Going back 249 years from this year my earliest relatives settled in the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky. Most people look at their family history and look at what country their family came from before settling in the United States. When people ask me what my cultural heritage is, unlike the traditional responses of being Irish, Italian, British or whatever, I always respond that I’m American.
When tracing my family history, I use my grandma on my mom’s side to trace back my family to the early roots of America. I know that my grandpa’s family has strong ties to these same mountains and on my dad’s side there are no stories of relatives travelling across the Atlantic to come to America. For all he knows, his family has been in the US since the beginning of time. However, my grandma’s side of the family has been able to trace their family back to some of the earliest settlers in Kentucky, even before the time of Daniel Boone. My grandma’s sister, my Aunt Jo, has been the one who holds all the information about the root’s of our family.
When I was 12 years old, I was finally able to explore this part of my heritage by taking a trip to these mountains where my relatives first settled in now what is Lawrence County, Kentucky. I travelled with my grandpa, my Aunt Jo, and my Aunt Jean to the one room cabin that my earliest relatives built in 1763. They settled in these mountains on the plot of about 500 acres of land with 250 running up one side of the mountain, another 250 running up the other side and about one acre of flat land to farm on. The cabin had been restored and added on to by the time I was able to see it, but the original foundation was still there and the craving of 1763 was still there on one of the walls of the chimney. The cabin still has root’s in my extended family even after all these years as one of my grandma’s distant cousins still lives there even to this day.
In the fifth grade was when I first began to explore the roots of my family history for a class project. I remember we had to draw the flag of the country that we thought best represented where we came from and I was the only one who drew an American Flag. Apart of the project was to find something that was representative of this country. For me, because I considered myself American, and more specifically Appalachian I called my Aunt Jo to find something.
Like I did then, I called my Aunt Jo and this time I was looking for a recipe that reflected these Appalachian roots. She told me about a recipe for brown betty and how it was a popular dessert for this part of the country. It is a simple dessert that is easy to make and something that can just be thrown together. The ingredients are things that were often already in the home, so it could be made easily.
My Aunt Jo told me that it was something that her father loved and would be made for him when he came home from the factory. Also, they would make it if friends were over and they wanted something sweet. She said it’s not something fancy that you’d make for a party, but really just a simple dessert for after dinner. She also told me that in the tradition of Appalachia it was made as a snack for when the men came home from working in the fields, like her father coming home from the factory.
Hers is the recipe that my Aunt Jo sent to my mom, but I’m going to give the steps to make Brown Betty too.
1) Wash the apples
2) Butter pan, heavy butter
3) Peel apples and preheat oven to 375
4) Cut the bread
5) Cut peeled apples into slices
6) Fill 1 ½ cup of brown sugar
7) Start layers, apples, brown sugar, then bread crumbs
8) 3 layers, add butter on top
9) Add 4 tbs. of water on top to moist
10) Add foil and bake for 40 min
11) Check, another 5 min in oven without foil to brown
As usual, I incorporated my mom into my project, but this time I decided to get her more directly involved. We spent the about 20 minutes preparing the dish and then waited 40 minutes for it to bake. My theory that cooking with another person is much more enjoyable was right again as we talked about family and reminisced. It was great to remember trips and times spent with family and to think about how deep our family history runs into the Appalachian Mountains. Even though, brown betty isn’t a dessert I’ve grown up eating, it was pretty awesome to think about it’s significant for the generations of my family that grew up living their simple lives and eating this simple dessert in those mountains.