As anyone who has perused goodly numbers of landscape photos from yesteryear will have noticed, vegetable gardens were commonplace three generations or more ago.
You didn’t have to own a great deal of land to grow a fine garden — they were simply a part of daily existence for most everyone who lived in the country, and the same was true for many dwelling in towns and even cities. After all, a decent-sized garden, properly tended, could provide an impressive amount of food, and an eighth to quarter-acre plot could mean cannery shelves groaning with quart jars and a wealth of produce to keep grocery bills to a minimum. Folks were more frugal by nature, and both the Great Depression and World War II reminded the nation of the importance of self-sufficiency in a powerful fashion.
Raising a garden, even a modest one, involved plenty of hard work, and today, despite the availability of tillers and a variety of gas or battery-powered tools, it still does. No tool yet invented can match a knowing pair of hands when it comes to removing weeds from tight places while protecting the plants on which they are encroaching. A fine garden was a matter of pride, and my father would shake his head in dismay, sometimes verging on disbelief, at “gone to weeds” plots planted in springtime with good intentions and then semi-abandoned when the heat of summer laid its hot hands on the land. He might even mutter something to the effect of “some folks are just plain trifling” or comment on so-and-so being “short of gumption.”
Most folks, however, like Daddy, worked mightily to keep weeds at bay, enjoyed talking about how some particular crop was doing, did a bit of bragging about a “fine harvest” of some item, or boasted of how many quarts they had already “put up.” Gardens were a way of life, and planting them provided benefits of not only substantial savings but a sense of continuity and connectedness to the land many found a quiet comfort.
Most of all, a flourishing garden meant healthy, tasty food on the family table throughout the year, whether fresh, canned, or dried. Thanks to farmers markets, farm-to-market grocery stores, and considerable emphasis of the delectable delights of fresh, locally grown food, anyone, gardener or not, can enjoy summer’s bounty, although I would maintain that no taste, regardless of the degree of deliciousness, quite rivals that of something you have nurtured from seed or seedling to the supper table.
John Crowe Ransom, a key figure among the Vanderbilt University-connected writers and scholars who founded the Southern Agrarian movement, offers a moving tribute to gardens and their place in life in the central portion of his poem, “Noonday Grace,” from Poems about God.
Thank God, who made the garden grow,
Who took upon himself to know
That we loved vegetables so.
Pearly corn still on the cob,
My teeth are aching for that job.
Tomatoes, one would fill a dish,
Potatoes, mealy as one could wish.
If those lines don’t set your salivary glands into involuntary overdrive and evoke memories of feasts beyond compare, yours has been a life of culinary deprivation, for nothing quite matches the sumptuous scrumptiousness of homegrown summertime fare fresh from the garden patch. With that in mind, let’s take a peek at some of what this lifelong gardener and dedicated trencherman considers the top drawer of seasonal bounty, albeit acknowledging at the outset that readers are likely to have their own candidates for the “best of summer” garden sweepstakes.
For my money, nothing quite touches a homegrown, vine-ripened tomato picked at the peak of perfection and eaten with an hour or so from when it was plucked. Give me a Cherokee Purple, Mr. Stripey, Black Krim, or any of maybe a dozen other varieties, and it’s Katie, bar the door. If you want to knock on the gates of culinary heaven, place a thick, hefty slice of tomato in the middle of a sho’nuff cathead biscuit adorned with an ample amount of melted butter.
Or perhaps you’d prefer a loaf bread sandwich slathered with mayonnaise and decorated with just the right amount of salt and pepper. Other options include a slice or two atop a heaping helping of creamed corn, chopped in a salad, baked with cheese, as a key ingredient in cornbread salad (see recipe below), or offered in a myriad of other fashions. Any way you slice it, so to speak, it has to be reckoned that a tomato is the piece de resistance when it comes to garden fare.
Here’s one recipe a bit removed from the tomato mainstream.
Mini Tomato Pies
Pre-bake individual phyllo shells
A small onion, sauteed with oil
Cherry tomatoes, sliced
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
¾ cup mayonnaise
Slice tomatoes fairly thin and lay them atop paper towels. Salt the tops and let sit 10 minutes then pat dry. For the topping, mix the cheese (Cabot Seriously Sharp is a good choice) with ¾ cup of real mayonnaise, adding salt and pepper to taste. Remember that the tomatoes have been salted, and even though the patting will remove some of it, a salty tang will remain.
Layer tomatoes, then onion and basil, then another tomato layer, and spread topping to fill each phyllo shell to the top. Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes or until done.
Turning from tomatoes to other fare, the season and a bountiful garden sometimes bring a welcome problem, namely, so much produce that eating, canning, freezing, and drying still leave a surplus. Sometimes it’s so much, with zucchini being notorious in this regard; you can’t even give it away. Long ago and far away the solution was simple — when the hogs were slopped daily they got some welcome variety in their diet, and chickens were allowed free range in the garden. Those days belong to a world all but a select few have lost, but at least there’s one solution that offers some surcease from surplus.
Few indeed are those who want to labor over a stove twice a day amidst summer’s heat, preparing hot dinner — and in my vocabulary that’s the midday meal — and supper. One solution is roasted vegetables. Slice vegetables such as Irish potatoes; ‘Ichiban’ eggplant, which is the long, thin kind I prefer to the big globular types; yellow squash; onions; and zucchini. To them add whole green beans that have been de-strung or asparagus, brush everything with olive oil, and roast in the oven until tender. Prepare a large amount, enough so that you can enjoy the veggies hot and have plenty remaining. Cover the leftovers with your favorite vinaigrette and leave in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight. Served atop a lettuce base, these offer a real hot weather treat.
Potatoes are a late spring and summertime offering from the garden that can provide a wide measure of culinary pleasure. Whether offered fried, roasted, mashed, baked, or scalloped, potatoes will, as my Grandpa Joe so often said, “stick to a man’s ribs.” I love them in any form, but for hot weather dining enjoyment, potato salad comes atop my list. From the moment when the gardener gently digs into the side of a few hills in a row to ease out some thin-skinned “new” potatoes, while being careful not to disturb the entire plant, right through to harvest time after the vines have withered and all growth has stopped, the tubers lend themselves to the pure delight of potato salad. The first potatoes of spring nicely coincide with the peak period of egg laying. In my youth, since the family raised chickens, that translated to both the basic ingredients of potato salad being available in abundance.
Here’s how I make it, although there are no precise measurements for the simple reason I don’t use them.
3 to 6 eggs, boiled (depending on your desired quantity)
Potatoes, amounting to 3 to 4 times the volume of eggs
Sweet pickles, to taste
One large Vidalia onion, optional
Mustard and mayonnaise to taste
Salt, pepper, and paprika, to taste
I like to boil my eggs in advance and then set them aside to cool before peeling them. Cut the potatoes into chunks and boil until just tender. Drain and set aside while you peel the eggs. Chop or cut the eggs into pieces in a large bowl, and then add the boiled potatoes.
Cut up sweet pickles to taste (I like a lot of pickles in my salad), and add to the eggs and potatoes. If you like raw onion, chop up a large Vidalia onion and add to the bowl. Add mustard and mayonnaise to taste — I just squeeze mustard out of a container until it looks like enough, add several tablespoons of mayonnaise, and stir everything together. If I need more mayo or mustard, I add it.
Salt and pepper to taste and finish the potato salad with a really hefty sprinkling of paprika. Stir in the paprika, and place the bowl in the fridge to chill.
Salads are grand summer fare, whether of the hearty nature that potatoes offer or healthy ones long on greens but short on “stick to your ribs” durability. Yet few Southern appetites can forgo the wonders of fried food. Use vegetable oil if you must, but for the ultimate treat for all sorts of fried vegetables, streaked meat or streak o’ lean, fatback, middlin’ meat, salt pork, or any of the many names used for this traditional cooking mainstay, is a friend indeed.
While okra can be enjoyed in various ways — stewed, roasted, as a base ingredient in soup or gumbo — it just begs to be battered with cornmeal and fried. Okra and August go together like heat and humidity, but from the first cuttings until frost, it is a crop that bears as few others do. For old-timey fried okra, the kind I enjoyed as a boy and still love today, chop the pods into pieces about ½ to ¾ inch wide. Dip in egg batter, coat with cornmeal, and fry in oil until crisp. The oil needs to be piping hot when the okra is put in the pan; otherwise too much of it is soaked up. Fry okra until it is crispy and not too far removed from burning. Drain briefly on paper towels and serve piping hot.
Another prolific vegetable that lends itself to frying is summer squash. The same is true of its cousin, zucchini. Sliced thin, well dusted with flour, and fried until golden brown and a bit crispy on the edges, squash is pure dining pleasure. However, it can be prepared in other ways that are equally tasty. A personal favorite is stuffed summer squash, and the same basic approach can be taken with zucchini.
Stuffed Summer Squash
1 or 2 yellow crookneck squash, or one small zucchini, per person
Sharp cheddar cheese
Fried bacon bits
Slice squash in half lengthways and cook in the oven just long enough to get them done completely through. Remove and allow to cool before scooping out the small seeds and interior flesh. Mix the scooped material with crumbled cornbread, bacon bits, and maybe a spoonful of bacon grease. Stuff the squash with the cornbread mix and top with cheddar cheese. Bake briefly in oven until the cheese melts and maybe just begins to brown. Serve hot out of the oven.
In closing, we mustn’t forget the stuffing from the squash recipe, that staple of many a meal in summer and indeed year-round — cornbread. Versatile, a pone often formed the basis for a near meatless meal; it was fine served hot or cold; and it often formed a one-course suppertime meal when crumbled into a cold glass of milk or buttermilk. Come summer though, one use that somehow has been widely overlooked is cornbread salad.
Crumble up an individual portion of a pone or fill part of an entire bowl with cornbread. Then chop in a wide variety of raw, fresh veggies such as tomatoes, green peppers, raw onion, squash, zucchini, and cucumber. Follow that with some herbs of your choice, such as parsley, chives, and oregano. Thoroughly stir in mayonnaise or ranch dressing, sprinkle with black pepper, and dig right in. You’ve got some mighty fine eating before you.
These suggestions offer but a tiny sampling of summertime’s savor, but hopefully they will be sufficient to tempt your tastes, maybe lead you down a new culinary path or two, perhaps resurrect warm memories of goodies from Granny’s garden, or infuse your determination to eat local.
Jim Casada’s next book, scheduled for early summer release, focuses on a lifetime of being in love with food — Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir.