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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peppers in Mississippi don’t carry the same cachet they do in parts of Louisiana and Carolina where their cultivation and consumption has become a fetish.
That’s not to say that we don’t have our share of connoisseurs here, for indeed we do, even eccentrics who will trot you out to a raised bed in their back yard in order that you might make appropriately appreciative noises over their ghosts. You’ll even find reapers and habaneros at a farmers’ market which I find more evident of their ease of culture than their demand for the table.
The staples prevail. Topmost are the thick-walled bells, best smaller than a fist, dark and tight. Country-style lunches should always include the crunch and zest of fresh sliced onion and sweet banana pepper to cut fat-stewed vegetables. Jalapenos here tend to be woody with more heat than taste, but deseeded and minced they’ll serve in a pico or pureed in a thin salsa. Poblanos should have a larger role in our kitchens, as should all the mild thin-walled capsicums. The thick-walled cherries are regrettably still a novelty.
The Mississippi pepper season begins in earnest when the thin cayennes come to market, as they did today in the form of two mesh baskets filled with spindly green pods marked to sell for a dollar each. At such a price my jaw dropped. The vendor, apologizing (!) said she’d have red ones soon, which she’s sure to mark up, but the greens are just as good if not more so, even dried. We’re finding less and less of the long cayennes now, so if you find a vendor, woo them, fawn and flatter, because cayennes will get you through the winter in the form of sauce or vinegar. Tabascos will too, and they grow well here, in my experience better than cayennes. The meatier tabascos make a better mash for red sauce, but both are equally good simply destemmed, pierced, packed into a jar with salt and filled with hot vinegar.
For two years now I’ve been growing pequinos first sent as a cropped plant from a friend in Austin. In the landscape of my mind where all sorts possibilities entertain themselves, the fiery little pequin is what I remember called a bird’s-eye pepper, not the Asian variety. Pequinos grow at a glacial rate from seed so must be pruned and overwintered.