Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
I have written about Ma's garden before and shall not repeat that. If you want to read them, you can look here, here, and here. What I want to talk about tonight is that I have begun harvesting from my own garden recently, and just Monday got the first large tomatoes and purple hull peas. I had been collecting cucumbers for a while.
I garden in a rather unconventional style. For starters, I HATE to hoe and will go to great lengths to avoid it. I do not mind tilling, but my soil was still nice and loose this year and did not even have to do that. At least with tilling, you do it once and are finished for the year.
I had a bit of trouble getting the garden started this year because it was wet in the spring (not as bad as last year). I finally did get it in, though, and my philosophy has changed considerably since I first started gardening living alone.
First, I only grow things that I use a lot of or are hard to find in good condition locally or are expensive to buy. That means that I focus on tomatoes (I can eat the heck out of fresh, vine ripened tomatoes, and can them for cooking use for later), okra (hard to find in good condition), and purple hull peas (impossible to find locally in any condition).
This year, for the first time, I planted cucumbers. I have never really been a big cucumber fan, but The Girl and The Little Girl love them, so I planted a couple of hills. Since the two of them and I have been eating them together, I have developed quite a taste for them, but they still have to have some salad dressing on them to be good.
Tomatoes are a staple for me, and I really dislike the commercial varieties that are available at the store. They are bred to have tough skins and hard flesh so that they can be shipped without too much damage. They are often picked before their peak, also to make them easier to ship. I plant heirloom varieties (this year Red Beefsteak and another whose name escapes me at the moment) and let them ripen on the vine. I also plant one plant of cherry tomatoes just to pop in my mouth.
Heirloom tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, colors, and flavors. Most of them tend to be thinner skinned than store tomatoes and to have softer and more luscious fruit. Yes, tomatoes are fruit rather than vegetables, but are treated in cooking as vegetables. Actually, there is a court decision around 100 years old that defines tomatoes as vegetables. Some cat was trying to import them as fruit at a lower tariff, and the courts found that even though they be botanical fruits, their culinary use is more consistent with vegetables so the higher tariff was justified.
My grandmum always grew red oxheart tomatoes, and next season I am going to try to find seeds for them. Once someone from the Seed Sharers group sent me a few, but I have lost them. Perhaps that person is still reading and would be so kind as to send more. After oxhearts went out of fashion she would raise Arkansas Travelers, but they were not as good and were more pink than red. I like a really red tomato. By the way, just like apple cider, canned tomatoes are better if you combine at least two different varieties in the final mix because of the fact that a single variety has its good points but lacks other flavor nuances, and that is corrected by mixing. Ideally I like to use four varieties, but two will do.
I use so little paste that it is more economical for me to buy cans of tomato paste from the store. The electricity required to cook it down, combined with the cost for lids for half pint jars, make it cheaper to buy the ready canned stuff. Tomato paste is almost exclusively made from Roma type tomatoes, so mixing varieties is not so important. The lid alone from a can that would cost 19 cents at the store costs about 12 cents, and that does not even include the time and electricity costs to cook tomato puree down to paste.
Quartered tomatoes are another story. I have a plethora of storage jars, mostly pint ones. Since it costs little energy to use the water bath on pint jars, I get away with spending only about 15 cents per pint of quartered (or diced) tomatoes. I win on that one, and I use much more of those kind than I use paste. I have not found a good use for commercial tomato sauce yet.
Neither is it economical for me to can tomato juice. I am not a big fan of plain tomato juice, but rather prefer the boosted taste of products like V-8. By the time that I bought the other ingredients to can it, I would be losing money. Besides, at only one eight ounce glass per day, it would just not pay to can it. That is another product better to be bought.
Okra is quite different. I detest canned okra! It is slimy, nasty, and bland. There are only two ways that I enjoy okra: fried and in gumbo. The prebreaded okra that you find at the store in the freezer section is evil. First, the slices are way too thick, and it is slimy or, if you cook it long enough to get rid of that, burnt. Besides, it is more breading than okra. Here is how to enjoy really good fried okra.
Take very fresh okra (four inch or less in length pods) and slice them into about 3/16th inch slices. Then separate those slices by hand as you add them to an excess of white corn meal (my grandmum, for some reason, disdained yellow corn meal and her prejudice has stayed with me) seasoned with salt and black pepper. Make sure that the slices are coated on all sides. Then fry them in a large skillet in oil mixed with at least a little bacon grease (the quintessential southern spice) until nice and brown but not blackened at all. Better a little underdone than black and bitter! Drain on absorbent paper in a slow oven and serve piping hot. The trick is to cook it long enough for the Maillarid browning reactions to give it flavor, which, combined with the bacon grease, is wonderful. When young, small pods are used the slime is converted to sugar and it is wonderful. Using old pods from the store, days old, lots of the okra becomes woody, and nothing can make woody okra taste well or have good mouth feel.
Okra is not very demanding except for two things. First, you have to cut it at least every other day, depending on how many plants you have. If you have more than four or so, you have to cut it every afternoon. Okra pods grow at a remarkable rate when days and nights are hot! Do not let them get more than about four inches long or you will be disappointed! They get woody. Second, wear gloves and long sleeves! If you do not, you are apt to scratch yourself silly an hour after you cut it ( I do mean cut, because if you pull it you damage the stalk). Okra plants have protective hairs or spikes, and I once watched my mum go almost insane from the irritation from contacting the leaves and stems with bare arms.
I guess that there is a third thing, and that here in the Bluegrass there is one pest that attacks okra, the Japanese beetle. Whence I come, those pests are unknown, but they are established here. They attack the leaves and can do lots of damage. I use organic insecticides, mostly rotenone, to combat them. By the way, this material has been associated with Parkinson's disease in humans, so put it only on the leaves and stay upwind from it. Wash you hands well after handling it also.
But I think that most folks are more interested in purple hull peas. Actually, they are a variety of black eyed peas, which are in turn one of the cow pea family and closely related to Chinese mung beans that many of us love for their great sprouts. They are great! I like black eyed peas OK, but they are not very special. Purple hull peas are much sweeter and have many more taste nuances than normal black eyed peas. Here is a picture of some ready to pick and some still green.
I plant heirloom varieties every year, so I always have a supply of seeds. They are extremely hardy, and only about 1% of the pods show any insect damage. I never use any pesticides on them. I do have to move the area where I grow them in the garden every couple of years to prevent root borne disease. But other than that, they are easy and prolific.
I picked my first crop Monday past, and they look great! I have only 16 feet of row, and got a lot, and more to come today, if I have not picked them yet (I am writing on Monday). These are just great.
They have to have something on which to climb. I use a 16 foot long section of reinforcement mesh with a six inch holes (the same that I use for the tomatoes and cucumbers) so that it is easy to reach through it to pick the pods. They are unique in that they tell you when they are ripe by turning from green with a tinge of reddish hue to completely purple when ready.
Last night (Tuesday) I shelled out the peas then blanched, chilled, and froze them. Since I live alone I normally freeze them in sandwich bags, using 3/4 cup or so in each bag. Then I put those into large freezer bags so I can just get a single serving or pull out more then one small bag if I want more.
I like purple hull peas cooked past what most people consider done. Once again, bacon grease is the preferred seasoning, along with salt and pepper. For ones that I have blanched and frozen I normally add a little sugar to replace what was extracted from the blanching, but fresh ones do not need that. I like to add a little crushed cayenne pepper as well. Then I cook them at the simmer with the lid on the pot until they get really soft. Then I get a couple of spoonsful and put them on the plate, then mash them with a fork. Next I take some of the pot liquor and stir it into the mashed peas, and top the whole thing with yet more peas. With cornbread or pone and a glass of milk, they can make a meal.
I remember sending a packet of purple hull seeds to the late Kossack Ben Masel several years ago. I had written about them on What's for Dinner? back when I contributed at lot to it (I have an upcoming installment on 20120811, by the way) and Ben contacted me about them. I am happy to have been able to send him some.
I told you earlier that I garden somewhat unconventionally, and I do. Since I abhor hoeing, after tilling I take black plastic sheeting and lay it down for a mulch. I put small holes in the sheeting where the plants or seeds will go and that is that. The exception is the peas because you have to plant so many of them. For those I take the sheeting and almost butt two sides together, leaving a few inches of gap to drill the seeds into the ground. The few weeds that come up are easy to hand pull until the peas get big enough to choke them.
The sheeting works wonders. In addition to preventing weeds, any rain that falls on the garden is channeled right to the roots of the plants. It also prevents evaporation, so except for when I am starting the plants I rarely have to water. We went through a severe hot and dry spell a couple of weeks ago and I did not have to water at all.
That about does it for the piece for tonight. I realize that it is not about growing up in a small town, but it always brings back memories to me of growing up because Ma always kept a garden. When I am in the garden, I am ten years old again, picking fresh and good things for her that she and my mum would turn into the most delicious meals.
Please comment about your experiences growing up, whether or not in a little town. I enjoy reading them, and so do other readers.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith