May 20, 2024

The Unofficial Start of Summer

The Unofficial Start of Summer

With Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer less than a week away, I have been thinking a lot about the summers growing up in Mississippi. Mostly, I have been thinking about my grandparents and their summer vegetable garden.  

My grandparents were pros at maximizing the space in their backyard, which was by no means large. In the summer, for the most part, any space was overtaken by the garden. Their garden, though, was not a vanity project.  It wasn't a few pots with a tomato plant or two that may or may not produce a few fruits that you can brag to your friends about. Their garden was a labor of love with the sole focus of producing a giant harvest of vegetables, a bounty that would feed them for an entire year, and every year they were successful at doing so.  

First and foremost, there were tomato plants. Lots of them.  Not lots of them like ten.  Lots of them like 40 to 50.  As soon as these plants began to produce, summer lunches for them were exclusively fresh tomato sandwiches - nothing fancy, just a peeled and sliced fresh tomato from their garden, mayonnaise spread on "light" bread (most often Holsum or Wonder), and salt and pepper.  If someone happened to be at their house at lunchtime during the summer, you most likely had the same. 

Side note: If I happened to be over, I did not partake.  I'm embarrassed to say that while I love tomato-based foods like pasta sauce, ketchup, pizza, etc. - I DO NOT like (for the most part) fresh tomatoes.  My grandmother would "fix" a cheese sandwich for me - the same recipe as the tomato, just with a slice of cheddar instead. Now to the "for the most part" part: As I got older, occasionally, I would ask her to make a tomato sandwich for me, and I did grow to not completely hate them, but more often than not, I still opted for my cheese sammie.  

The sandwiches weren't the only use for the tomatoes, though.  Every summer dinner or "supper" would have a sliced tomato component.  The rest of them went into my grandmother's canning marathons.  She would can whole tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, and salsa - jars upon jars upon jars - to last through the upcoming fall, winter, and spring.  

In addition to the bounty of tomatoes that came from the garden, there were also cucumbers (used fresh in the summer and used for pickles to can), squash and zucchini, turnip and mustard greens, okra and so much more.  As I mentioned, their backyard was far from large, and with such a large footprint of tomato plants, there were limitations to the number of different veggies they could grow.  

That's when my family's cotton farm would subsidize the much-needed black-eyed peas, lima - ahem, "butter" beans, string beans, and corn. All summer, my dad would deliver them giant black garbage bags filled with peas and beans and boxes upon boxes of corn. My grandparents would sit at night watching television with bowls of unshelled peas in their laps and shell and shell and shell and shell. 

If you looked around their house, at all times there were jars upon jars of canned black-eyed peas, butter beans, and string beans (in addition to the tomatoes).  In late 1990 there was a prediction taken pretty seriously that the Mississippi Delta would be hit with a huge earthquake.  My grandparents didn't express much concern over china or other breakables, but my grandfather made sure to secure all shelves with my grandmother's canned bounty.  No earthquake was messing with their harvest.  

I loved those summers growing up, and I loved all of those fresh vegetables that would last throughout the year.  Even though I do have a degree in Horticulture and was required to take classes in vegetable production, I have no garden. I just don't have the commitment needed for the care and maintenance vegetable gardens require, and I certainly don't have my grandmother's canning talents.  

But, I would give anything for one more plate of those fresh summer vegetables.  I'd even give anything for one of her tomato sandwiches. 

We wish you and your family a wonderful Memorial Day as we remember all of those that gave their lives in service to our country.