Mountain Memories by Shirley Craig Noble is two parts cookbook, one part history book, and one part family history. It collects memories from Mrs. Noble’s own life growing up in post-war Appalachia, as well as collected stories and recipes from prior generations. This was another hand-me-down from my grandmother, part of the hard-times/good-old-days memorabilia in her collection. There’s a hand-written price on the cover, suggesting that this wasn’t one of her plentiful mail order finds. It’s possible she picked this up on a trip back to my grandfather’s hometown in Tennessee.
The back of the book has a lengthy author biography, which includes both family history and academic resume. Mrs. Noble conceived of this book during her last semester at Lincoln Memorial University, encouraged by her English and Photography professors. She describes the contents as follows:
The source of the material, the compilation of pioneer recipes, beauty hints, old photographs, local history and folk ways is almost exclusively from the Tennessee area. However, the contents could be applied to any area’s pioneer heritage. The book gives the reader an account of life in America’s rural past.
The rural past that Mrs. Noble describes would have been quite similar to my grandfather’s upbringing, populated by tenant farmers and old log house and kids in clothes made from flour sacks. My grandfather would tell me stories of getting a new set of overalls each Christmas and having the prior years’ pair become his new underwear. It’s also hard to fathom that we’re not even a century removed from a generation where indoor plumbing was a luxury in rural America. My mother still remembers using an outhouse while staying with cousins in the mid-60s.
Mountain Memories is a spiral bound affair, hand-typed, printed in a sepia monotone, and illustrated by the author’s then-14-year-old son. It includes a number of older photographs of the author’s family and family homes, supplemented by historical photographs from the Appalachia museum. Recipes are divided into chapter by category: meats, fruits, desserts, etc. and each chapter is prefaced with historical details or personal memories of meals and procuring food. There are also thoughtful instructions on methods of preparation and preservation. The “breads” chapter introduction, for example, includes details of making and maintaining a sourdough bread starter, as well as historically accurate alternatives using peach leaves or hops. There’s also a chapter on making booze, as well as beauty secrets and old-timey cleaning tips. Amateur production values aside, this is a fairly ambitious work.
I only recently rediscovered Mountain Memories in a keepsake box and haven’t cooked through much of it. Many of the recipes are presented in a historical context and, odd as it may sound for a cookbook, may not be intended for cooking. They come from old recipe cards and interviews and are shared to preserve memories rather than to plan a menu from. This should be especially apparent for the recipes which call for muskrat, squirrel, or raccoon. There are several recipes that reflect hard times and scarce resources, similar to those presented in Depression Era Recipes, but the emphasis is more on frugality and good household management than extreme poverty cuisine.
These historical curiosities are supplemented with a few modern recipes, such as a tasty Lamb Curry studded with tart apples, as well as timeless Southern standbys like cornbread and fried okra. They are supplemented with time-tested cooking tips for, say, making a good pie crust or getting a custard to set properly.
Perhaps the recipes that best capture the spirit of Mountain Memories are the jams and jellies and pickles. Both the vegetable and fruit chapters are prefaced with memories of sauerkraut barrels in the family cellar, the necessity of storing food through rough winters, and pioneer methods for food preservation. They rely on local fruits and vegetables picked at their best and most plentiful and stored up against lean months, and really seem to help paint a picture of “the old days”. Mrs. Noble’s recipe for Gooseberry Ketchup seems a perfect example of this old-school canning aesthetic. There are only a few weeks in early summer when gooseberries are any good; this recipe is a way to make the most of a short, plentiful harvest. (The original recipe calls for 10 lbs of fruit – I’ve scaled it back to make enough for a small jam jar’s worth).
Now if you’re hoping for an approximation of tomato ketchup you’re out of luck. “Ketchup” here is used in the traditional sense of “condiment” or “sauce”. The end result is more like a tart jam or chutney, more suitable for dressing turkey or pork roast than a burger and fries. (I had it this morning on an English muffin with butter). And we also need to be careful with what we’re calling a ‘gooseberry’, which can mean anything from a ground cherry to a kiwi fruit depending on who you ask. To Mrs. Noble’s Appalachian forebears ‘gooseberry’ would be a member of the currant family; these berries grow well in many different parts of the United States. The ‘cape gooseberry’ or ‘ground cherry’ is similar in appearance but wholly unrelated; nevertheless they will still work well in this recipe. Neither the traditional nor cape varieties are easy to find in a grocery store, even during the growing season, and nearly impossible to find frozen. I am able to source them, sometimes, from a local farmers market but they come and go as quick as the wild huckleberries. If you miss the gooseberry harvest or simply don’t have a reliable source, fresh currants, cranberries, or even tart, green tomatillos are an acceptable substitute.
The biography on the back cover suggests that Mrs. Noble was hard at work on other books when Mountain Memories was published, but I can’t find evidence of anything else she’s written. As of this writing she is still living, apparently having pursued other interests. Mountain Memories is no longer in print, but can be found used on occasion at Amazon or elsewhere.
- Chop gooseberries fine and mix with apple cider vinegar. If desired, use an immersion blender to save some work. Add the vinegar-gooseberry mixture to a saucepan. Bring to a boil and then simmer 15-20 minutes until the mixture resembles a thick pulp.
- Stir in sugar and spices and simmer, uncovered, 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick and, um, ketchupy.
The same proportions of sugar will work for any of the recommended substitutions, including tomatillos.