Practical Primavera

“America’s grandest contribution to the pasta repertoire,” pasta primavera was invented in New York at Le Cirque in 1977. According to the ineffable Craig Claiborne, primavera soon became “by far the most talked-about dish in Manhattan”. The dish is today cliché, but remains a good standard for the home kitchen.

A simple dish, primavera is pasta with early vegetables in a cream reduction; think of it as an alfredo by Monet. Sauté cooked pasta–most people use spaghetti or fettuccine, but I prefer a vermicelli or angel hair–and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat. Season lightly with salt and pepper, add heavy cream, and simmer until cream begins to thicken. Toss with a grated hard cheese, and plate with a sprightly garnish.

The Guerilla Gallimaufrian

I call him Sir Yancy; he comes back, in a lighthearted reference to his North Mississippi upbringing, with “Earl of Calhoun, Knight of the Linoleum Table.”  But we both agree, for how he has transformed an empty urban abandonment into a both beloved and maligned oasis, that Jesse Lee Yancy III is Guerilla Gardener Extraordinaire.

In 2007, Jesse started a corner flower and vegetable garden, cautiously low-key, on neglected property near his small apartment building. On land that he didn’t own. It’s called guerilla gardening – gardening on someone else’s property. Nothing can stop the owners of the space from taking a mower to it, any time. But for years, nothing had been done in the weedy, 5- or 6-foot wide space baking between the street curb and an unused, shaded parking lot. With a “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” shrug, he stood up a chipped old birdbath and dug a few flowers, vegetables, and culinary herbs into the hard clay.

We crossed paths soon afterwards, following several of his somewhat pointed emails about my thoughts on the legality of what he was doing (including planting cotton other than on a real farm, forbidden by state law).

Turns out, Jesse, whose conversational face belies a fierce advocacy spirit (social issues, saving trees at a local park), is not your run-of-the-mill dabbler. He puts physical, mental, and spiritual effort into his insecure garden, just as he brings his university literature background to virtual pen in his prolific blog about…well, everything Southern, including beloved writers, classic Southern cuisine, heirloom plants, social relations, and local history and lore. What he quickly developed became as good an example of garden gallimaufry as you will find, a mulched horticopia of Southern heirloom plants and cast-off broken objets trouvé.

From the street, as with most maverick gardens, it appears a chaotic tumble of flowers, vegetables, herbs, and tropical plants, patches of seedlings tucked between withered wildflowers whose seed are drying for next year, vine-covered arches and trellises, assorted containers including inverted tires, unkempt piles of soil, compost, and mulch, and rough little walkways winding through it all. However, after just a short chat with its creator, its long-view sensibilities are revealed.

“My little corner of the world is, as one person put it, a ‘garden of the moment’ as if there were such a thing. And while I’ve learned a lot from other gardeners, most of the best lessons I’ve discovered the hard way, by screwing up and having to correct them.”

“I started the garden after the death of my last remaining sibling left me at loose s, as a form of therapy more than anything. Over time it has helped me regain focus – gardening is a patient art, and it makes you slow down and look at things. It also helps you learn how to care, to think outside yourself. The garden grew slowly, and it’s probably better that I don’t have a truck or equipment because that has taught me to use what I can find: fallen leaves, sticks, pieces of broken concrete, discarded lumber and wire. I work with what the world provides.”

When it came to choices of where to grow plants, Jesse had three choices: Containers, dense Yazoo clay, or raised beds atop hard concrete paving.

His pots are filled with whatever potting soil he can get help hauling. The hard clay is hand-dug as deep as practical, the hard clods broken up and mixed with leaves, bark, and compost, with each digging and planting getting easier.  Atop the concrete of the parking lot, he shaped beds with logs and tree limbs, and filled in with more limbs, branches, leaves, and whatever else he could glean, topped with compost. It’s an ancient practice called hügelkultur – mound culture, which is ideal for difficult or dry sites; as these materials break down in his moist, humid climate they become decent soil. Takes time but works like a cheap charm.

As he puts it, “It’s a lot like cooking, starting with the most basic potato and gravy ingredients and building on that. I’m not a GREAT cook; worked as a journeyman chef for 14 years but I’m not one of these geniuses you read about being in the foodie press. I do, however, know what will work and won’t work in most any given situation. Same with my garden, unsophisticated with its pell-mell plants of anything hither and thither that will grow. Having said that, I am proud of its success in having even become a garden in the first place. And though my resources are quite limited, I’m very proud of my little pied a terre.”

From midwinter antique daffodils to late Autumn asters, Jesse grows an astounding menagerie of unusual plants, both tall and short. Black castor bean and brown cotton lock in a season-long pas de deux amidst the swirling ballroom of burgundy okra, bright red roselle, edible greens – mustards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, and colorful lettuces – and all-season wildflowers. He also provides a safe refuge for faded poinsettias, Easter lilies, and other cast-off holiday plants, often creating seasonal hedges with them. It’s partly possible because, tiny as the garden is, Jesse knows exactly where the sunny areas stay moist longer than others, how much shade is acceptable for sun plants and how much sun shade plants can tolerate.

“I’ve discovered to start big annuals like cosmos, peppers, and sunflowers in small containers and transplant rather than scatter-sowing and thinning. It gives the spring flowers time to bloom out and give up some room. And when the cold comes I cover cardoon and fledgling hollyhocks, since they’re in the path of the rolling frost that flows down Peachtree street and leaps over the hill into my garden.    I’ve come to the belated conclusion there THERE’S NO HURRY. I mean, good grief, we have 9 month growing season here, and I’ve finally stocked the space with enough pretty perennials (however run-of-the-mill they might be) not to have to worry about getting the annuals in when the daffodils bloom. It’s a constant struggle, finding room for everything and making room for new. Not to put too fine a point on it, anything that’s in my bed for six months and doesn’t put out simply has to go!”

The plants in Jesse’s garden are curious phenomenon in the bigger picture as well. It’s an informal corner-of-the-world test plot for what the international Slow Food Foundation calls the Ark of Taste which collects and celebrates the sometimes-obscure food plants that help define cultures. Southerners, think “moon and Stars” watermelon and its pickles, white-fleshed Nancy Hall sweet potato, and white velvet okra. Jesse showcases and shares some of these prized culinary rarities as a way of helping stem the ebbing away of the extraordinary traditions of which they are part.

To highlight just one, there’s his unknown garlic he calls Pocahontas. “When a friend from Pocahontas dropped off his garlic for my garden all these many years ago, he piled the dried knobby stems in a haybale near the parking lot wall, and ever since then I’ve had Pocahontas garlic coming up there. In the late winter the leaves, all lovely to behold, nod like old men in a spring sun. It’s a tough plant, always late no matter where you plant it (at least it is for me) but keeps going and is prolific.”

“My corner garden is very much a passalong garden, not only because I don’t have a lot of money but also because the garden was designed from the beginning to be a “mother ship” for neighboring gardens. People can pass by and browse, and they share plants and seeds. Most times this simple act of sharing is the beginning of a friendship, and more often than not the friendships last longer than the plants.”

Jesse shares much of his largesse with neighbors, helping newbies get started, and donating extra plants to local plant sales. But in a determined nod to keeping on the good side of everyone, he takes it a step farther. Jesse’s community has informal libraries – colorful weatherproof stands where neighbors freely drop off and borrow books from one another. But for years Jesse has pioneered the “little corner herbary” concept in which he carefully places culinary herbs where neighbors can snip a little rosemary, oregano, or whatever they need.

“Height and color are primary visual objectives when it comes to street traffic, but scents, and something good to eat, can quickly pull pedestrians in and get hooked. Especially children.”

“It’s not entirely altruistic, just to keep these plants and practices alive with new people; if I don’t make the corner a neighborhood resource then there’s every chance of losing it to someone’s vapid idea of a ‘neighborhood improvement’ project. The more people touch and eat from my garden, the more learn to love it.”

“I come from a small town in north Mississippi where people are habitually friendly and cordial. But here in the city, people walking their dogs or strolling their kids don’t greet me while I’m puttering in the garden. A few passersby will stop and chat a bit, but many just nod or wave, maybe tarry a bit to watch me digging, weeding or pruning, without saying a damn thing, just stand there and stare at me. Some discuss what I’m doing between themselves as if I were some sort of deaf automaton. I find this very strange; am I crazy?”

“Also, a lot of earnest folks who come by give advice, want to micro-manage the garden for me, and I’m grateful for sure. Luckily it’s easy for me to feign that I had no idea that “four-o’-clocks or goldenrod can get away from you in a heartbeat.” I have to smile and agree, then go on with what I was doing. They also give me art to put in place, gnomes and pretty rocks and old trellises and all sorts of sundry things. I’ve had to find a place for everything, because they’re going to come looking for whatever they gave you one day.”

“Roger Swain, the Boston native and host of the Victory Garden, once said, ‘Mississippi IS a garden.’ And he was right. The problem is, it’s not being cared for. I simply found a piece and started caring for it. It wasn’t my piece of Mississippi, but that’s what guerilla gardening is all about: Gardening on someone else’s property. If the city ever decides to rework the neighborhood street, my garden might be paved. It’s been fun, but sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world). Meanwhile, things grow apace. You know of my vast plans, conquering what I can one foot at a time. It’s been a lot of effort; my old body is displaying aches unknown for many years, but frankly I feel the better for it, as evidence of physical competency if nothing else.”

“I’m determined to let things run their course, grow and flourish as they will and should, and I’ve already concocted new projects that will make the most use of it.”

(from the book, Maverick Gardeners, by Felder Rushing (UPressMS: March 2021)

What a Sundial Should Say

The story goes that Samuel Goldwyn was walking in a garden and came upon an unfamiliar object. “What’s that?” he asked the gardener.
“A sundial,” the gardener responded.
“What’s it for?” asked Goldwyn.
“It tells time by the sun,” the gardener replied.
“My God!” Goldwyn said. “What’ll they think of next?”

Goldwyn was famous for his malapropisms, which eventually came to be known as Goldwynisms (“Keep a stiff upper chin.”; “Include me out.”), but this tale about him not knowing what a sundial is must surely be an invention. Sundials are among the oldest forms of timekeeping, and over time they have become something of an art form in themselves. In 1872, Mrs. Alfred Garry published the exhaustive Book of Sun-Dials, which includes sundials from across the globe from the earliest times, either attached (to a building) or detached (stand-alone). As decorative as they are instrumental, it’s unsurprising that a great many sundials find their way into gardens, where, in a tacit refutation of Berkeley, they mark the passing hours among nodding flowers and bumbling bees.

My garden boasts a sundial, a single pillar topped with a bronze face. I found the dial some years ago on a neighboring property belonging to the same company that owns my apartment building. When I called them up to ask them if I could move it into my garden, they said, “What sundial?” Thinking quickly, I said I must have dialed the wrong number, hung up, and with considerable effort involving a rope and a wheelbarrow, moved the heavy pillar a half-block down the street to my herb bed, where it stands today.

The face on my dial is worn and has no gnomon. Take note, people: you can buy a sundial face with a gnomon, but not a gnomon without a face. It also has a rather trite motto: “Tempus Fugit.” Mrs. Garry’s book lists no less than 1,682 mottoes. They all have something to do with aging, the ephemerality of life, or the movement of the heavens. This year, I’ve vowed to have a new face made for my sundial, complete with an ornate (yet accurate) gnomon, and upon it, I am going to have inscribed those immortal words that taught my generation about the movement of time:

It’s just a jump to the left . . .

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in their doorways.

 

Existential Tomatoes

If you’ve ever gone out to the garden, picked a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and bit into it right there on the spot atop God’s good earth with the cloying tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm waves of sunshine on your face, then you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for you have achieved an existential union with tomato-in-the-world as opposed to that picture in a seed catalogue. (Or maybe that’s an essential union; I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took the class in the first place, meaning I might have passed after all.)

Vegetables prepared for the table straight from the soil are a hallmark of great Southern dinners; a luscious home-grown tomato, simply sliced and served on a plate, usually with a fragrant cantaloupe and maybe a dewy cucumber are signature elements of any summer meal. While you’re on the road summer and see produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by and getting to know the people. These are classes you’ll remember.

Get Cereus

Just the other day, a neighbor told me that his night-blooming cereus—which of course was just weighed down with buds—was given to him by his grandmother, who had lived in Greenville, and she had gotten her “start” from Chestina Welty at a garden club gathering in Jackson. Since moving to Jackson twenty years ago, I’ve heard variations of this story ad nauseum every summer from every Tom, Dick and Harriet I run into. Most people will tell you that Eudora gave a cereus cutting to their mother/aunt/sister/nelly uncle, or will say they got it from someone else who did. Indeed, to admit—as I often do—that your “Queen of the Night” is of dubious lineage is to label oneself an unwashed member of the hoi polloi. You’ll find that the Welty night-blooming cereus mimics the properties of the True Cross, whose fragments once proliferated throughout Christendom in every church, chapel, and monastery. Of course, we can’t fault the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for peddling the Welty cereus rather much like the Borgia papacy did Holy Splinters; they have to get those leaks repaired in the Two Museums somehow. In the end, however, we really must admit that we can’t possibly be certain that any one cereus coming into bloom in Mississippi is really, honestly, a blue-blood Welty or just some pass-along white trash epiphyllum.

Tomatoes Before the Bench

That the tomato came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court underscores its vital importance not only as a culinary staple and a cultural icon, but also as a commodity. This 19th century decision defines the status of the tomato in the American legal system, a ruling that brings the court at odds with science, but in concord with commerce.

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit, a berry. In 1887, tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables, but not on fruits. Some smart lawyer (we find occasional evidence of these fabled creatures) representing commercial interests and Mother Nature Herself filed a case for the tomato as a fruit.

Alas, on May 10, 1893, in Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled–unanimously–that based use and popular perception, under customs regulations the tomato is a vegetable. The holding applies only to the legal interpretation; the justices affirmed the court’s limitations by not purporting to reclassify the tomato for other purposes.

Mrs. Horrell’s Paperwhites

North Street is broad and level, making for an easy, leisurely walk. Along the street are a couple of old apartment buildings and old homes that are now businesses. Farther south, one finds uninspired, banal state office buildings, terminating in the triple atrocity of the MDAH compound. Bill Harvey says the avenue was once lined with homes whose splendor was second only to those along North State Street. Today, the only private residence on the street belongs to the Horrells. The house was built in 1920; now a “For Sale” sign is planted before the front door.

For the many years I have walked from my home on Poplar down North Street to the Welty Library, Mrs. Horrell’s narcissus have been a delight to me. The narcissus are the earliest in the city to bloom, coaxed out of the ground by the weak sun of mid-winter. Most people refer to these flowers as paperwhites, though ‘Paperwhite’ is actually the name of a variety of Narcissus tazetta Mrs. Horrell has, along with ‘Grand Monarque’ and the fragrant double ‘Erlicheer.’ She also has several types of large yellow narcissus many know as daffodils, a few clumps of blue-and-violet bearded irises, and gnarled, ancient rosemarys. Mrs. Horrell told me the narcissus lining her front walk came from her grandmother, who received hers from a friend or relative decades before.

The area has been zoned commercial, so once the property is sold, the house will be razed, and the in-place plantings will be lost. Developers’ architects view landscaping as ancillary or incidental, and plantings in-place are expendable. The new developments on Manship obliterated a dozen or more varieties of iris, narcissus, azaleas, and old pass-along ornamentals. The landscaping of the new dining venues is attractive in a bland, generic way, but historic plantings help define the character of a neighborhood and deserve to be left in place and cherished.

You can still find old plantings struggling beneath mats of Asian jasmine throughout the city. Two Novembers ago, we freed an old street corner of choking vines, weeds, and rotting wood, built up beds and loosened the dirt. In March, along the edges of our work, the old double daffodil, ‘Butter and Eggs,’ an authentic Southern heirloom and folk favorite, came barreling out of the Yazoo clay, and they’re blooming again today. Our earth remembers what we forget.

The Year of the Trendy Whatevers–Felder Rushing

Just got another email alert about a plant being promoted alluringly as the 2020 Something of the Year. There’s always something.

I don’t generally fall for hype or jump on costly bandwagons that often fizzle. One I do follow is that of the Pantone Color of the Year. Not trying to be fashionable; I humor myself with it to keep my creativity on its toes by painting something in my garden with it and finding plants, pots, and accessories that coordinate with it. This year it’s Classic Blue. Ought to be fun.

My recent Plant of the Year email was from the Herb Society of America, feting “brambles” as this year’s highlight. Not just black, dew, or raspberries, but all of them. And to think of all the wild ones I pull every year by the Sisyphean gloveful from my garden! Not trying to be testy. I appreciate the sincerity and dedication of people who carefully winnow down the field, carefully examine the best contenders, and adopt a singular frontrunner to cheerily champion.

Usually the plant of honor meets multiple criteria such as proven survivability in a wide range of conditions with insect and disease resistance, exceptional beauty or extra good or long production, and unique growth habit; “pollinator friendly” is a current buzz phrase. And, cynicism aside, it isn’t always just a coordinated marketing ploy to push sales of a pricey new cultivar. Sometimes it’s a genuine effort to reignite a flame of popular interest under a precious heirloom or native plant worth being reintroduced into gardens.

The Mississippi Medallion program brings such plants to our attention but, unlike national promotions, promotes only those that are adapted to our state’s climate and soils and which could be produced and sold by Mississippi growers and retailers. For the most part they are all keepers, though a few are a bit tricky for newbie gardeners or are no longer being widely produced. You can find these outstanding shrubs, flowers, veggies, and others listed, with photos and descriptions, on the website of the Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association (MSNLA.org; click on “programs” then Medallion Plants). Though over the years my garden has become overstuffed with plants brought to my attention through these kinds of promotions, so I farm new ones out.

My neighbor Jesse Yancy is a “guerilla gardener” who has transformed a neglected slice of dirt across from his urban apartment into a nearly overwhelming gallimaufry of vegetables, herbs, flowers, vines, bulbs, and anything else he can glean cheaply or free. They’re obliged to be robust because, though he’s a nurturing gardener he doesn’t have the resources or time to coddle. So I often hand over to him any newly-heralded plants that have been sent or given to me by promoters, and then watch from his curb. If they thrive in Jesse Lee’s conditions, and wows him with their performance, then I’ll give ‘em a go in my own garden the next year. Some favorites, such as African Blue basil, Tuscan kale, orange Profusion zinnias, Burgundy okra, blackeyed Susan vine, and the antique Mutablis rose, have become mainstays for us both, and are spreading amongst neighbors – a true indicator of long-haul success.

As for the herb society’s latest plant celebrity, I’m gonna pass. I usually wait for my wild dewberries to flower before I pull them, partly for the pretty and partly for pollinators, but leave just enough come back every year to keep this seasonal dance going without becoming too onerous.

Not being untrendy-grouchy, I just don’t want 2020 to become the Year A Trendy Plant Ate My Garden.

On Buying Tomatoes

Once tomatoes shed their reputation for poison, they became the most versatile vegetable in American kitchens. While tomatoes are available year-round any fool knows that they’re best in season and locally grown. Any produce vendor in the American South is going to keep at least one big bin usually right up front and center full of field tomatoes grown by small truck farmers and delivered every morning. When you’re buying from one of these people–and it’s the only place you should buy tomatoes in the summer–it’s hard to go wrong, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

Use your common sense. Choose uniformly firm fruit, without any squishy spots, bruises or dark spots. The most commonly-grown field tomatoes in central Mississippi and likely throughout the mid-South are Big Boy, Better Boy, Celebrity and (Arkansas) Traveler, all of which are more or less red-ish the Traveler tending to pink. Most of the old-school produce vendors will occasionally have “cherry” tomatoes of some kind or the other in season, but you’ll have to find markets that support specialty growers, such as the Mississippi Farmers’ Market, to get the varieties such as Cherokee, Krim or any of the various yellows. You can of course always get good green tomatoes for pickling or frying.

Remember that the tomato is a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (i.e. become softer and sweeter) after harvest. The biochemical process involved is that climacteric fruits give off large amounts of ethylene gas whereas non-climacteric fruits give little or no ethylene gas. Non-climacteric fruits, once harvested, never ripen further; you can find an extensive list here.  Tomatoes sold in the winter and for the most part any sold in big chain supermarkets are picked green and “gassed”, sprayed with ethylene during shipping, which forces coloration, but not sugar production. When you buy from the produce stand, however, pick a few to use immediately and a few on not-quite-ripe side to ripen naturally on your kitchen shelf. Turn the tomatoes stem-end down to ripen, since the blossom end will mature first and the firm stem end will better support the fruit.

You shouldn’t have to refrigerate unsliced summer tomatoes at all. If you don’t stack them, they’ll keep for several days, and you should eat them at such a pace that they don’t need refrigeration. Remember with every bite you take that autumn will be here all too soon, and winter right behind.