Čapek’s Gardener’s Prayer

Some know Karel Čapek as a seven-time Nobel nominee, but most remember him as the man who gave us the word “robot”. Among Čapek’s more endearing works is The Gardener’s Year (1929), a learnéd, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek depiction of the enduring, eccentric gardener, including a “Gardener’s Prayer” that’s more of a demand for Eden than a supplication. This illustration from the accompanying pages was drawn by his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek.

 O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak in; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthus, lavender, and others which You in Your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants-I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like-and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on the gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron) and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no lice or snails, or mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.

The Existential Tomato

If you’ve never enjoyed the sensation of going out to the garden, picking a beautiful, ripe tomato (of whatever variety) and eating it right there on the spot atop of God’s good earth with the tang of that tomato plant in your nose and the warm sunshine on your face, then you’ve never had a tomato at it’s best. If you have, then you can truly say, “I know what a tomato is,” for then you have achieved an existential union with tomato-ness.

(Or maybe that’s an essential union; I forget the distinction. I think I flunked existentialism at Ole Miss, though I’m not really sure I took it in the first place, which means I might have passed the course 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 good, dewy cucumber (all slightly chilled with a mint garnish) is a signature addition to any summer meal.

I consider a ripe tomato the crowning glory of Southern vegetables, but everybody has their own favorite; some advocate summer squash, others favor fresh beans and peas, and still others extol sweet corn. Some eccentric souls even champion okra or eggplant. But even back in the Bad Old Days when most of the country ate out of a can or from the frozen food section, people in the South knew to get their vegetables from gardens, and if they didn’t have a friend or relative they could help out by weeding and hoeing for some of the returns, they could get fine vegetables from the truck gardens and produce stands along the byways.

So when you’re out on the road this summer and you see little produce stands with signs written on brown cardboard with a magic marker, do yourself a favor by stopping by and spending a little time and a little money getting to know the foods of the South and the people who make them.

The Cereus Society

Eloquence and concision is rare in academic writers, but Suzanne Marrs achieves it with aplomb in her passage about Eudora’s gay circle of the ‘30s.

Though she would join the Junior League in deference to her friends who were already members, Eudora’s interests were rather different and her circle of friends more wide-ranging. Four young men were particularly important to her, and all were iconoclastic sorts. Nash Burger had returned to Jackson from the University of the South and had become a teacher at Central High School, Lehman Engel summered in Jackson while he was studying at Juilliard, Hubert Creekmore was back in residence after attending the Yale School of Drama, and Frank Lyell visited during his summer vacations from Princeton.

During summers of the early thirties, the group gathered frequently at the Welty house to drink and talk and laugh and listen to music—literature and the theater and the New York scene filled their conversations, and they loved hearing both classical music and jazz. They also engaged in activities that Lehman eventually labeled “camp.” When Jackson ladies, for instance, advertised that their night-blooming cereuses would be in flower on a given night and invited one and all to witness the annual bloomings, Eudora and her friends attended.

They went on to name themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club and took as their motto a slightly altered line from a Rudy Vallee song: “Don’t take it cereus (sic), Life’s too mysterious.” Years later, in The Golden Apples, Eudora would use the “naked, luminous, complicated flower” as an emblem of life’s beauty and its fragility, and she would have a character repeat what one Jackson lady had said about the cereus bloom, “Tomorrow it’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”

But at the time, none of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club members anticipated such symbolic implications of their activities. For them the cereus was and remained an emblem of good fellowship, of the pleasure imaginative individuals could share if they embraced the world around them.

Yellow-Meated Watermelons

While working in a Florida restaurant, I kept having trouble ordering a yellow-meated watermelon from my produce guy. He said he could never find one, even though I’d seen them in local markets. Finally it came out that with my heavy hill country Mississippi accent he thought I was ordering a melon from some mythical specialty locale in California: “Jala Meadad”.

He even wrote it down that way on his order forms.

Here in the Deep South yellow-meated season is short; you’ll rarely find them marketed before July or after August, and you’ll almost never find them sold in supermarkets, usually only at roadside produce stands.

The variety of yellow meats I find most often here in central Mississippi has broad dark green and light green stripes, though over in Clay County, Alabama, where they have the Clay County Yellow Meated Watermelon Festival, the eponymous variety is an almost uniform light green.

The flesh can range from pale yellow to deep gold. The best contain large brownish black seeds, seeds being an essential ripening agent for the fruit, whose flavor I find sweeter than the reds, offering notes of honey, apricot, and vanilla.

The Cryptid Creole

The Creole tomato has long enjoyed a storied reputation in the South. Here is a typical paean from Howard Mitcham’s Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz:

“The large, vine-ripened Creole tomato is one of the glories of Louisiana cooker. Creole tomatoes have a pronounced acid flavor and are used to make delicious sauces, stews, gumbos, and so on. In fact, the very term, “à la Creole” usually denotes a tomato sauce of some sort, and when it’s made with fresh Creole tomatoes, its flavor will be distinctive.”

In addition to a rich, distinctive flavor, the Creole tomato has a reputation for being able to produce fruit in the intense heat and humidity of summers in the Deep South, when nighttime temperatures in excess of 70 degrees make most tomato varieties subject to blossom drop and unable to bear fruit.

Traditionally, farmers in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes marketed their tomatoes as Creole, claiming that tomatoes grown in the rich alluvial soil created a unique flavor that et their tomatoes apart from others. But these farmers didn’t plant a single variety, and the seeds they saved and passed along to other gardeners as “Creole” were a mélange.

In 1969, LSU AgCenter researcher Teme Hernandez released a tomato variety named Creole, but it was not a variety commonly grown in St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Hernandez described his Creole tomato as having a medium-sized, deep red fruit with some resistance to fusarium wilt. But likely because of its poor production—less than six pounds per plant—the AgCenter did not maintain a seed stock of Hernandez’s Creole.

To demonstrate the variations in Creole tomatoes, LSU AgCenter researchers grew a demonstration plot of “Creole tomatoes” in spring 2015. Creole tomato seed was sourced from 11 companies. Only seed named “Creole” or described as the 1969-released Creole was purchased. Seed was sown on January 14, 2015. Seedlings were hardened off outdoors one week prior to trans­planting.

On March 24, 2015, the Creole tomato seedlings were planted at the AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden. The plants continued to produce beyond July; however, data collection ended in late June in order to present information to the Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association members at the annual field day. The top three producing Creole tomatoes were sourced from Organic Seeds Direct (Amazon), Naylor’s Hardware in Baton Rouge, and TomatoFest.

Seed sources had 88 percent, 74 percent and 82 percent marketable yields, respectively. Marketable tomatoes were free from cracks, bruises and evidence of disease, insect, or environmental injury. Individual fruit size ranged from 4.2- to 7.8-ounces. Yield per plant was poor, ranging from three to six pounds.

Though Creole has become a marketing term for any tomato grown in Louisiana as well as for many tomatoes that claim to be tolerant of high temperatures, tomatoes labeled Creole are not of the same variety, and almost certainly not sourced from St. Bernard, Plaquemines, or LSU for that matter.

Poke Salad

In April, 2000, the Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs, Arkansas processed its last batch of “poke sallet” greens.

John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen, said, “The decision to stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people interested in picking poke and bringing it to our buying locations.”

Poke processing was never a significant item in their mult-imillion-dollar enterprise, but Williams mentioned that one of the best markets for canned poke was southern  California due to the Oakies.

Euell Gibbons lauds poke as “probably the best-known and most widely-used wild vegetable in America.” In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Gibbons writes that Native Americans eagerly sought it and early explorers were unstinting in their praise of this “succulent potherb.”

“They carried seeds when they went back home and poke soon became a popular cultivated garden vegetable in southern Europe and North Africa, a position it still maintains. In America it is still a favorite green vegetable with many country people and the tender young sprouts, gathered from wild plants, often appear in vegetable markets, especially in the South.”

In the lean years before World War II, poke salad–like ramps–was one of the first edible wild herbs to appear in the spring, lending welcome addition to a winter’s sustenance diet of dried beans, cornbread, and salt pork .

The only drawback to poke salad is that it’s poisonous. The mature parts of the plant and the roots contain significant amounts of a violent but slow-acting emetic, phytolaccatoxin. Having said that, you’re probably wondering why in the hell anyone would even consider eating it, but prepared properly, poke salad is safe and delicious.

Harvest only the youngest, tenderest sprouts of poke, no more than a foot or so. Wash, stem, and trim. Add to a pot of water, bring to a boil, drain, rinse, return to pot with water, and bring to simmer with oil, a slit hot pepper pod, and a big pinch of sugar.

Drain and use much as you would spinach. Euell has a poke salad dip in his book. I like it with scrambled eggs and onion, and it’s wonderful in an omelette or a quiche.

Blackberry Winter

Jimmy’s commitment had been court ordered after he’d busted up the pool hall on Radley Road and sent Dennis Sprayberry to the ER with six broken ribs. Jimmy wasn’t always like this, meaning the type who’d take a cue and beat the ever-living hell out of the guy who was the best man at his wedding.

Jimmy and Debby got married in the same church he was now exorcising his devil. Dennis couldn’t bring himself to press charges, so Jimmy wasn’t in that much trouble, but he needed to mind himself.

Debby just couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong, since for a long time all Jimmy did was drink a little too much beer every now and then but bit by bit he kept drinking more, got off all by himself a lot of times and nobody could talk to him and when we did he just said nothing he had going was doing right.

And it wasn’t. He was hanging by a thread with his job, and when he almost cut his thumb off in an air-conditioner changing out the condenser and tested for alcohol for the third time he was fired. That’s the night he ended up down Radley Road and tried to kill Dennis. The sheriff told the prosecutor to throw the book at him, but things worked out so that Jimmy had to spend a month in rehab and two years under observation.

The day Jimmy went into rehab, Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her that March was too early, better to wait till Jimmy got out next month, but she wouldn’t listen. She wanted everything to look promising. So when Jimmy went in, Debby went to the garden store in Tupelo and bought tomatoes and peppers, squash and cucumber seedlings, which she set out in a bed off the porch. She wanted her and Jimmy to be able to sit there in the afternoons and watch the sun go down over the garden. She said she was going to make Easter eggs so she and Jimmy could go looking for them the day after he got out.

She planted a garden in the cold earth under a cool, cloudy sun.  I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d said all I could. Good Friday came, and Debby got a call. Jimmy had broken out, so they had to put him in jail for violation of a court order. That night a cold wind came in and threw down a hard frost. Come morning the garden was nothing but frozen rows with withered plants. All I could do was be there.

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said.

I just shook my head; I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.

Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy lives in Pocahontas, Mississippi. Buddy is the hardest-working person I know; he does drywall, roofs, painting, whatever work he can find to keep his home safe and his family fed. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and, like most you–without a smidgen of justification, I hasten to add–thinks I’m a bum.

Buddy’s always bringing me stuff from his garden; tomatoes, okra, and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax during the holidays. Some years ago in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic. The bulbs cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

I’ve since learned, it’s actually a leek, Allium ampeloprassum. You’ll find this onion growing around old home places all over the South. Here in south Hinds County, it’s practically endemic. You can use the fresh stems and bulbs before they divide out for a very strong garlic-y onion flavor. For the bulbs to clove, cut the blossom before it sets seed. Once the foliage has yellowed and the stem stiffened—this is a hardneck garlic—you can dig the buds. They will divide as they dry.

This old allium is a wonderful pass-along; plant toes/cloves after first frost in your strongest sun. Buddy tells me it spreads all over the place, and he has to thin his out twice a year. He also swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. They’re both pushing 80 now and show no signs of letting up.

Me, I’ve got the prettiest little patch of Pocahontas garlic you’d ever hope to see coming up in the bed next to the driveway.

Mrs. Horrell’s Paperwhites

For many years I walked from my home on Poplar Avenue in Jackson, Mississippi down North Street to the Welty Library.

North Street is broad and level, making for an easy, leisurely walk. Long ago, the way was lined with splendid homes, but in my last year in Jackson, the only private residence on the street, a modest, sturdy, two-story cottage built in 1923, belonged to the Horrells. When last I passed by a “For Sale” sign was planted in the front yard, where long before, Mrs. Horrell had planted masses of narcissus.

Warmed by a broad western sun, her paperwhites were among the earliest in the city to bloom, coaxed out of the ground by the toddling sun of mid-winter. She also had clumps of old daffodils, a  of beautiful swath of blue-and-violet bearded irises, and a row of gnarled, ancient rosemarys that filled the air with scent and the eye with points of cloudy blue in the warming winds. Mrs. Horrell once told me the narcissus lining  front walk came from her grandmother.

The area has been zoned commercial, so once the property is sold, the house might be razed, and the in-place plantings will most likely be lost. Developers’ architects view landscaping as ancillary or incidental, and plantings in-place are expendable. New developments in old neighborhoods obliterate yards that helped define the character and delineate the history a neighborhood.

You can still find old plantings struggling beneath mats of Asian jasmine throughout the city, and one November, many years ago, we freed an old street corner of choking vines, weeds, and rotting wood. In March, clumps of the old daffodil, ‘Butter and Eggs,’ came barreling out of the Yazoo clay.

Place, too, has a memory.