Cooking & Foodways
Several Melungeons have now discovered that they have Sephardic Jewish and Moorish Muslim ancestry, as well as American Indian. There have been discussions on e-boards and at Melungeon gatherings of how Appalachian food ways may relate to Judaic kashrut and Islamic halal practices. One tradition frequently described is the draining of blood from chickens during the slaughtering process[viii]. The posting below was titled “Doesn’t everybody hang their chickens on the clothes line?”
I think this is pretty universal [among Melungeons]. It’s the most effective way to drain meat. My dad raised hens down over the river bank for their eggs...When a hen stopped laying, she went in the pot and daddy would kill her out in the back yard. First, he ‘wrung’ her neck to kill her quickly, and then he hung her by her feet on the clothesline. He pulled the hen’s head back and with a very sharp knife, he cut her head off…By hanging the hen, the meat is not bruised, it is cleaner, and all the blood was spilt from the chicken’s body. This part may be a Jewish custom by the way…The hen was removed from the line and dipped in boiling water, [so] her feathers were easily plucked…Then the hen was dipped in boiling water again and held over an open flame to remove any pinfeathers. I know that Grandma Mary…would soak chicken in saltwater to “purify” it before frying: I do this still…Grandma Mary was a faith healer and “fasted” on occasion…I remember my mom checking out the matzoh in the grocery store when I was a kid and telling me about fasting. (1/17/2004 MTA)
Others recalled special rituals used to purify cooking utensils:
…all pans were washed in boiling water before the first use, as well as any dishes and all cast iron pans/skillets [which] were coated with oil and then put in the oven for several hours to ‘cure’. (September 28, 2002 MTA)
Yes, that is a Jewish koshering ritual. All dishes, pots, pans, flatware, etc. must be rinsed, dipped or boiled in boiling water before the first use. (September 29, 2002 MTA)
My grandmother always kept a large kettle of boiling water when we washed dishes… and then she rinsed them with more boiling water from the kettle. This wasn’t just for new pots first use, but everyday dishwashing. We also never ate an egg with a speck of blood. We did eat pork though. We swept to the center of the room, but that seemed to make sense; no one gave me a reason, and I didn’t question it…(September 29, 2002 MTA)
Another custom from my dad’s family was that when it was a woman’s time of the month, she shouldn’t cook – that the food wouldn’t taste right. (September 29, 2002 MTA)
I do recall that although [my mother] would occasionally cook and serve pork, she believed it wasn’t very healthy…, and she would overcook the dickens out of it. Possibly this leeriness of pork could be tied to our pretty certain Sephardic Jewish heritage farther back… (October 16, 2002 MTA)
I’ve been waiting for one of y’all to mention hummus. It’s my favorite…My daughter loves Mediterranean food. She is pretty good at cooking it, and I always have it when I go to her house. By the way, people who meet her often think she is Jewish or Arabic. She does look like it, and so much like my mother’s family from Floyd County, Kentucky. Almost black hair, olive skin, and brown eyes with green highlights. She never sunburns, and I don’t either! (July 10, 2003 MTA)
Sephardic and Muslim ties were also prospectively explored via recipes linked to specific holidays, which some Melungeons are now beginning to celebrate. For example, one Melungeon website presented a lengthy set of recipes appropriate for Purim, along with a discussion of the history of Sephardim in Persia, Morocco, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries (MTA, February 12, 2003). As with the allusions to Cherokee practices discussed earlier, these would represent what Albers (1996) terms the ‘umbilical’ connection to founding ethnicities. Undoubtedly, as awareness of Melungeonness grows, many other such pieces of non-European, non-Christian early Americana will come to light.
Brenda, a Melungeon from Kentucky, posted the following message (MTA, Oct. 2005)
I have a Jewish surname (maiden), and my mother’s family were of Sephardic descent also. Even though most of them had become conversos, my ggrandfather, Jacob Adkins, never set foot in a Christian church. When I was 12 years old my maternal grandmother gave me a Star of David for my birthday, so she knew something… In recent years, as we have ‘come out of the closet’, headstones have been replaced in our family cemetery with the Star of David on them.
An Alabama Melungeon, Linda, responded to this message with the one below:
Brenda, I have a similar story. My ggrandmother had a pair of silver candlesticks that she said had been in the family as long as she could remember and her mother called them Shabbot (sic) candles. She used them at the evening meal and lit them. I guess the Hebrew words were long since forgotten as there was no ceremony to go with the lighting of the candles. My gmother sent my mother to a Southern Baptist church. There was a great deal of prejudice against the Jews in the South.
[i] Public comment by attendee at Melungeon Second Union, Wise, Virginia, 2001.
[ii] Among these are: dark skin, dark hair, polydactillism, mandibular and palatal tori, Sinodonty, an Anatolian cranial ridge/bump, and genetic diseases such as FMF, Bechets syndrome, Sarcoidosis and Thalassemia.
[iii] The term ‘in-bred’, though generally considered derogatory, is used as a self-descriptor among persons of Melungeon descent. As an epithet for endogamous marital patterns, it is also genealogically and genetically accurate for the Melungeon community. In keeping with the present pulse of Melungeon ethnogenesis, it is considered desirable to have as many overlapping ancestral lines as possible—an odd twist on the widespread concern for “blood purity” found in the Americas since the earliest days of Spanish colonization (Haley and Wilcoxon 2005).
[v] Speakers have included archaeologists, epidemiologists, genealogists, biogeneticists, historians, novelists, sociologists, American Indian tribal leaders and a Turkish diplomat.
[vi] Indeed, they were negatively sanctioned and could result in loss of land and voting rights, as well as reduced educational and economic opportunity (Blau 1980; Dane and Greissman 1972; Forbes 1988; Gilbert 1947; Hardin 2000; Henige 1998; Price 1950; Werner 1973; Williamson 1980).
[vii] For example, the “Sizemore Tribe” which claims to be Cherokee, displays paternal genetic haplotypes which are both Native and European in origin (Yates 2003).
[viii] Remarkably, Melungeons seem to have also attempted to ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’ slaughtered hogs, by first draining all blood from the carcass, then soaking it in water and finally rubbing it with salt. Because feral and domestic hogs were a primary protein source in pre-colonial and colonial times, they were often incorporated into the diets of even crypto-Jewish and crypto-Muslim settlers.