Pokes, Ramps, and Hoe Cake – Tennessee’s culinary history lives on

Jim Jenkins and Susan Melchor - Great Smoky Mountain National Park employees who were very knowledgable about the food history of Tennessee.
Jim Jenkins and Susan Melchor – Great Smoky Mountain National Park employees who were very knowledgable about the food history of Tennessee.

“I love my poke salat in the spring” said the guy sitting next to me at the restaurant table when I asked him about his favorite Tennessee food tradition.
For a moment I could not believe I was in the USA. What was poke and ramps and …did people really eat bottom-feeding catfish? In days gone by game was hunted, but it seems that one modern version of catching game to eat in Tennessee, I learned, is to dine on road kill accidentally driven over, but acceptable to grill by law as stated in the Road Kill Bill.
Dining out with history in Tennessee proved to be tastes and stories I will never forget.

The rangers at the Visitor’s Center in Great Smoky Mountain National Park were a wealth of food history information. During a food tasting of preserves that are sold in the parks gift shops, new and exciting tastes were explained to me. While visiting, I met many from Tennessee who still spice their meals with the old food traditions. Here is a nibble of some of the interesting foods that were eaten in the past and continue to be enjoyed today.


Jim Jenkins, a ranger I met loves RAMPS.
Ramps, I learned are a type of wild onion that grows in the Smoky mountain region. They are a cross between an onion and garlic but with a much more powerful taste. They grow plentifully in Great Smoky National Park and are considered to be a delicacy. Years ago, ramps were eaten early in the spring because they were the first fresh edible plant that could be found after a winter of eating dried foods. Ramps were considered to be a revitalizing spring tonic. In the spring, in the Smoky mountain area, ramps can be purchased by the side of the road, but most ramp lovers just head into the fields and find their own. See recipe section for grilled ramps. Many Ramps festivals have sprung up in the south. See Food Events Section for details.
One festival has been running since 1954 and was started as a gimmick to attract more visitors to the area.

Pokeweed, (common name) is a broad leaf plant that grows in Tennessee and other states with a similar climate. Here is a food you won’t find in the grocery store. It was processed and canned until 2000 but was discontinued when sources became scarce. Do not go poking around the ditches for pokeweed with no knowledge of how to cook this plant – for it can be highly poisonous and must be picked at the right time and cooked properly.

Native Americans used pokeweed as a medicine to clean the body and purge bad spirits.
The leaves were used as a cooked leafy green in the past and are still enjoyed by some today. Pokeweed berries were used as a dye in the past. There is a popular story in Pigeon Forge about the musician Dolly Parton who was raised in poverty, using the pokeberries instead of lipstick when she was younger.
When cooking pokeweed as a green, the leaves must be picked when small and young, at the beginning of the season. Later in the season, the root, stem and leaves of this plant are poisonous. The leaves must be rinsed several times, boiled in hot water, rinsed again and drained. One recipe instructs cooks to fry the leaves in bacon fat and add bits of bacon to serve. The young stems can also be cooked in a similar way as asparagus.


Sorghum molasses has been made since pioneer times. Rather than using sugar cane that is used in Blackstrap molasses, sorghum cane was grown in the Smoky Mountain area. Mules were attached to a frame to power a crushing machine and walked in a circle to crush the cane squeezing out the juice that was then boiled and reduced to syrup. Sorghum molasses as well as honey were the sources of sweetening food historically. This molasses is still produced today and this unique local taste is still enjoyed by many.


When farmers went out to the fields to work for the day, they made hot hoe cakes in the fields for their lunch. Here’s how they did it.
They took all the makings of a Johnny Cake (cornmeal mush and salt) They added a little butter, patted it into the shape of a cake and cooked it on their hoe (a garden tool still used today) over hot coals in a fire. A brilliant bit of cookery.

Although road kill cannot be considered a food of the past, it can be linked with hunting techniques of the past “gone modern.” The Road kill Bill was proposed in 1999.I understand the bill was passed in Tennessee. Several other states have passed a similar bill. The bill states that animals killed on the road can be taken “for personal use and consumption.” This bill was the topic of much humor in the press. There are websites and blogs that give recipes for various types of road kill. Wild game is regaining popularity with adventurous cooks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: