During an 1898 trip through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, sociologist
George Vincent observed that the families who resided there subsisted on a
diet of “hog and hominy.” In this, he was more or less correct,
for not only did mountaineers the region over (including those in the East
Tennessee hamlet of Gatlinburg) raised enormous quantities of hominy (corn)
they also derived the majority of their yearly protein intake from the hogs
that clustered about their homes.
But let us begin our discussion with corn, for it was the very heart of Southern Appalachian agriculture. Throughout the nineteenth century--and well into the twentieth century, for that matter--corn and corn leaves served as the primary source of nutrition for Southern Appalachian farm families and their livestock. The crop required little cultivation, relatively speaking, and could be grown in rocky soils and on steep hillsides. Soon after settling on a piece of land, farmers would cut down trees to create new fields, remove the downed timber, and scatter seed corn among the stumps. If plowing was necessary, farmers used the bull-tongue plow, characterized by a long, narrow moldboard, to create shallow furrows amid the numerous rock outcroppings. As early as 1874, Tennessee State Agriculture Secretary J. B. Killebrew marveled at the ability of East Tennessee farmers to raise corn under the most difficult of circumstances. “We have seen fields of corn upon steep slopes,” he wrote, “where the limestone rocks almost sheeted the surface, that would yield from fifty to seventy bushels per acre.”
Although much of the annual harvest went to feed livestock, mountain families consumed enormous quantities of the grain. In fact, historian Donald Edward Davis estimates that an average farm family of seven consumed 162 bushels of corn per year. Fresh corn on the cob added welcome variety to meals, while cornmeal, more so than rye or wheat flour, served as the family’s primary bread-making ingredient. Corn also provided Southern Appalachian farm families with construction materials and a crude form of currency for use in local barter. According to Davis, corn “husks and leaves were woven into hats, dolls, mops, and chair bottoms.” Farmers “purchased” plows and other agricultural implements with surplus grain, and hired hands could expect to receive several bushels in exchange for their labor.
If corn was the heart of Southern Appalachian agriculture, then hogs were its soul. Mountain farmers raised and slaughtered millions of swine each year, and rare was the family that did not rely heavily on pork as a source of protein. The reason for mountaineers’ dependence on pork is actually quite simple: hog husbandry, like corn cultivation, required relatively little effort on behalf of the farmer to be successful. Hogs are, as a rule, hardy, independent animals, more than capable of finding their own food and defending themselves (and their offspring) against predators. And so it was standard practice among the region’s farmers to simply turn their herd of squealing porkers out into the forests during the spring and summer months, there allowing them to fatten (at no cost) on chestnuts, roots, small animals, eggs, carrion, and other naturally-occurring foods. As an added bonus, hogs reproduce quickly, with the average sow giving birth to litters of between eight and ten piglets (and sometimes as many as twelve to sixteen). One might easily start a large herd--again at very minimal cost--merely by turning out a brood sow to mingle with his neighbors’ boars.