A Culinary Tour of 19th Century Rabun County: Three Sisters, Hogs Heads and Ash Cakes

When Rabun County was founded in 1819, the local supermarket was the family farm. People ate the vegetables they grew, the animals they raised, the game they hunted and the fish they caught. Surviving in the isolated mountains of northeast Georgia was no easy task.

Pork, squirrel and venison were favorite meats. Vegetables were eaten fresh, canned and preserved. Corn, the most important crop, was prepared in a multitude of ways. It was made into bread; it was fried and creamed; it was roasted on the cob; and it was served as grits and johnny cakes.

The Cherokee, upon whose land Rabun County was established, were an agrarian people. A considerable portion of their diet was based upon the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The Three Sisters found their way into the kitchens of the early white settlers. Scots-Irish immigrants, the predominant stock of northeast Georgia, transitioned from their European diet based on dairy, potatoes and barley to one based on the Three Sisters and, most importantly, pork.

Eating the Entire Hog

Hogs were the primary source of meat for Rabun’s early white settlers. Every subsistence farm raised hogs for good reason; virtually every part of the animal could be consumed, from the snout to the tail and everything in between. Most farmers free-ranged their hogs, allowing them to fatten on the “mast” of the forest, including acorns and chestnuts. It was said that chestnuts produced the sweetest meat.

Hogs were slaughtered in late November when the weather turned permanently cold, since farmers relied on winter weather to keep the pork from spoiling while it was cured. People also paid close attention to the phases of the moon. Hogs were slaughtered when the moon was “right” or full. Killing hogs during a new moon or when the full moon was waning was avoided, since it was believed the meat would shrink, leaving too much lard and grease.

Curing Pork in the Smokehouse

Hams, shoulders and pork belly (for bacon) were cured in the farm’s smokehouse. These cuts were thoroughly salted and smoked as soon as possible after slaughtering, preferably while the meat was still warm. When meat was needed during the winter months, the family would cut what was needed from the cured pork, wash off the salt, soak it in fresh water overnight, parboil it the next day and then cook it. Pork definitely was not a fast food.

When the weather turned warm in the spring, the cured pork was washed of salt and treated with black pepper and borax to keep out the “skippers,” the larvae skipper flies. Another coating consisted of brown sugar, red pepper and saltpeter. The treated pork was hung in a bag in the smokehouse for future use, although some farmers buried their pork in boxes filled with hickory ash or corn meal.

Hogs Head Stew

No part of the hog went to waste, including the head. A nineteenth century recipe for hog’s head stew called for 1 ½ hogs heads (eyes removed), two shoulders of venison, four chickens, one peck of onions, one gallon of Irish potatoes, five half gallons of tomatoes, corn, peas and carrots and six large cans of tomato juice. The stew was seasoned with five pounds of salt and Worcestershire sauce and black pepper to taste. This stew was not meant for the Tuesday evening dinner of a small family.

Also consumed were the hog jowls (ground with sausage meat or cured), tongues (boiled and sliced), brains (scrambled with eggs), the snout (called the “rooter” and roasted), and the ears (boiled). Moreover, virtually all of the internal organs were eaten, including the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines of “chitlins” fame. The feet or trotters, the tail and skin also found their way onto the dinner plate. Fat and lard were rendered and used for cooking and seasoning vegetables. About all that was left of the hog was the squeal.

Farming by the Zodiac

Farming was done in accordance with the signs of the zodiac. Planting was best done in the signs of Scorpio, Pisces, Taurus and Cancer. Plowing, tilling, and cultivating were governed by Aries. Flowers were planted in Libra when the moon was in the first quarter.

Corn mistakenly planted in Leo almost certainly would yield small ears. Crops planted in Taurus and Cancer would withstand drought. And above all, nothing should be planted in the heart and head signs, since both were considered death signs.

Fireplace Cookery

Rabun County’s white settlers cooked their food in the kitchen fireplace, which is infinitely more difficult than on your gas range. Once a fire was started using dry kindling, green wood was laid on, since seasoned wood burns too quickly. Fireplace cooking required a bed of hot coals, and it took about an hour to produce the coals from a new fire. As the hot coals gradually died down, more wood was added to maintain a relatively constant temperature. However, this was an imprecise art at best.

Built into many fireplaces was a fixed, horizontal iron bar that ran from side to side about three feet above the fireplace floor. Others had a bar that was hinged to one sidewall, enabling the bar to swing in and out. On these bars, cast iron pots and kettles were hung over the fire. If the fire became too hot, or if something only needed to be kept warm, the pot could be slid on the bar to the side of the fire or swung partly out of the fireplace. Meat was broiled by suspending it from the bar. For frying, pans were set directly on the hot coals.

Ash Cakes

Potatoes, corn, onions and nuts were roasted by burying them in ashes and then placing hot coals on top. Ash cakes were baked by wrapping the dough in cloth, placing it in a cleaned corner of the fireplace and covering the bag with ashes and coals. Fruits and vegetables were dried by the fire for several days to preserve them for winter eating.

Later in the century, some families started using a technological innovation for cooking: the wood stove. The fire was built in the stove’s firebox, and the cooking surface typically had six “eyes” or round openings covered with iron lids. Since the heat under the lids could not be regulated, pots had to be moved from one lid to another, depending on how much heat was required. The center lids were hottest, the outside lids were the coolest. The oven, located on the right side of the stove, was heated by circulation from the firebox. Oven temperatures were difficult to regulate, which made baking a challenge. Many wood stoves had two warming boxes about two feet above the cooking surface to keep food warm before serving.

In an interview conducted by the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center, a long-time user of wood stoves discussed their pluses and minuses. “They’re good in the wintertime, because they sure do warm up the kitchen. In the summer, it gets uncomfortable hot in here; ‘course we can go out on the porch every few minutes…Sometimes wind’ll blow down the pipe hard and smoke the house and the soot flies out all over the place and you have to wipe off everything. And you have to clean it out every so often and watch that sparks don’t fall on the floor…But if the electricity goes off, you’re alright if you’ve got wood.”

Eating what they grew, raised and hunted. Preserving as much food as possible for the winter months. Cooking in fireplaces and wood stoves. Life in the early days of Rabun County was difficult. Most of the daily activities were focused on survival in the rugged mountains. But boiled hogs heads, minus the eyeballs, were said to be quite tasty.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in August 2021.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.