Some women love clothes. Some have a weakness for jewelry.
I can’t resist summer vegetables.
I stopped by the Farmers Market at the Calhoun Depot on Monday and went a little crazy. I left with three kinds of tomatoes, including a purplish heirloom variety and the most wonderful sweet cherry ones that are like having summer explode in your mouth, green beans (white half runners), yellow squash, okra and two kinds of peppers, although the farmer gave me the banana ones, so they don’t really count. In my defense, I did not buy the purple hull peas or the interesting striped squash or any of the homemade jams – but there’s always next time.
My weakness for summer vegetables goes back to memories of my childhood when my mother cooked okra covered in oil in her black cast iron frying pan and boiled green beans all day with a big chunk of fatback. Summer dinners always included fresh tomatoes and I loved them on a big crispy biscuit with mayonnaise (still do!) The squash was baked into a casserole covered in cheese and the butter beans were almost more butter than bean. All of that together with some greasy fried chicken and fresh peach pie meant good eating – and may be why I wore those chubby girl dresses.
I remember the smell of vinegar throughout the house when Mama was making cucumber pickles and the mess in the kitchen when she froze cream style corn. But as a child of the suburbs, I was removed from the actual work of growing the vegetables. My father tried to put in little gardens at our various houses, but our shady neighborhoods were never conducive to sun-loving tomatoes.
My grandfathers were the gardeners, each with his own large plot behind his house where we children were forbidden to play for fear we would trample a tender squash or knock over a stalk of corn. Their gardens became mysterious and magical places, fueled by Beatrix Potter stories of animals living among the plants, losing shoes and jackets as they scurried among the rows.
Summer visits to my mother’s parents in Eastern North Carolina always included at least a few hours shelling butter beans while sitting in the metal chairs on the wide front porch. No one seems to plant these anymore (known by some as baby limas) and I’m sure it’s because they are so labor intensive. We seemed to constantly be working, pulling the strings from the butter bean pouch and sliding the three or four little green jewels into our colanders. Our reward was the bowl of butter beans on the dinner table that night, swimming in melted butter, next to the corn on the cob, more butter slathered across its steaming kernels.
(Crowder peas, also known as purple hull peas, take almost as long to shell, but you do get more peas from a pod, and they make a satisfying clink as they hit the colander.)
When Keith and I moved into our farmhouse thirty years ago we were excited to have a garden. We plowed and tilled the sunny spot behind our house, digging up hundred-year-old pieces of pottery and even older arrowheads. The rich black dirt took our seeds and fledgling plants and miraculously — vegetables grew! Each year we experimented, trying broccoli, lettuce, zucchini, sunflowers and all colors of peppers. We grew sweet corn, green beans (blue lake), rows of okra that got so tall I had to pull it down to cut it, and butter beans on little bushes.
Keith loved the planting but not so much the weeding and picking, so I learned to use a hoe and worked on my tan pulling up the invading grass. My neighbor Zeta, who knows all things about gardening and cooking, taught me when to pick the crowder peas (before the hulls get brown and dry), how to use a knife to cut the pesky strings off the half-runners and the art of canning tomatoes in a hot water bath. (Keith was afraid I would blow the house up if I used the pressure canning method.)
I learned how to tie the tomato plants to a stake to keep them from falling over and to wait for the tassels on the corn to turn black before yanking them off their stalks with a twist. I found that the squash were best when they were small and tender but that the green peppers got sweeter when they stayed on the plant long enough to turn red. Cutting okra with my garden shears was best kept for the end of the day so that I could jump in the shower to get rid of the itchiness that came from brushing up against the leaves.
Keith got interested in heirloom tomatoes and for several years ordered seeds from the Burpee Catalog and carefully grew them in tiny pots under grow-lights at his office. Later he transplanted them into the ground with a shovel full of lime. The planting of the tomatoes took on an almost reverent quality, similar to rituals performed by the Old Testament prophets.
The richest I’ve ever felt was having a kitchen counter full of tomatoes waiting to be canned and being able to share with my “town” friends.
As the years have gone by, our garden has grown smaller and smaller. When June rolled around this year we didn’t have anything planted. I couldn’t stand the thought of no garden, so I went to Calhoun Farm Supply and bought one cucumber, two green pepper, and three tomato plants and stuck them in with my daylilies. Getting them in the ground so late means I’m still waiting for the first baby buds to appear, but the tomatoes have grown enough that they needed to be staked and the cucumber vine is climbing the fence I put around it. I go out every morning and track their progress, hoping that the rabbits are not doing the same.
I remember my mother saying many times that my grandfathers just liked watching their gardens grow. I get it. I hope I will always have a place for a tomato plant.