Where eastern Tennessee bumps up against western North Carolina, scattered small hamlets dot the mountain hollers, steep pitches of stone and trees and rushing water. One of these is Flag Pond, in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Another is Marshall, in Madison County, North Carolina. My mother’s family comes from these places.
Her maternal grandfather is the one who straddled the state line, being born in Flag Pond the third of twelve children to the Sams family. I guess Sams Creek there has something to do with my kin, but no one ever said so. When asked why he settled in Flag Pond, one of my ancestors is supposed to have said, “That’s where the wagon wheel broke.” William Albert Sams (Bert) grew up to be a medical doctor (Doc) serving several of the mountain counties in both states; he established his wife Leta (nee Davis) and three daughters in Marshall.
Doc Sams began traveling the steep green hills to cure ills, set broken bones, and catch babies around 1910; he was on horseback until after World War II and was the only doctor for seven or eight mountain counties until the 1960’s. I have in mind that his horse was called Nan and she was big and ugly as he was, well, big anyway. When he left Marshall in answer to a knock at the door that someone needed his help, his wife and children didn’t know how long he’d be gone, for once word was out that Doc was on the move, news would catch up with him about a need in the next holler, and the next and the next. Being gone for days and weeks was normal.
Barter was the currency; cash was scarce. People helped or paid one another with whatever gift they had—physical strength, herbal wisdom, crop abundance. Distance and isolation were cured with long visits. Gossip and storytelling kept folks informed, and news was eagerly shared. As long as you knew whom you were talking to, who had come onto your property, that is.
Since he was on horseback and never for sure headed home when he left a patient, no one paid him right then for his house calls so as not to burden him or Nan. Instead, a family would save up for Doc and when they managed to get to town (Marshall), they’d leave whatever they felt they owed him on the broad front porch of his house or at his office, the second story over the pharmacy down by the French Broad River.
If you go to Marshall today, some of the buildings and churches he knew in town are still there, but his house, which was built into and up the mountain was razed after he died to straighten out a dangerous curve in the road. That road was the main drag into and out of Marshall, so I think it must have been Highway 25. Now there is a Sams Road and a Dr. Ramsey Drive, and Doc went into practice with someone later in life; maybe it was Doctor Ramsey? I just remember a mostly gravel road across from Doc’s house that went any way except straight up the mountain. I think it was called Corkscrew Hill for obvious reasons. There was a cemetery at the top we visited every trip, but who was in it, I don’t know. I do know my mother has a huge, sprawling old rose bush in her yard from there; she harvested a start after Doc died, so I’m thinking he’s buried there.
At the house, Leta would wake up day after day to find all manner of things, usually food, at her front door, some of it still alive and kicking. (My mother really hated killing the chickens left as payment. To this day, chicken is her least favorite meat.) Most of the time there was no note, no name; people didn’t knock. Somehow they and Doc knew when accounts were settled. The vegetables were always the best, the meat fresh or the best preserved possible, and any handmade items handsome and well-made. People loved Doc and paid him as well as they could.
Like so many mountain folks, Doc’s parents (Papa Sams and Granny Sams to me) had always had fresh pork in early winter following the annual fall butchering of their own hogs. The little that wasn’t preserved was kept for a special holiday feast on Christmas morning—leans (see below), scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy. Doc continued this delicious tradition when he and Leta started their family. It was easy to keep up given the payments his patients made from the best of their homesteads; they truly gave him the high (part) on (of) the hog. In 2013, my 82-year-old mother looked at her Christmas morning plate and said, “I’ve eaten this same meal on this same day for eighty consecutive years.”
By my calculation, the leans menu and recipes have been part of the holiday celebration in my mother’s family for at least 127 years, going back to Doc’s folks. I’m sharing this because the food is so good, so soulful, and, I believe, so representative of the Appalachian region. I’ve lived in the South most of my life, and I’ve never heard anyone anywhere say they knew this menu. If it’s a mountain staple and I’m the last to know, well it’s been a tasty ride all these years.
The Leans Menu
“Leans,” for those not from Appalachia, are medallion cuts of pork tenderloin. Is the word a Scots-Irish-Elizabethan English corruption of “loins” or just an apt description of the meat, what some think of as the best and leanest part of the pig? I don’t know, but I can tell you that butchers in Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, did not know the term when I lived in those places. Nor did the butchers in Tallahassee, Florida, southeastern Iowa, or Paducah, Kentucky, recent hometowns for my husband and me.
Menu: Pork tenderloin cut into leans—1 1/2 to 2 inches thick (really), two or three per person; scrambled eggs, two or three eggs per person; biscuits, two or three or more per person (you know your family); milk gravy, twice as much as you think you need per person; and in the old days, all manner of pickles and olives to cut the richness of the meal; and butter and strawberry jam because Papa Sams loved strawberry jam and no other sweet would do.
I should say that as we have aged, the leans “breakfast” has become the only meal of the day. It’s served after we sleep in and then open stockings and presents, so it’s become a late brunch/early supper depending on Santa’s generosity.
It takes our practiced team of cooks at least an hour to pull this meal together, much of that time spent making the gravy and cracking wise. My brother and I cook the leans and make the gravy; our mom scrambles the eggs and bakes the biscuits. For a few decades now our family has been partial to a particular store brand of biscuit, but those made from scratch would be stellar.
Leans: Coat the leans lightly with a liquid fat of your choice (vegetable or olive oil, bacon grease, chicken or duck fat). Season generously with salt and pepper. Brown them well on both sides in a medium-hot pan, add a little water, and then cover, reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking them until they are just barely pink in the center, ten to fifteen minutes or so. If they’re not a little pink, they will dry out on you, so don’t overcook them. You will have to cut into these thick leans to tell if they are done. Reserve the leans on a platter tented with foil. You might want to hold them in a low heat oven.
Gravy: Use the pan juices as the start for gravy, dividing them equally into two skillets so you can make plenty; you’ll want it all. Start with very fine flour such as Wondra and make a roux. Alternating evaporated milk and very fine flour, stir these in and cook and build the gravy, occasionally adding water to increase the volume. Season with liquid smoke if desired, as well as salt and pepper (taste to be sure; there’s a lot of seasoning in the pan juices). After a while, check the leans platter and pour the accumulated juices into the gravy pans. This is a fun activity when someone nicknamed Butterfingers holds the platter of hot meat for someone nicknamed Clumsy to get the juices into the skillets. Continue making gravy until the amount and consistency suits you and the hilarity has died down or hunger incites a rowdy crowd.
Scramble the eggs, put the leans, biscuits, and sides on the table, and pass the steak knives. Coffee, eggnog (with and without nog), Mimosas, Bloody Marys, Virgin Marys, sparkling water and champagne have made appearances as libations over the years. This humble offering born of remote holler tradition tastes extra good when served on the best dishes and table setting the host can muster.
It will take a while to eat this feast. A glorious, celebratory, special-for-the-holiday, loosen-your-belt, tell-all-the-old-stories-yet-again extravaganza. In a nod to Doc’s prodigious appetite, leftover leans-and-gravy-biscuits for a midnight snack are worth both the effort and the annual wait.