We were at a Boxed Pie Supper at my elementary school and the folding doors had been opened so that there was room for all the students and their families. Now just in case you don't know about Boxed Pie Suppers, I'll tell you right now that it was a group effort to raise money for a school. Of course this took place around 1950, and not many traditions from that time were carried forward, so it is no wonder you don't know about them. It was one of the biggest social events that happened during the school year, and was right up there with the annual Christmas Program in popularity. It was held on a Friday night usually when harvest time was over, and food had been put up for winter. I am not sure why it was called a "Pie" supper because the box held an entire meal, including dessert. The women of the family would work all day cooking and baking, preparing a dinner to take to the school in the evening. The children who were attending the school would help by polishing apples and cutting out decorations for the box that held the supper. Sometimes the girls helped in the kitchen if they were old enough. My mother and Granny Ninna always fried chicken, usually two old hens, and they added green beans and cornbread, a lot of other vegetables, and most of the time Ninna made a stack cake for dessert. Along about five o'clock, the whole family including grandmas and great aunts would be all dressed up and ready to go to the Boxed Pie Supper.

The boxes were big enough to hold all that dinner, and my favorite part of the entire event was to decorate the box so that it would sell for a high price. I didn't care who bought it, I just wanted it to be pretty enough to bring a good amount of money. That was the point of the event, folks would bid on a box dinner, and usually the pretty boxes earned the most money. Now I am not talking about large amounts of money, since nobody had very much in those days, but for somebody to bid a whole dollar for a box was a big deal. Sometimes it even went up to $1.50, and gasps could be heard. So the school raised money for much needed materials, and everybody had a good time eating supper that somebody else had made. Every family brought a box, and every family bought a box. It all evened out. There were some really good cooks that came out of the hollers for our Boxed Pie Supper. I always thought that my wonderfully decorated box got really high prices because it was so beautiful.

Sometimes we would stop at the mouth of the holler to pick up Aunt Bett and take her with us to the big event, she liked to go she said, so she could keep Ninna company. Truth was, she liked the attention she got while she was there. Everybody knew Aunt Bett, and even at social events folks would come up and tell her about their latest ailment. If they were seriously ill, I figured they wouldn't be at a social event, but would be home in bed, so I never paid much attention to what they said. One evening, an old woman named Aunt Claire, stooped and skinny as a little crow, limped over to where we were sitting.Image

"Bett," she said, "I got poison ivy on my ankles. I was wondrin' if you had anythin' that might help a bit. It's been there for sum time, and it just bothers me to death." Aunt Claire, who wasn't really my aunt, turned so that her back was to the rest of the folks, and proceeded to pull her long gray skirt up and her long black stockings down just enough to show Aunt Bett her poison ivy. It wasn't pretty, and it surely looked uncomfortable on that skinny little leg. Aunt Bett didn't say much, but she opened her bag to check its contents. Her bag was actually two brown paper sacks, one inside the other, and in it she carried tins of salves, and bottles of one thing or another. She dug through that bag for a few minutes, then she glanced up at me. "Chile, you got any that yellerroot left?"

I grew ten feet tall and important! She needed something that I had. Yellowroot made a great mustard yellow dye, and of course I had some of the root. I was up and ready to run the mile all the way back home to get it for Aunt Bett, but she assured Aunt Claire that she would have some ointment ready for her by Saturday evenin'. "And I get to help make it, don't I, Aunt Bett?" Well, I thought everybody should know that I was Aunt Bett's helper, even though my mother thought I should be quiet while the bidding on the boxes took place.

Yellowroot was the mountain name for goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis. Aunt Bett made a salve from the roots of the plant, and I learned to make a mustard yellow dye from the leftover roots. Goldenseal has quite a history. It grows in the rich soil of shady woods, or in moist areas at the edge of wooded lands. We could usually find it pretty easily in the mountains. It flowers in April, and the fruit is ripe in July. It looks much like a raspberry, but is not edible. It was in August when I would go with Aunt Bett to dig the root, which was the only part of the plant that she used. Our Native Americans had taught the early settlers how to use goldenseal. The Cherokee used it as a folk cancer remedy as well as a wash for local inflammations. They used a decoction for general debility and as an appetite stimulant. The Iroquois used a decoction of the root for whooping cough, diarrhea, fever, pneumonia, and with whiskey, for heart trouble.{1} It was also used for an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the throat. It shows strong activity against a variety of bacteria, yeast and fungi, and herbalists use it for these purposes today. It contains the alkaloids hydrastine, berberine, canadine and canalidine. It seems to increase the flow of healthy mucous, which contains its own antibiotic factors.Image

Sadly enough in this country, goldenseal has been used in an attempt to mask morphine in race horses, but with little success. It has also been used by drug addicts who try to hide their usage by taking it prior to a drug test. That doesn't work either, because now they are also tested for traces of goldenseal.{2}

Aunt Bett only made salves from goldenseal, and it was a salve that we made for Aunt Claire, from the roots that I had saved. About all that scientists tell us about goldenseal is that it contains a mild antibiotic. I am not personally familiar with any other usage, only the salve. Well, I do know the Native Americans used it to paint their faces and to dye their leathers. I had a great time playing cowboys and Indians, because I always got to be the Indian maiden who tended to all those who were hurt. The problem with that was my mother would never let me dye my hair black, so I gathered all the black feathers that I could find and tied them all along a very long shoestring that came out of one of my dad's boots. Then I tied the whole thing around my head, with a little open place in the front so that I could see. I thought that to be quite creative and unique, me with black feathery hair, until I had to take the knots out and remove all the feathers so that my dad could wear his boots again.

We had a lot of fun, Aunt Bett and I. The Boxed Pie Suppers continued through my years in grade school, and skinny Aunt Claire lived to be a ripe old age, stooped but not limping, and I continued to fast think my way out of trouble. Aunt Bett went to about as many Boxed Pie Suppers as I did, and I wonder now if it was Ninna's stack cake, Aunt Bett's salves, or my decorating that sold those boxes filled with enough supper for an entire family for $1.50.

{1} http://www.stevenfoster.com/education/monograph/goldenseal.html

{2} http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goldenseal

Other sources: http://altmedicinal.about.com/cs/herbsvitaminsek/a/goldenseal.htm


Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: creekwalker, for the thumbnail and the single bloom, and thehumblebumble, for the single berry and foliage.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 18, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)