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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

Holiday eating always includes sugary sweets – everything from homemade fudge to pecan pies and coconut cake.

No wonder people can gain five to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day!

But if you had lived in the days of the pioneer, that wasn’t an option. Why?

Sugar was unheard of on the frontier!

So what did people do to satisfy their proverbial “sweet tooth?”

Submitted This 1939 photo was made in the Great Smokies, and shows Uncle Dave Myers of Cades Cove beside beehives made from sections of hollow trees. Honey has long been used as a sweetener by the people of Tennessee.

Submitted
This 1939 photo was made in the Great Smokies, and shows Uncle Dave Myers of Cades Cove beside beehives made from sections of hollow trees. Honey has long been used as a sweetener by the people of Tennessee.

Let’s start with the Native Americans who lived and hunted in what is now Middle Tennessee. The Cherokee, Shawnee and Creek Indians used wild foods that were naturally sweet, and there were very few of them.

Further north, the indigenous people harvested maple syrup, but that didn’t help the local down here in the South. Wild berries, nuts and a few fruits had to suffice on the banks of the Cumberland River.

Pawpaw trees and persimmon trees had fruit that could be harvested, but there was nothing that approached the sweetness and taste of sugar – except for wild honey.

But honey was a relatively new addition to the diet of the local natives.

Although there are over 20,000 species of bees, only a few produce honey and none of them were found in North America. That is, until the white man arrived! By the 1650s, honeybee hives could be found on the farms of the colonists in New England, brought there to pollinate the many varieties of fruit trees that were also new to the Western Hemisphere. Apples, pears, peaches and more were introduced by the newcomers.

But it was honey that made a lasting impression on the Indians.

As bees escaped from the colonists’ hives and made their own bee colonies in the woods, the Indians discovered the “stinging flies” and their hidden pots of liquid, sweet golden honey.

Soon honey was a part of the Native American diet.

When the first longhunters arrived here to hunt the wild woodland buffalo, elk, deer and beaver, they learned to live off the land much like the Native Americans had for thousands of years. That included eating Indian corn, venison, wild berries and nuts. And they used honey to satisfy their addiction to sweets.

Once recipe that the Indians shared with the white man was simple to make, easy to carry and called for a little honey on top.

Today we call that “Johnny cake,” but the longhunters probably called it “Shawnee cake” and we still make it today as hot water cornpone or hoe cake!

The white man had early on adopted the Indian corn, or maize, and knew that it was easily ground down into a coarse meal. A sack of corn meal was easy to carry on the trail, so every longhunter would have had some on his pack horse.

After a meal of roasted squirrel or wild goose, the longhunter would take a handful of corn meal, add a pinch of salt, a little water and mix until he had a sort of dough. This he would shape into little “pones.”

To cook, he would lay the corn pones or Johnny cakes onto the hot ashes of his fire and let them bake.

It wouldn’t take long and he would have his dessert, but he needed one more ingredient.

Taking a little wild honey, he would drizzle the sweet syrup onto his simple Johnny cake and have a true pioneer dessert!

Our tastes are more upscale today and we use sifted white flour and vanilla flavoring, spices and refined sugar, but there are still people who enjoy the simple tastes of a corn cake with a little butter or honey on top!

NOTE: A reminder that the Living History Museum on White Oak Street will be open this Thursday night as part of the Tour of Homes sponsored by the FCE Clubs. It will be decorated for the holidays and you will get to see Christmas as it would have been celebrated in the 1930s by a tenant family.