A couple of co-workers were discussing wild mushrooms the other day. These folks know what’s what in the fungi world, and have been consuming this year’s crop with great gusto. Me, I stay away from mushrooms in the wild because I assume they’re all deadly poisonous, and only eat what I buy in the store.
I base this on the theory that grocers know killing off their own customers is a lousy business plan. The success of the cigarette industry notwithstanding.
Anyway, the mushroom talk got me to thinking about snuff boxes. No, not the snuff boxes associated with elderly women of these mountains, but the devil’s snuffbox, a fungus that can be found in these mountains.
Also called puffballs, snuffboxes were a delight to find, because you could stomp on them and get a very satisfying explosion of spores, like a bomb going off except your foot would still be intact.
As the purpose of the snuffbox is to propagate itself, I don’t think they took any offense to this practice. Then again, I did read that inhaling those spores can cause a lung disease called lycoperdonosis, so maybe I’m wrong about that.
For what it’s worth, lycoperdonosis comes from the genus name for snuffboxes, Lycoperdon. The latter translates to … um, a wolf passing gas. Never let it be said botanists don’t have a sense of humor.
Back to the other snuff boxes, and the elderly mountain women who dabbled in dipping. Grandmother Buchanan was one of them.
Her place on Tathams Creek was the gathering spot for cousins, where we’d generally spend the time tearing up the woods or running around barefoot in the yard. There weren’t snuff boxes in the yard, but there were quite often copperheads, and we ran up a streak of several years where a barefoot cousin would step on/over one of the critters. The law of dumb luck prevailed, and no one was bitten.
Anyway, back to the snuff. Grandma imbibed. It was a pretty common habit not long ago, and I’ll be danged if I can figure out how it evolved. I’d like to say, given that dipping seem to be fairly confined to areas like this heavily populated with Scots-Irish, that it came over from Scotland, but given that tobacco was a New World crop, that would be impossible.
For whatever reason, women in Appalachia and surrounding regions took to dipping back in the 18th century. (Some were pipe-smokers as well). An account written by Vicki Betts I found recounted a Yankee captain in Alabama calling on a home with three young women as saying, “Each of them had a quid of tobacco in her cheek about the size of my stone inkstand, and if they didn’t make the extract fly worse than I ever saw in any country grocery, shoot me.”
I don’t recall Grandma spitting, but she did enjoy her snuff, probably Dental Scotch snuff, a popular brand.
Looking back, the trend does puzzle me, particularly considering that the vast majority of mountain women I noticed dipping were generally paragons of virtue. I guess looking back the habit appears pretty ridiculous. Kind of like how 40 years from now people will wonder what caused the Great Belt Shortage that led to young men walking around with shorts around their knees and their underwear hanging out.
Dipping did have one bonus for the flock of kids running around in Grandma’s yard. Inevitably one of us would careen into a yellow jacket’s nest, and after being lit up would be instructed to shut up, quit crying and go see Granny. She’d rub some of that dip saliva on the sting, and the results were like witchcraft: Instantaneous relief. Sure, naysayers point out that putting human bacteria, not to mention a poisonous plant, on a wound isn’t exactly hygienic. But after a sting I’d just ask “where’s Granny?”
Given the encounters with the copperheads, I sometimes wondered if that cure would work on a snakebite as well. Glad I never had a chance to find out.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.