“Thanks in old age – thanks ere I go,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air – for life, mere life,
For precious ever-lingering memories, (of you my mother dear -you father – you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
For all my days…For gentle words…
For shelter, wine and meat – for sweet appreciation…”
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
As the humid days of summer give way to the crisp, often windy days of fall, our thoughts turn to family and food. The food served on Hatteras Island over the decades was typically what could be found locally.
Before the days of free-ranging, when livestock roamed Hatteras Island; and refrigeration, when meats could be brought in and kept fresh, villagers had to be creative in feeding their families. Fish, potatoes, cornmeal, onions, salt pork and flour were usually what they had to work with. Home gardens supplied figs, collard greens and sweet potatoes. Many families had their own chicken coop.
Our childhood memories always include food. I remember stewed crabs at my one grandmother’s home and a six-layer chocolate cake at the other. The layers of cake were cooked in a cast iron skillet and iced with fudgy chocolate frosting. Other favorite desserts were blackberry dumplings (the blackberries grew wild), bread pudding and rice pudding. A special memory of my grandmother, Leona Scarborough, was of the cups of coffee we shared, never mind that I was too young for coffee. She always served coffee in a cup and saucer with a lot of sugar and milk and would pour it into the saucers to cool. We’d sit together and drink the sweet concoction right from the saucer.
Kinnakeeters love piebread. Piebread is simply flour, water, and salt mixed together and rolled out flat and thin as piecrust. It’s cut into strips and dropped into stews of chicken, crabs, beef, or pork about 15 minutes before the stew is done.
Before the introduction of electricity in the 1940s, fish was preserved by salting, canning and drying. In order to salt fish, the fresh fish was cleaned and split, then soaked in brine (heavily salted water). It was then packed into wooden barrels layered with salt and could be kept for the winter. To cook the salted fish, it was taken out the night before and soaked in a tub of cold water. Smaller fish such as spot was boiled, while larger fish such as drum and blue were used to make “picked-up fish”, a stew of fish, potatoes, onions, salt pork and liberal amounts of pepper.
To keep fish for just a few days, it was dried or “corned”. Fresh fish was salted for about 30 minutes then washed off and hung up outside to dry. Some families had a special pole set up to dry fish; if not, the clothesline was used. To keep bugs off, the pole kept the fish up high, sometimes the fish was peppered, or cloth screening was put over it. This method was used to corn spot. After it dried, it was cooked by frying in hot oil. No cornmeal or flour was needed, as the dried fish browned well on its own.
In the past drum were plentiful all summer; one way of preserving and cooking it was “sun-cooked”. One-half of the large drum was salted all day and then washed and hung in the hot sun for several days. It was sliced off as needed and eaten with cornbread. Drum was also canned with a little salt. It was served with cornmeal dumplings, potatoes and salt pork.
Before they were determined to be an endangered species, large sea turtles were caught in fishermen’s nets and used to make turtle hash. The meat was used to make hash with potatoes, onion, salt and pepper. Hunks of turtle meat were also canned and sometimes stewed with potatoes and “piebread”. Another unusual dish was the soup made of coquina, a tiny, multi-colored mollusk found along the shore side. They were boiled to make broth, then the meat was picked out and used to make soup.
I am including some of these favorite recipes. There are few ingredients and very inexpensive to make, although sometimes the simplicity of the recipe is deceptive. The best cooks take of what is available and make it into something delicious. These foods are part of our memories and our heritage.
(Photograph courtesy of Bonnie Gray)
Stewed Chicken & Piebread
Take a 5-pound stewing hen or roasting chicken, salt and pepper. Cut chicken into pieces. Place in pot and cover with water. Cover. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until chicken is tender. Add potatoes (peeled and cut in half) and piebread and cook another 15 minutes. Thicken stew with flour if too thin.
(Years ago, old hens were used for stewing resulting in a more flavorful broth. Most cooks now include a can of cream of chicken soup for added flavor.)
3 cups flour & 1 teaspoon salt
Mix and add enough warm water (about 1 cup) to make dough of consistency easy to manage. Make small balls of dough. Flour pastry board, roll out the dough as if making pie crust. Cut into strips and add to the stew one piece at a time. The piebread takes about 15 minutes to cook.
4 pounds collards 4 medium potatoes
1 pound salt pork 1 gallon water
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash collards well, rinsing several times. (You can chop up the greens either before or after cooking.) Combine ingredients in a large pot. Cover. Cook 2 ½ hours on medium heat. Add potatoes and cornmeal dumplings and cook for 20 minutes.
1 cup cornmeal
¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
Mix ingredients with enough water to hold together. Roll into balls and flatten by hand. Drop into greens and cook 20 minutes.
Stewed Fish with Cornmeal Dumplings
1 blue fish or drum (not filets)
4 potatoes, halved
½ cup sliced green onion
3 T cubed salt pork
1 large sliced onion
2 T flour
Cut fish into 2” steaks. In heavy pot, fry salt pork until brown. Sauté onion. Add flour and stir. Then add fish, potatoes, onion and enough water to barely cover fish. Bring to a boil and drop dumplings around sides and sprinkle green onion on top. Cover. Cook until potatoes are done and gravy has stewed down.