"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."
--Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1825
Prior to the current age, food preparation took months of planning and dedication. Putting meals together was more than scanning directions on the back of the box; it required hard-earned wisdom and a lot of time. For example, a vinegar recipe from the 1800s states, “It should be made in May to be ready for the fall pickling.” The exhibit covers not only how food was prepared but also how the latest technology has transformed the face of modern day cooking. The exhibit delves into Native American cooking, Pioneer/Civil War cooking, Victorian cooking and cooking in the Modern Age. Join us for a nostalgic view of the way the original Betty Crockers got it done! Whether you eat fitness bars or indulge in Ben and Jerry’s, our exhibit will satisfy your hunger to know how food preparation originated. Bring your intellectual appetite!
As technology has developed, cooking methods have changed. Fireside nd hearthside cooking are things of the past. Microwave meals, suppers in a box, fast food and Iron Chef have become the way of the present. But, has something been lost? Old time cooking required a certain amount of social interaction. Everyone helped from chopping wood for the stove to laying the strips of crust on a pie. In the Native American culture, the men hunted and fished while the women farmed and gathered. Everyone worked together for the good of the family and for the good of the community. Cooking skills were learned by the fire, hearth or stove from parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. What does the future hold? The future is always uncertain but one thing is clear. However we put food on the table, it is better if we do it together.
Download Recipes from 1767 to 1985 Presented by the Tennessee State Library and Archives
As hunters, farmers and gatherers, the Cherokee people have a great respect for nature. They are very spiritual people and ask the deities of the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and elements to help them in their endeavors. Typically, the men hunt and fish while the women farm and gather. The men hunted bear, deer, elk, rabbit and turtles. They also made traps and nets to catch many different types of fish. They did not have to hunt all the time. They had livestock consisting of pigs, cows, and chickens. The Cherokee also raised sheep for milk and meat. The Cherokee people did not just eat the meat of the animals; they also used the skins, antlers, bones and shells to make things like clothing, tools, sewing needles, hunting equipment and rattles. The women planted beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco between rows of corn to save land for hunting. They put the corn into storage cribs for the next winter, spring and summer. Some of the Cherokee grew pumpkins to eat and to feed their stock. They gathered wild plants and herbs. The women made soups with meat, roots and produce from their crops. They made corn into corn mush and cornbread. Both women and men worked together in groups for the good of the community.
Cherokee potters created pots for practical uses. Whether for cooking or for ritualistic purposes, Cherokee pottery forms were kept simple. Typically, pottery was shaped to be used as cooking pots, storage jars, water jars and dishes. Round pots were usually used for cooking, while pots shaped like people, fish, birds and other animals were “effigy” pots used in spiritual ceremonies.
Corn has long been considered sacred by Native Americans and many tribes have told stories regarding its origin. Corn, among Native American agricultural peoples, is regarded as female and a primal source of life endowed with both intelligence and remarkable powers. The Cherokee tell the story of Selu, the Corn Mother. From Selu’s body comes corn and beans. She cut open her breast so that corn could spring forth and give life to the people. Selu is remembered at annual plantings of the corn with ceremonies where people honor her with songs, dances and prayers. Myths and stories about the Corn Mother are not specific to the Cherokee but are found throughout the world.
The Blending of Food Culture in Historic Tennessee
Today’s society and culture owes much of what it has learned about foods and crop growing to the Native Americans. One of the tribes native to this area is the Cherokee. The Cherokee lived in the southeastern woodlands that are now Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. They were creative and accomplished cooks. They taught the pioneers how to grow, process and store foods, especially corn.
The Cherokee helped provide the pioneers with cooking skills. The pioneers were a diverse crowd made up of many immigrants. Each group brought their own distinctive food and agricultural practices. The result was a blending of these immigrant practices with Native American traditions. This blending brought about the distinctive food culture we have in Tennessee, today.
Food preparation in pioneer days was complex. Not only were grocery stores as we know them unavailable, but all products had to be prepared “from scratch.” This meant that for meat an animal must be killed, butchered and prepared. If it was a large animal, portions of the meat were stored for future consumption, either by smoking or “salting down.” Wild plants were often harvested and eaten like vegetables; so, knowledge of botany was needed to learn what was edible and what was not. Some plants could be poisonous at various stages. For example, a fine Southern salad of “greens,” is Poke Salad. Legend has it that the berries are poisonous. If not prepared properly, the Poke Salad plant contains a substance that is very toxic. Another name for the plant is American Nightshade. In order to avoid illness, the leaves must be boiled twice, using different water each time. The water should be thrown out and not re-used because it will still contain those toxins.
Vegetables and grains that were grown had to be harvested at the right time, including threshing the wheat and grinding it into flour (sometimes at a mill, if one was lucky enough to have one in the neighborhood), then adding other ingredients. The resulting bread was baked in an “oven” over coals or in an oven built into the side of a fireplace. There were no timers or thermostats to determine how hot the fire was, or how long to leave the bread baking. Cornbread was made by harvesting corn from the plant, cutting the corn off of the cob, drying the corn, and grinding it into cornmeal—whether done at home or at a mill.
Cooking utensils consisted mainly of frying pans, coffee pots, buckets, iron pots, and hollowed out gourds for storage. Iron cooking pots were heavy and did not cook foods evenly. Pots that were used over the hearth could weigh as much as 24 pounds with inch-thick walls, so it took a while for food to heat.