All Thumbs Book Reviews
By Charles Frazier
Review by Judy Williams
Here is an Aussie perspective on an American novel which featured an Aussie actress in the movie version! Cold Mountain chronicles the saga of a wounded soldier named Inman in the waning days of the American Civil War, his return to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and his partner Ada’s struggles to manage their small mountain farm. This book brought me to a profound understanding of how hard life was at that time and gave some deep insights into how food was procured and what was eaten for sustenance. It is interesting that in all the glowing reviews the book has received, not one mention is made about the subject of food and the degree of research the author has gone to for historical accuracy in this regard.
The description of Ada’s and Ruby’s (her new self-invited boarder) efforts to get their farm productive and self-sufficient in the way of plowing, planting, harvesting and woodcutting is informative and gives insights to the seasonal nature of food growing, gathering and preserving. Even the animals are looked after, with “herbs to make worm boluses for the horses.” Ruby admonishes Ada for not having pigs–prior to the War she always bought her hams. But as Ruby says, “There’s a world more to a hog than just the two hams–take lard for example, we’ll need plenty.”
Inman’s purchase of “five pounds of cornmeal, a piece of cheese, some dried biscuit, and a big sweet pickle” bought a smile to my face as I thought of the same dill pickles resting in my fridge. Describing one of his meals shared around a fire as “great bloody beefsteaks and potatoes pan fried in bacon drippings and wild greens dressed with what drippings the potatoes had not soaked up” was enough for me to head in the direction of the kitchen to rustle up some food–potatoes cooked in duck fat!
When Ada and Ruby discover a hundred-pound sack of green coffee beans in their cellar, they immediately spend the next few days bartering the coffee by the half pound, only keeping back ten pounds for their own use. For their sweet deals, they manage to take in a side of bacon, five bushels of Irish potatoes and four of sweet, a tin of baking powder, eight chickens, various baskets of squash, beans and okra, an old wheel, a loom in need of repair, six bushels of shell corn and enough split shakes to re-roof the smokehouse–what ever happened to the value of coffee?
Inman appears to do a good job of slaughtering a hog with the following description. “After the hog was killed and scalded and scraped of its hair, its various organs and fluids were steamed in tubs on the ground. The girl was working at the lard tub. Inman partitioned up the carcass with a hatchet. He chopped down on both sides of the spine until the hog fell into two sides of meat, which he then further divided along the joints into the natural categories of pork. They worked into near dark, rendering all the fat into lard, washing out the intestines for chitterlings, grinding and canning the trimmings and scraps into sausage, salting down the hams and middling meat, soaking the blood out of the head to ready it for making souse.” Sure sounds like hard work to me!
Apple picking and preserving in the autumn was work for Ada and Ruby. The apples had to be picked, peeled, sliced and juiced. They dried rings of them into little scraps of apple leather, which they stored in cloth bags hung from the ceiling. They made apple butter that came out thick, the colour of old harness from spice and brown sugar, which they sealed in crocks to have on hand for year. They pressed cider from rusty culls and fallen apples and they fed the pomace to the hogs.
I really did enjoy this book so much. Hope the author plans on writing another book soon. Now I’m off to sharpen the hatchet to kill the hog!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2004.