“The absolute contact between hand and the earth, the intimacy of it, that is the instinct of a gardener.” – Eudora Welty
Gardens are lovely places, whether simple rows of squash for the family, or fragrant, frothy cottage gardens featuring camellias and hydrangeas. They are life-givers, providing sustenance, beauty and enjoyment in different measure. Whether you’re a gardener out of necessity, or out of a great love for digging into the dirt to create something beautiful, gardening is an indispensable part of our culture and heritage in the South.
Reflecting on the way gardens have been woven through my own life’s story makes me proud. Though working the soil goes back much further, I think of my dad’s parents and their bountiful backyard garden where they grew beans, squash and tomatoes that he still remembers now, at age 91.
He talked recently about the hours he and his six brothers and sisters spent with big enamel bowls on their laps, shelling peas and snapping beans. He said they dreaded doing it, so they learned to shell quickly, ensuring they could go back outside to play as soon as possible. After a day of playing under the hot South Carolina sun, I bet those peas and tomatoes went down well at suppertime.
In the earliest years of my own life, when we lived in North Carolina, we didn’t have much of a garden. I remember potted tomato plants mostly, in addition to flower beds full of petunias and roses. However, we took good advantage of “pick your own” farms and roadside produce stands. Some of my fondest memories are of going to the u-pick strawberry farm near Charlotte, which dad still laughs about, reminding me how I’d go up and down the rows of plump red berries, putting one in my bucket and two in my mouth. I still love those delicious berries!
We moved back to my mom’s home state of Florida in 1976. Once we settled there, we became more avid gardeners, thanks largely in part to my kind, thoughtful grandfather and type-A grandmother, both of whom loved gardening and teaching mom, my sister and me all about it. Grammy, as we called her, loved to plant flowers all around their property on Ponce de Leon Street, where they lived for over a quarter century. She showed us how to prune roses, and taught us hostas and ferns needed to be planted in a good bit of shade. She made borders of day lilies for summertime, and had paperwhites and amaryllis in the winter. There were camellias, gardenias, and a large magnolia tree I’m afraid has been cut down by now in the name of progress after my parents sold the property.
For his part, Granddaddy liked to grow fruit trees and vines. He had a grape arbor overflowing with scuppernongs, a type of muscadine grape native to the South. I still remember how he taught me to squeeze the flesh of the grape out of the thick skin, and to spit out the seeds (so I wouldn’t grow a grapevine in my belly, he teased. I believed him!). He made wine out of his grapes, and Grammy made jelly from some of them.
They also had pear trees and fig trees. I marveled as I watched the fruit develop over time, looking forward to the day we could pick the fruit and have a taste. When the day arrived, I was always disappointed in the hardness of the pears, but I sure did like the way they tasted when packed into a delicious preserve to spread on toast or biscuits in the winter. The fig preserves were so good, too, once you pulled the whole fig out of the jar and smashed it flat on your bread to make a spread. It was interesting, wholesome food. I don’t see people making fig preserves as frequently now, so when I see figs at farmers markets, I snag them to make my own.
My husband, our three sons and I grew hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, vast amounts of purple hull peas and green beans, and seemingly infinite peppers when the boys were in elementary school. Learning how to can the whole tomatoes, pickle the peppers, and freeze the peas and beans properly was quite an education for me, and I love doing it even now that the boys are all on their own. A few times over the years I have managed to be on the receiving end of a big bucket of pears. Of course, I then enjoyed making pear preserves like Grammy’s. It’s always a pleasure to take that very first taste, because it’s the one that sends me flying back in time, back to the ‘70s, when I was learning to make them in that tiny little kitchen on St. Joe Beach by watching Grammy and Mama.
It’s a wonderful part of life, this growing food. It’s not just about eating, though gardens like the one my grandmother in South Carolina had in the backyard were crucial when it came time to feed seven children. It’s also about learning to live off what the earth has to offer, about our history as families and citizens, and about time spent together as family. These traditions are important to me, and I know they are to many of you, too.
Sometimes we take it all for granted, so I ask you to stop for a moment and ponder how many generations back you remember your family members growing food. Do you still grow what they did? If not, maybe it’s time to get your hands back in the dirt, even if it’s just in some old five-gallon buckets full of soil and a few tomato plants. The sense of accomplishment will still be there when you pluck that first tomato and eat it.
Now, once you get your delicious tomatoes, you might want to use some of them to make some old-fashioned tomato-cracker salad, or just cracker salad, as some folks refer to it. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a salad made from the most flavorful in-season tomatoes you can get your hands on, some good mayonnaise (y’all know I love Duke’s) and just a few other ingredients. It is so simple, yet so incredibly delicious. It’s been a favorite of tomato gardeners for many years, and I hope it will become one of yours, too.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email atSteph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.