While her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were cultivating the soil of Southwest Virginia, mine were doing so in East Tennessee. The crops on both sides of the family were similar: Kennebec potatoes, Silver Queen corn, half-runner beans, Rutgers and Big Boy tomatoes, and yellow summer squash.
Just as I treasure the people in my life who cook, play music, read books, and tell stories, I deeply admire those who till the earth, who live by the rhythms of the seasons. Gardeners are giving people. My father operated on the theory that the more he gave away, the better his garden would produce. Often, throughout the course of our careers, the busy lives Jill and I have led have taken us away from that closeness to the earth that our ancestors felt so strongly.
I can remember years when I didn’t have a single ear of garden-fresh corn. This from a person who once ate 10 ears one night as a child, long after dinner, when my parents and I made an evening visit to the cornfield and found that the crop was “coming in.” For our ancestors, having a garden meant eternal hope and optimism.
Even on the bleakest days of winter, there was always a brightly-colored seed catalog on the night stand, reminding our families of the cycle of renewal that would get going all over again at the beginning of an always unpredictable Southern Appalachian springtime. We’ve missed those lost days for too long, and this year, we decided to do something about it. With the help of Custom Gardens/Englewood, we built two raised beds in the back yard.
They were completed on June 29, and by the end of the day on June 30, they were just about full of plants and seeds. We watered, and we watched, every day. By late July, the radish seeds we had planted the last day of June were producing radishes. The Walker Sisters green bean seeds that had been in our freezer for almost eight years sprouted quickly and are now a good six feet tall and full of blooms. Alongside them are Logan Giant green beans, about the same height.
Those seeds were saved for a year, from the annual Lord’s Acre Sale at Hiltons United Methodist Church in Scott County, Virginia. Jill’s late father grew them often. This summer, we began doing exactly what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did: figuring out how to make use of the crop. There have been a lot of ghosts in our kitchen this summer.
I can’t think of a better way to memorialize someone than to cook from an inherited recipe. My maternal grandmother, Edith Ethel Koontz Royall, who died in 1971, was right in the kitchen with me, it seemed, when I made her sausage-stuffed peppers this summer. I remember her insisting that we always save the water the peppers were parboiled in. We made “Posh Squash” a few days later, from a casserole recipe given to us over 18 years ago by our friend Donna Netherland.
She was a first-grade teacher in Elizabethton who died in 2006 at the remarkable age of 101. As those yellow squash kept coming in, I remembered my late mother bringing home a simple recipe from a co-worker at Greene Valley Developmental Center back in the 1970s. It involved cooking squash and onions in butter and finishing off the dish with some sour cream.
Those two raised beds have been a constant source of delight. Every day brings a new surprise — an overlooked zucchini, an eggplant the perfect shade of purple, and Early Girls nearing tomato sandwich stage. And a new seed catalog arrived just last week.
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”