Going Down Home Timeline

May 2018 Third trip Down Home

July 2015 Second trip Down Home

October 2014 First trip Down Home

July 2013 to October 2014 Online research and interviews

July 2013 23andme results received

Monday, December 1, 2014

Down Home for the holidays

We never went Down Home for the holidays, but there were many years when the farm on Mill Pond Road came to us. When the box from Roper arrived, my mother would briefly forget her critical pretensions and delight in the warmth it brought to her in Pennsylvania.  

The contents that I remember best were from the land itself – shiny magnolia leaves for decorating, peanuts, pecans, jams, watermelon rind pickles – and gifts for me that my Aunt Margaret made by hand. 

When I was 10, she made a dark blue velvet dress with a white lace collar for me, with a matching one for my doll.  When I was a teenager, she made me A-line wool skirts with matching hand-knitted sweaters that rivaled the preppy manufacturers’ skirt/sweater sets.  

Those Down Home boxes, so filled with Margaret’s handiwork, never disappointed. What was disappointing – aside from the fact that I only remember two Thanksgivings and no Christmases spent with any relatives – was the Something that my mother missed. 

She’d mention yule logs or shooting guns and fireworks at Christmas.  (Not New Year’s, Christmas!)  She’d mention chess pie or her mother playing the piano and I’d get the feeling that those Depression-era holidays in Washington County, NC had been better than any I would ever know. 

Her brother would send us a Smithfield ham, but still, something was missing.  It was her mother, more than anything else, who had made the Down Home holidays so memorable, so rhapsodic -- Inez, who died when my mother was in her mid-twenties, before I was born. It wasn't the sandy soil or the Spanish moss or the bird dogs or the floating island custard she was missing.  It wasn’t the 400 miles between us and Roper that created the empty space in her life.  It was not having a mother in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. 

I pull out her Lilly Wallace New American Cookbook (1947) and a falling-apart copy of The Joy of Cooking and rifle through the many handwritten recipes tucked between their pages, looking for some remnant of the regionalism she brought North with her.  On withered notepad pages, I find her recipes for corn pudding and spoon bread, white peach pie and sweet potato pie. Always appreciated, but not specifically holiday fare.

I find her scribbled notes for sand tarts, the ones she cut out in the shapes of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, dusted with cinnamon sugar, glazed with egg wash and a pecan half.  Down Home for the holidays, I think, and jump to Pinterest to find good pictures of sand tarts, only to find them described as an Amish Christmas cookie.  Really?  Not Southern?

Tell me what I’m missing.  Tell me about the down home holiday foods you remember and still make.  Tell us how you make them, serve them, why you still love them.


  1. The Scuppernong River Festival put together a cookbook several years ago. The Town Hall had a few copies when I stopped in last time I was there. I have a copy of the 2nd one they made (no idea if the first is different or just a 2nd printing) but there are lots of passed down recipes within. One I don't necessarily see in the book is Collards with Corn dumplings a Native American/English mix. I used this recipe for Thanksgiving although the dumplings could have used a bit longer to cook(I think I shorted the time) it was pretty close to what I remember Grandma making. http://grist.org/article/getting-back-to-our-green-roots-with-potlikker-soup/

  2. Oyster stuffing for the turkey. There are printed recipes out there for it, and they all pretty much mimic the one my mother taught me to make by watching her, and she learned at her mother's elbow, who learned from her mother. I have no idea if it's a Tyrrell County thing, or just our particular family (Grandma was born and mostly raised in Washington County, but her mother was from Tyrrell County). You use a pint of good quality oysters, toasted bread slices, a whole stalk of celery, a huge onion or two smaller ones, and a stick of butter, and then your herbs - Mom always used McCormick's Poultry Seasoning. You rinse the oysters carefully, but reserve their liquid, and put them and the liquid in a pot and bring it to a boil, removing them from the heat when the edges of the oysters start to curl. Meanwhile, you cut up the celery and onions, dicing them, and sauteing them in the butter. Take a loaf of bread and toast each slice, then rip the slices to pieces, then add the sauteed veggies to the bread, then the oysters (including the liquid), add enough of the seasoning, a little salt and pepper and then add turkey stock (from where you'd cooked the giblets and neck and other organs) to moisten it all, mix thoroughly, but carefully, so you don't smash the oysters. Then keep in the fridge until you're ready to stuff the bird. As far as food is concerned, nothing says Christmas to me more than the taste of oyster stuffing and salty, Smithfield ham. Most of Mom's memories about Christmas were centered on what they did to decorate, and not so much the food. She did mention that during the winter, her mother would start a pot of soup and keep it on a back burner for the entire season, slowly adding new ingredients to it as the season progressed. Nothing went to waste. I also remember her talking about "Old" Christmas, where they'd actually get their presents in January, and not on Christmas Day, but the family stopped keeping Old Christmas at some point during her childhood, maybe the early 40s?

    I also remember Mom making collards with dumplings, but I don't remember now if she made corn dumplings, or just used regular flour. She had to learn to make pastry, because my Dad grew up eating chicken and pastry, and not chicken and dumplings, although his mother called the pastry strips she used dumplings - her family was from Gates County, NC, another northeastern NC county, but one where the accents and food ways might as well be hundreds and hundreds of miles away.

    I remember Grandma making yellow or white layer cakes, and covering them with a fudgy frosting, and when you cut into the cake, there would be funnels of chocolate running down through the cake. Before frosting it, she'd poke holes all over the cake and pour a chocolate sauce over it, so the chocolate would run into the cake. She would also make a hard candy cake, where she'd add hard candies to the batter before baking the cake, and the candies, usually those hard red and white mints, would melt and then harden again as the cake cooled. I didn't like that one as much as I liked the chocolate one (grin)!

  3. Yes, Cathy! I had forgotten about "Old Christmas" -- something my mother also referred to as having been observed in her family in the past. I assumed Old Christmas, which falls around Epiphany, was meant to coincide with the events that followed the birth of Christ (arrival of the Magi) but it seems to have been a Protestant English calendar politics thing -- http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/ch/old_christmas_day.htm

  4. I did a lot of research on Old Christmas because it was something my Dad's family observed/still observes. I asked my Grandmother if it was on her side or my Grandfather's and she said it was both sides so it's hard to say if it was the same further back as they are 2nd cousin 1x removed) They always gave us bags of candy, apples, mints, hershey kisses, old style hard candy, reeses not always the same. I posted on a holiday blog I was part of a couple years ago (which expired) here it is on archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20121228231433/http://holidayshomemade.squarespace.com/blog So I decided to continue the tradition and my kids get candy and perhaps a trinket toy in their shoes (easy to find after Christmas sale bargains) we sometimes throw out oats to the Camels. ;)

  5. I agree with the Oyster stuffing I know my Dad used to ask my Grandmother to make it but my Mom usually made the box instructions. I have since been introduced (by my Husband) to an actual stuffed Turkey. I might try the Oyster recipe later. Most of the things I'm told about or know about were also passed down and they just "knew" how to make them but that has begun to disappear due to processed foods. That's one thing I'd like to do when I go home for Christmas this year is go through Grandma's recipe box and see if I find anything.. I always make my Mom's mother's "Chocolate Delight" which came from a recipe in a Church Cookbook I believe but I've never seen anyone else make it. It's a layered creamcheese, pudding, crushed pecan crust, coolwhip type dessert she made it every year. Watergate salad was common also. She also made the best roast beef ever with potatoes, carrots, gravy just mouthwatering thinking about it. Chocolate Gravy on biscuits. Monkey bread.