, cropping up in woody areas near oaks, especially
after a rain. Walnuts, pecans, and hickory nuts were so plentiful that
the nuts often formed a carpet several inches thick. Even acorns of
white oaks could be soaked in water to remove the tanic acid, then
eaten—or roasted and crushed into a light-brown flour. Endless native
greens were edible, including wood sorrel or oxalis with its tiny,
yellow flowers. It grows year-round and has a tart, lemony flavor (I
know – I tried some on a nature walk!). Even a white fungus known
as cauliflower can be fried just like its namesake.
Guide with oxalis at William Harris
They cultivated what they could. The Upper Creeks raised green corn called emefila when soft but maize when hard. They ground corn to make cakes and cooked them in hot ashes. Green corn and wild beans went into a succotash. The settlers made sparkling corn beer and added to this “hog and hominy, johnny cakes, and batter cakes” of unbolted rye flour. Johnny cakes were made of corn meal and baked before the fire on wooden boards, turned repeatedly until all sides were light-brown. In Turner County, wolves swarmed the country in packs and threatened those raising sheep and hogs—so that tells us there were those attempting to do so. Hog Mountain, Georgia, derived its name from its function as a crossroads marketplace where not only those who raised hogs but cattle as well brought livestock for sale. Chickens and cows provided dairy products. Peach and apple trees flourished in Georgia. And naturally, the settler’s garden was his mainstay, from herbs to squash, pumpkins, beans, greens, and melons. However, I found it surprisingly hard to locate pre-Civil War resources on Southern vegetable and herb gardens. Suggestions?
Cherokee herb garden at New Echota
They imported what they couldn’t access or cultivate, including spices and specialty items. According to the history of Jackson County, coffee was only used on special occasions. The History of Gwinnett County mentions that among the stock at the local trading posts were muscovado sugar, Jamaica and Antigua rum, Spanish brandy, Philadelphia rye whiskey, Teneriffe wine, claret, Holland gin, Malaga wine, London port, and Spanish “segars.” As you can see, the backwoods lacked not on alcohol.
The copy of Tullie’s Receipts: Nineteenth Century Plantation Plain Style Southern Cooking and Living (whew!) I ordered for my research offered a section entitled “Unusual Receipts” the contents of which suggested they might have originated on the frontier. What was on the menu? Pigeon or lark pie; possum and tater; squirrel soup; rabbit stew; to roast a goose; to try lard; hominy; to make a hedge hog; peach leather; mincemeat; Mama Sander’s scuppernong hull pie; blackberry wine; and corn beer. Oh, and there was a nice country syllabub I had my characters prepare for Christmas.
|The kitchen at Chief Vann House|
Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s a managing editor for the historical imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of a dozen published novels and a number of novellas. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses!
Connect with Denise here:
Monthly Newsletter Sign-up