Davis, NC Traditional Foods

Memories of Christmas “Down East”

Mabel Murphy Piner

My dad was the third of seven children and he said that they were very poor where money was concerned, but there was a lot of love in the home. The big fireplace was their stove to keep warm by as well as their cookstove. The wood was cut by his father and the boys in the hot summer months and corded up to dry until winter came.

There are two Christmas times he will always remember. Once, when he was young, he got a big red apple and an orange. He was so proud of them and they smelled so good that he decided he would not eat them, but just show them to everyone he met. In the end, he had rubbed and squeezed them so much that they spoiled and he never did get to eat them. Another Christmas in 1915, they had a baby girl to be born and lost a baby girl.

His mother, like all mothers, was the “best cook.” She usually cooked around 50 sweet potato pies in a three-legged spider in the fireplace and there was always a big pot of “pull candy.” There was most always a Christmas program at church that everyone who could walk or ride in a horse and cart would attend. There was no TV or other entertainment to keep them home. After the program was over, the boys and young men would fire guns the rest of the night

I was the youngest of six children and like my Dad said of his youth, we were poor but there was always plenty of food and love. Papa lived to hunt so there was usually duck, geese and venison. We always had a “hot-killing” between Thanksgiving and Christmas time, a cow for milk, cream and butter, a garden for vegetables such as collards and sweet potatoes and there were always the chicken and eggs.

There was little need for money except for county taxes and no income tax in the “good old days.” We all thought goose was the national bird instead of the turkey. My mother was very good with her hands. She could sew, do pretty embroidery work and make neat tatting. She made all of our clothes and even knitted the socks and stockings that we wore. I remember one Christmas when she made the prettiest doll baby out of cloth and stuffed it with paper pages out of the Sears Roebuck catalog. She embroidered the eyes and mouth and put yarn on its head for hair. She always made a lot of sweet potato pies, candy and molasses cookies which she called “hard tacks.” (See recipe below)

Their only means of travel when I was a child was the mailboat. I was a big girl when bridges were built and roads were paved to connect up with other places and cars came down our way.

My late husband and I along with my little girl, moved into a new home at Christmas time of 1946, and a year later in 1947, I returned home from the hospital at Christmas time with a little baby boy. Now that was the happiest time of all. Our decoration was a pine tree stuck in a bucketful of dirt, with yaupon, holly full of red berries and pine cones. We would usually take a pretty day near Christmas time to go out in the woods to cut our own tree. Christmas morning breakfast was usually stiff cow’s cream, home made rolls and cracklin’ cornbread with preserved figs. The pig feet and hocks were cooked before Christmas so they would be cold on Christmas morning and were sprinkled with black pepper for seasoning. With postum to drink, we had a fine breakfast.

Christmas dinner might be a stewed goose or baked duck with a big pot of collards seasoned with a midlen of the hot and sweet potato for dessert.

A lot of the customs are the same today as when my Dad was a child, such as the programs at the Church and the big dinners with potato pie for dessert and although there is more money around today, people still are not happy. The Christmas decorations have changed the most, but I still think the “good old days” were the best, with their simple pleasures.

Molasses Cookies (Hard Tacks)

1 cup molasses 1 tsp salt
1 stick margarine 2 tbs baking powder
1 cup sugar 1 tbs ground nutmeg
2 eggs 1 tbs ground cinnamon
3 cups plain flour 1 tbs ground ginger

Mix ingredients well and make up like small biscuits, flatten out on a greased cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. They are soft while warm, but hard as a tack when cold. They are very good with coffee or ice cold milk.

Source: Once Upon A Time: Stories of Davis, North Carolina by Mabel Murphy Piner, 1979; pp. 61-62.

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