Generations of Memories
Heart of the Blue Ridge
By Susan M. Thigpen © 1999
Online: January, 1999
Winters in the Blue Ridge Mountains are cold and there is usually lots of snow. One time I asked a lady in Patrick County, Virginia who was 99 years old what they used to do in the winter to have fun before the invention of television, better roads and cars, telephones and other modern conveniences that make entertainment and communication much easier. The things she told me changed my point of view.
Instead of being isolated, they were able to travel freely through the snow in horse drawn sleds. This had an added benefit in winter when there were high snows because she said that you could go cross country when the snow was higher than the fence posts and frozen on top, making the way shorter to a neighbor's house.
What did they do for entertainment? First of all, they had a reduced number of chores in winter. Other seasons were consumed with planting, taking care of crops and harvesting. In winter (for the most part) they only had to take care of livestock and keep warm.
Bedrooms were not heated unless there was a fireplace in them so a brick, smooth rock or water bottle was heated on the stove after dinner and then wrapped in a cloth to be put in bed to warm cold toes. No one lingered long in a cold bedroom in the morning, but hurried down to the kitchen wood cook stove to get warm. Mountain life was centered in the kitchen in winter because it was the warmest room in the house. Before or after a hearty breakfast, the outside chores would be done.
Women would quilt during the winter. Frequently they would gather for a quilting party, sometimes finishing a whole quilt in one day, making it entirely by hand. Even when a woman worked on a quilt alone, she usually managed to finish at least one of two quilts before spring. Younger girls would learn how to sew, knit, crochet and embroider in the winters with their mother or grandmother's help.
Men would sit by the fire and whittle. They would make toys for the children or useful big wooden spoons or dough bowls. Sometimes they would even make chairs. It would depend on the need and their talent. Perhaps they might even make a musical instrument. Most families had musical instruments and knew how to play. Music was a major form of entertainment. Most families played music and sang together at home, from the youngest to the oldest.
Whole families would crack nuts together by the hearth. They would lay a flat rock or flat iron on their lap and crack the hard, black walnuts and hickory nuts with another rock or iron. Clean up was easy because the shells were just dropped on the hearth and swept into the fire. Often the families would sell those shelled nuts for extra income.
But what did teenagers do? One of the favorite pastimes was a Taffy Pull. Many families made molasses and the ones that didn't usually bought molasses from their neighbors. Molasses was cheaper than sugar and more plentiful than honey so it was the sweetener of choice in the mountains. Many of the winter activities involved food because if they had to keep the stove burning to stay warm, they might as well cook something too!
Teenagers would gather at a friend's house for the taffy pull and then the molasses would be brought out and the taffy candy recipe started on the wood cook stove. As soon as the candy was cool enough to handle, it would be cut into smaller portions for pulling. Usually boys and girls would pair off as partners for the pulling. If they tried to start too soon, there would be blistered fingers where the hot candy stuck fast to their skin.
The taffy had to be pulled for a long time. It would be strung out thin and then roped together and pulled again until the candy was a light honey color. The couples would try to think up fancy ways to fashion their candy to look the best – sometimes they'd pulled it out thin and then braded it elaborately. When the candy became too cold, it wouldn't stretch any more, and the ones who misjudged the timing would end up with large ugly lumps, still edible, but not easily. The trick was to cut it into bite size pieces at just the right time.
An enjoyable afternoon would pass quickly and the departing guests would take home the taffy they pulled to enjoy later. Perhaps many a girl saved a special piece of taffy for a long time that had been wound into her boyfriend's initials. And, perhaps if there was any jealousy, a girl or two might go home with some taffy that just accidentally got stuck in her hair!
Another favorite pastime involving molasses was making popcorn balls. Many families grew popcorn and saved it for cold winter evenings. Popcorn was made even more special by mixing up molasses candy and pouring it over the popcorn and fashioning it into balls. These popcorn balls would keep for a good long time so they could be eaten later or shared with friends.
A quick molasses candy was often made when there was a deep snow. In yesteryears, the snow was pure and clean and free from any kind of pollutants. People would simply heat molasses and pour it in a thin stream into a snow bank. The molasses would become hard and brittle immediately.
And the all time favorite – snow cream. Gather a big (really big) bowl of snow. Add sugar and stir in milk and a teaspoon of vanilla. The amount of milk depends on how much snow. You just start pouring a little at a time and add more if needed. Mix quickly and you have a gourmet delight. Commercial ice cream will never taste as good! On farms, they usually had their own milk cows so they had an abundance of milk thick with cream. Farm children in the mountains didn't have chocolate milk, but they could stir in some molasses and have a thick, sweet delicious drink full of iron.
Now, are you ready to try it yourself? The next time the children are out of school because of snow try these fun things to do.
Below are some molasses recipes taken from an old 1950s Brer Rabbit Molasses Cook Book. Perhaps you would like to visit their website for more recipes and to find where it is sold. These recipes are very close to the ones used for generations to make taffy and popcorn balls. We would like to thank B & G Foods for their permission to share these recipes with you. Also, they make blackstrap molasses which several of our readers have asked about.
Note: When any recipe calls for vanilla or any other kind of extract, do not use flavoring instead. Flavoring is not as strong as extract and even though extracts are more expensive, they are worth it.
1 1/2 cups Mild or Full Flavored Brer Rabbit Molasses
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon lemon extract (optional)
Combine molasses, sugar, butter and vinegar. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Boil slowly, stirring constantly toward end of cooking, to 260 Degrees F. (or when a small quantity dropped into cold water forms a hard ball.) Remove from heat. Add lemon extract. Pour into greased pan; when cool enough to handle, grease hands; pull taffy until light in color. Stretch in long rope; cut in small pieces. Wrap each piece in waxed paper. Makes about one pound.
Molasses Popcorn Balls
3 quarts popped corn
1 1/2 cups Brer Rabbit Molasses
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
Pick over popped corn, discarding all hard kernels. Combine molasses, sugar, water, vinegar and salt; cook slowly, stirring constantly, to 270 degrees F. (or when a small quantity dropped into cold water forms hard ball). Remove from heat; add vanilla extract and shortening, stirring only enough to mix. Pour over popped corn, stirring constantly. Grease hands; shape lightly and quickly into balls. [If you squeeze too hard, you will crush the popcorn and it won't be as good.] Cool. Wrap in Waxed paper, twisting the ends of the paper around the top of the ball. Makes 28-30.