My father was a lawyer during the 50s and 60s in a rural county in north Mississippi. Money was never plentiful, but we had what we needed: we never had to buy firewood, we always had a freezer full of meat wrapped in white butcher paper, and a cupboard stocked with some of the best home-canned foods in the South. Around Christmas Dad would go to the door at night and return with bottles tightly wrapped in paper sacks, holiday happies from secret friends in that dry county.
In Octobers, when it was still hot and dry, Dad would drive my sister, brother and me to the Ellard community where an old man and his wife lived on a small farm. Across the road from their house the slope of a hill was covered with yellowing vines bearing winter squashes. We’d gather all we could carry, which wasn’t much, while Daddy sat on the porch with them with a glass of sweet tea and talked.
Once after we left, I asked him why he didn’t pay the man. “Son, they wouldn’t take my money,” he said. “Years back, their boy got into trouble, a lot of trouble. I did everything I could to keep him out of prison. But I couldn’t, and they understood. I never asked them for a penny. I knew they didn’t have it. But he’d feel bad if I didn’t come out and get these squash. It’s his gift, and you don’t turn down gifts from a man who doesn’t have much to give. It means more to me–-and him–-than anything anybody else would give me.”
The squash were acorns and yellow Hubbards. Some were peeled, cubed and parboiled for a casserole or pie. Others were split, seeded, usually scored, brushed with melted butter mixed with orange juice, sprinkled with brown sugar, and baked in a hot oven until soft and slightly browned. Once on the table, we’d scoop out the flesh with a spoon, put it on our plates and mash it with a fork. While the more durable sweet potatoes were on our table throughout the year, winter squash are seasonal. When I see them in the store, I know winter is coming, and my mind goes back to a that dry autumn hillside at an old failing farm in north Mississippi.