The bragging has already started. Silver Queen corn is coming in by the tub full. Tomatoes are sitting on kitchen window seals in neat little rows. Pictures of summer squash and cucumbers the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s forearm are being posted on social media like pictures of grandchildren. Proud garden parents showing off their little babies for the world to see.
Honestly, I don’t know that I’d actually call it bragging. In the south, having a garden is a way of life. Even if you don’t have a garden, it is assumed that you do. And if you don’t, you either know the value of buying fresh at the local road stand, or, if you’re lucky, you have a friend with a garden who will gladly give you as much as you need.
I was sitting at the table in Cracker barrel the other night. Visiting with old pals from another time in life. You remember the table. The round one with six or seven gray hairs sitting around jawing and telling stories about the time one of them fell out of a fishing boat with a seizure. “He was flopping around like a bream on the bank.” He’s on meds now and is doing fine.
Odd, what old folks find funny.
Anyway, I said something about this being way out of my normal routine to eat like this on a Sunday night. I usually go light with some fresh Ritz Crackers and smooth Jiff peanut butter. Maybe some milk to wash it down.
One of the other guys started in. “This time of year, I have my favorite sandwich on Sunday evenings.” The description he gave is detailed and is told with a passion usually reserved for lovers.
“I get me a fresh tomato and slice it up thick. I butter up two slices of Colonial white bread with Dukes Mayo, nice and thick on both sides. Then I lay me a couple of tomato slices down real easy like. I make sure I’ve got the loaf bread covered out to the edges. I put on a little salt and a little bit more pepper. I know it’s right when I take the first bite and the bread sticks to the roof of my mouth right behind my front teeth.”
He points inside his mouth, like we have no idea what he’s talking about. By the time he’s done, we’re all drooling and panting like dogs over a bone.
I had a garden once upon a time. Beth and I loaded up with sweet corn and purple hull peas and cantaloupe and a hoard of other delicacies. Like my dad before me, I thought that having a vegetable garden was a part of my DNA. I did enjoy it for a few years, but I have not always lived in a place that had the space for a garden. I grow trees these days. My shame is that serious vegetable gardening is a thing of the past for me.
Still, I crave the taste of good homegrown food on the table.
A couple of months ago, when the corn around here was just about ankle high, some friends invited me over to eat supper. Vegetable plates were on the menu. This was going to be the last of the garden vegetables from the previous year. All the canning and freezer bags held over until the next batch could be picked, cleaned, and put up.
Six of us sat down to pay homage to the ancient craft of gardening. There was creamed corn, perfect and wonderful. Peas and green beans and fried okra. The corn on the cob might as well have been picked yesterday. Cornbread and sweet tea.
As my dad would say, “This was about the best thing I’d ever put in my mouth.”
On the table sat two mason jars of pickles. She called one of them “bread and butter” pickles. Then she said, “The other one is a sweet pickle like my grandma used to make.”
Now, if you know me at all, you know that I have been desperate to find the sweet pickle that my mama made while I was growing up. Beth and I found it one night at the Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. The chef even sent me the recipe, but he sent it with no instructions. We tried to recreate the delicacy but failed miserably. I am shamed once again.
Now, my hopes sit right in front of me. I fork one out of the jar and lift it to my nose. No strange odors. I bite off one end and immediately close my eyes and let the taste take me back to my childhood. My eyes became moist. I’m thinking, “I should hug this woman.” But that might have been awkward.
So, last week, when I knew that the cucumbers were coming in, I got word to my new and dearest pickle friend. I sent her a text.
“You remember those pickles you had on the table that night I ate supper over at your house?”
“I do,” she says. I know that she knows what I want.
“I would die to have some of those pickles this year when you get ready to start canning.”
“I’ll be glad to make extra.” She is a generous soul.
“I’d only want two or three jars.” I actually wanted them all but thought that sounded a little greedy.
“That’ll be no problem.”
Most of the gardening people I know are generous like that. Almost no one plants with just enough in mind for their own family. They plant with others in mind. Half the joy of growing vegetables is having enough to give away.
My mama would often say, “I don’t know why your daddy plants so much. I’ve still got corn in the freezer from last year, and we’ve got enough now to feed the whole county.”
We often had a parade of folks coming out to the house to pick beans and corn and okra. If they didn’t come to pick, Dad would pick it and take it to them in a brown grocery bag from Kroger’s.
“Here,” he’d say. “I thought you could use 50 lbs. of tomatoes and 47 ears of corn.”
The abundance of good gardening was never more evident than when we cleaned out my mama’s kitchen cupboards after she passed. She had the habit of writing the year on the lids of every mason jar she put up. Jars of plum jelly and fig preserves. Each one sealed with Gulf Wax. Green beans and tomatoes and sweet pickles by the case. Some of them dated 1992, over twenty years old, and still just as good as ever.
We mourned the day when the last jar of her pickles was gone. An era of greatness had vanished for us.
Then, last night, the husband of my pickle friend called me. He told me that his wife had some pickles for me.
“She’s not going to make you any,” he said. “We’ve got enough jars in the basement to feed the county.”
God bless gardeners.
My mourning is over. I am reborn.