Eating Customs from the Depression Years . . . by one o’the nine

This is another Looking Back story originally written by my Uncle Earl June 4, 1987. In light of people’s fears about the possibility of entering another era of depression, I thought it might reassure everyone that one can survive without all the trappings of modern convenience. Perhaps we’ve become a little too dependent on others to produce and deliver our food, rather than doing it ourselves.

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009_9-3The depression years found much of the population with almost no money and very little to wear and eat. There were many people who resorted to eating tortoise gophers we called Hoover chicken, various other turtles we called cooters, plus possum, raccoons and many other things that most people wouldn’t think of eating today.

A catfish is a scaleless fish with feelers or whiskers around the mouth that resemble a cat’s whiskers, therefore catfish. It was once considered a trash fish, the same as mud- and gar-fish, but during the depression became more respected as food, and today has become a delicacy.

During my childhood of the depression years, I can fondly remember the all-night catfishing excursions with some of our black hired hands. Those fishing trips usually meant traveling by foot about a quarter-mile down to the Olustee Creek, or about a mile to the Santa Fe River where we cut bushes and trimmed them to make a pie which we equipped with a hook and line, then baited and stuck into the bank of the stream. We would usually set fifteen or twenty set-hooks baited with anything from rabbit guts to P&G soap.

After the set-hooks were all baited and placed at the most likely spots to catch catfish, we would pull enough Spanish moss and cut palmetto fronds to make a bed, a place to rest between the hourly checking of the set-hooks. We would then gather some good litered wood and keep a campfire going all night. We didn’t have a flashlight to help us get around in the dark. We had fat literd splinter torches, or when we were lucky, a kerosene lantern.

We usually didn’t cook any fish while fishing. The fish we caught were divided the morning after, and each one took their share of fish home to provide meat for the family. We did usually did make coffee when we could swipe some ground coffee without Mama missing it. We would take a gallon syrup bucket, dip water from the creek or river and boil coffee which we drank from tin cans. We didn’t know what pollution was in those days so we didn’t worry about it.

The nearest we came to pollution that we were aware of was the time one of my uncles dipped up a bullfrog with the coffee water without knowing it, and the frog was boiled with the coffee. No one mentioned the frog in the coffee until it had all been consumed.

During the roasting ear season, we would break roasting ears from the corn stalks and roast them (in the shucks) over the campfire. Most people today probably wouldn’t eat the things and drink the coffee the way we did when I was a child, but seem to think nothing of sucking cigarettes, drinking beer or gorging themselves with junk food, which is probably far worse on their bodies than gritty roasting ears and frog polluted river water coffee.

Postscript: Nearly each Looking Back entry I post by one o’the nine has a paragraph of pure pontification, didactic and somewhat preachey in tone. Always, heretofore, I’ve chosen to leave that part out since it never added any value to the story, and in fact detracted heavily. This is the one exception so far.

Being a girl, I wasn’t privey to these all-night fishing excursions, but I remember my brothers doing similar things as they grew older. I’m not sure why he calls the homemade fishing poles “pie,” but my theory is–since I remember seeing a few “set-hooks” he mentions–is the bush limb (bush rather than tree because bush limbs were both more pliable and yielding) is shaped nearly like a wedge of pie after the leaves are all stripped away, but one side is a little shorter than the other. That allows the shorter end to be inserted into the ground and the longer end then hangs or slopes downward towards but not in the water.

An interesting footnote: This is the Uncle who built his own house on stilts on a dirt bank extremely close to the river. Since he was a Huckleberry Finn type who always held a certain disdain for all things modern, he didn’t install toilet facilities. Rather he built his outhouse out over the river’s edge with flooring in the part where the “throne” perched. There was a wooden bridge connecting it to the house. “Deposits” all went directly into the river itself. I thought it was interesting in light of the comment about “pollution.” Did I just hear someone asking for a cup of campfire, river water coffee?! I’m pretty sure Uncle Earl wouldn’t mind me pointing out that little irony. In fact he’d probably be the one laughing hardest, because I’m pretty sure he knew better by that time.

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2 thoughts on “Eating Customs from the Depression Years . . . by one o’the nine

  1. I remember going fishing with my dad as a little girl (and yes, I baited my own hook — I also went hunting nightcrawlers with him for our expeditions) and we caught catfish and bullheads and blue gills and took them home for supper.

    A family poem — I don’t know who started it but my cousins and I knew it:

    Fishy, fishy in a brook
    Daddy caught ’em on a hook.
    Mama fried ’em in a pan
    And little Kay ate ’em like a man!

    LOL Thanks for jogging some old memories!!!!

  2. I think I was lucky living during the depression years. While I ate a lot of mush, I never drank coffee made from polluted river water. If that had happened to me, I would have sworn off coffee forever.

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