Cabins such as this log dog-trot were home to South Central Alabama’s residents.
At age 17, Phillip H. Gosse left his native England for the wilds of Canada, after which he made his way to what is now Dallas County, Alabama in 1838, where he taught school. His observations on everything from the terrible summer heat to the minutest details of natural history were written in a journal and later published in 1859.
Before returning to England, where he became a celebrated scientist, no doubt due to the wide circulation of his book outlining the various flora and fauna of America, he left a detailed account of life in the Mississippi Territory.
The area remains quite picturesque with antebellum churches, cemeteries, green pastures, and when we set out to track Gosse’s adventures, the countryside was awash in colorful blooms from a wide array of plants, vines, flowers, and trees.
Gosse did not find even the well-to-do planters living in mansion houses in 1838; instead he described the log dog-trots common to the South. While we did locate the home of Judge Reuben Saffold, who was Gosse’s employer, the present palatial home was not built until some 10 years after Gosse returned to England.
He found the heat here every bit as insufferable and oppressive as I do.
…and by the time the sun is two hours high, his rays are oppressively hot, scorching one’s back and head like a fire…”
Gosse confirmed the scarcity of wholesome water on the frontier similar to what I described in an earlier article.
I have heard sad accounts of the privations undergone by planters on these, ‘dry and thirsty lands’…Not very far from this neighbourhood there was a family, whose dependence was a large pond of this kind. The weather was excessively hot, and they were panting with thirst all day long, yet dared not use the water but in the most parsimonious [i.e. miserly, frugal] manner.
That family was reduced to traveling quite a distance almost daily to haul water back to the house for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, “until the weather broke up, and the rains afforded them a fresh supply”. Laundry was hauled to the water source where it was washed after the barrels were filled to carry home. He noted prairies not far distant where residents suffered greatly during the dry season for want of water, depending chiefly on rain-water which accumulated in hollows.
His primary interest was describing the natural history of Alabama, but he was a consummate writer, and left an excellent account of the foods the planter class ate. For breakfast, served about 6 o’clock, he found grilled chicken, fried pork, boiled rice and hominy on the table. Being English and unfamiliar with it, he saw fit to describe hominy.
Homminy then, be informed, is an indispensable dish at the table of a southern planter, morning, noon, and night. Indian corn is broken into pieces by pounding it in a mortar to a greater or less degree of fineness, as coarse or fine homminy is preferred, and this is boiled soft like rice, and eaten with meat.
Here is another article of southern cookery with which I presume you are unacquainted, – woffles. You see they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges: but how shall I describe to you the mode in which they are cooked? At the end of a pair of handles, moving on a pivot like a pair of scissors, or still more like the net forceps of an entomologist are fixed two square plates of iron like shallow dishes, with cross furrows, corresponding to the ridges in the cakes; this apparatus, called a woffle-iron is made hot in the fire; then, being opened, a flat piece of dough is laid on one and they are closed and pressed together; the heat of the iron does the rest, and in a minute the woffle is cooked, and the iron is ready for another. They are very good eaten with butter, sometimes they are made of the meal of Indian corn (as so little wheat is grown here as to make wheat-flour be considered almost a luxury), but these are not nearly so nice, at least to an English palate. Neither is ‘Indian bread’ which you will see at every table; this, too, is made of corn meal; it is coarse and gritty, does not hold together, having so little gluten; yet this is eaten with avidity by the natives, rich and poor, and even preferred to the finest wheaten bread…For drink, here is coffee, new milk, sour milk, and buttermilk—the last two are great favourites, but I dare say you, like myself, will decline them both: the sour milk is thick, and eaten with a spoon, so that perhaps I was wrong in calling it a drink. Tea is almost unknown; coffee is the staple for morning and evening meals. Here, too is honey, fresh taken from the ‘gum’. , and here are various kinds of preserves.
Gosse found the fruit ripened in the Southern sun more delicious and refreshing than anything produced in England where summers were cooler and the growing season shorter.
So highly is this fruit [peaches] esteemed, that every farm has large tracts planted with it, as orchards…The Musk-melon, the species chiefly used in England, is grown rather extensively with us, but is not so general a favourite as the Water Melon, the peculiar odour being to some persons rather disagreeable. The Water-melon is deservedly esteemed; as I know not a more cooling or delicious fruit in the heat of summer.
Gosse wrote of watermelons being grown in Dallas County for markets as far North as Maine, and even shipped into Canada, with plenty kept for home use. Cart-loads were brought from the fields daily and put into an underground cellar for at least a night to cool before cutting them.
If a guest call, the first offering of friendship is a glass of cold water as soon as seated; then there is an immediate shout for water-melons, and each taking his own, several are destroyed before the knife is laid down. The ladies cut the hard part, near the rind into stars and other pretty shapes which they candy for winter use.
While he made no mention of eating blackberries, he saw them harvested, probably made into preserves, because he compared pokeberries to them.
The Chinquapin tree offered up nuts the size of small marbles at about the same time figs ripened. Gosse wrote a note in later years when his journal was to be published saying he’d traveled extensively and never found a fruit he enjoyed more than a fresh fig from the tree in Alabama.
Bears were commonly seen in Dallas County during the time Gosse lived there, and he discussed the periodic loss of a well-fed hog previously intended for the dinner table. Gosse made no mention of bear bacon, bear lard, etc., however, given the planters’ propensity for hunting they may have made their way into their diet.
The woods provided,” large and handsome to the eye”, fox-grapes which Gosse found, “somewhat sweet”, scarlet haws, “of several species of thorn, some of which are fleshy and grateful to the taste”, and three sorts of wild plums, some of which he found more to his taste than others. Chestnuts were found in great profusion.
Gosse was amazed at the number of deer hunted by the Alabamians, as many as 70 in a single day, but left no indication of how the meat was cooked. He found the wild hogs had little fat and to his English taste, had a peculiar gamey flavor. The opossum found its way onto the dinner table in the fall when it had feasted on ripe persimmons, “its flesh, through feeding on this and other fruits, becomes very good at this season, and it is brought to table, though rejected in summer”.
The Towhe Bunting (Fringilla erythrophthalma) was hunted extensively and, “this little bird is considered a delicacy; and several are spitted together and roasted like larks with us [English]. Wild turkeys were abundant and Gosse left various descriptions of harvesting them for the table.
Gosse spoke of ducks raised for the table almost as big as a goose and of robbing honey from, “bee trees”. The Queen Anne Pocket Melon was found in the gardens of the planters although he says it was grown for its delightful smell rather than as food. [See blog post on these curious fruits].
It may surprise the descendents of the Florida Cracker, to know that Florida was not the only area in the South where wild cattle were hunted and rounded up for food and profit.
A neighbouring overseer, an enthusiastic old sun-dried backwoodsman, talks of feral cattle existing in some of the more inaccessible swamps between these parts and the Florida border. He has been engaged in parties to hunt them, shooting the cows for their beef…
Persimmons, “sweetened and mellowed by frosty nights”, were noted in Gosse’s journal not long before he left Alabama. Once they were fully ripened he compared them to the size and form of a green gauge plum and found them, “to my taste superior to any plum”.
Gosse claimed maize was grown primarily for home-use, cotton being the only crop cultivated for market. He found the Southern corn far superior to the Northern. “The full-ripe ears are often nearly a foot in length”. Judge Saffold’s household and those of neighbors were delighted when “roasting-ears” were ready to harvest.
Some now go into field and gather the ears, and bite off the grains while raw, when they have a sugary taste; but they are more commonly used as a culinary vegetable, roasted at the fire, or boiled and shelled like peas, and eaten with melted butter. It is considered a delicacy; but as the ripening corn rapidly hardens, it lasts only a few days…Corn is almost the only bread-stuff raised here, the wheaten flour used being imported chiefly from the north.
Given that most of his time was spent in the log school house or gathering specimens of the native flora and fauna to take back to England, I’m curious about how closely Gosse actually observed the gathering of vegetables, given the universal practice of planting at successive intervals (usually a week to two weeks apart) to prolong the harvesting of fresh vegetables. Such planting methods would certainly have been used to some extent in Alabama given their prevalence throughout America.
The home of Judge Reuben Saffold, Gosse’s employer, built some ten years after Gosse returned to England. Little changed with regard to the way food was prepared between 1838 and the building of this home in the late 1840’s. The bake oven can still be seen in the cellar kitchen, although the doors are no longer in place.
Source: Gosse, Phillip Henry. Letters From Alabama. 1859. London. [See: The Houses of Pleasant Hill blog post]