Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer On My Plate

Earlier this week, we decided to make a visit to a local business that has been a landmark in this area for many years.    It is easy to know when you've gotten there because of the huge Jolly Green Giant that stands guard over the building and its contents.    Known far and wide as Bailey's Farmer's Market, all the locals depend heavily on the things they sell all year round from the Christmas trees that they bring in every November to the huge pallets of collard greens and sweet potatoes and big cardboard boxes filled to the brim with a variety of watermelons just begging to be iced and then sliced into big, pink grins of pure summer enjoyment.  

But the quintessential thing that people come to Bailey's to buy in the summer are on the flat tables overflowing with shelled field peas and speckled butter beans.   Sure, they sell 'em in the shell and many of their customers would have it no other way but to buy them in the shell and spend the hours it takes to shell a huge bag of peas or butter beans to have for supper that night or to "put up" for later on when the season for growing them is long gone.    The difference between buying them shelled, ready for the pot and buying them in the shell that means hours of sitting, shelling and dealing with sore fingers for days is not insignificant.  I picked up that scoop and filled my bag without hesitation with the tempting beauties that were pot ready, even if they cost a lot more.    Larry opted for a pound of the ones in the shell, just to see how much we'd get if we shelled 'em ourselves and saved a bundle over the ones that Bailey's kindly shelled for us.  

Once inside their fruit and vegetable stand most people are unable to resist buying other things so enticingly displayed and begging to be placed in the brown paper bags they have conveniently placed all around the bins.    So it was that we happened to also buy some yellow squash, vine ripe tomatoes, Georgia peaches, jalapenos and pablano peppers, Japanese Eggplant and two varieties of sweet potatoes.   Falling under their spell is not easy to resist and we were not the only ones milling around, picking and pawing over the fresh veggies destined to be on many dinner plates that night.   

Obviously we couldn't cook all of the things we bought in one day so we have spread out our wealth throughout this week, enjoying and discussing the merits of each thing that showed up on our plates.    Yesterday I prepared a large pot of the Zipper Peas combined with Pink Eyed Purple Hull peas and served them over rice.   We still had a large hunk of corn bread from a previous meal that included some of those Speckled Butter Beans that found their way into my sack.    I was looking for something else to include with our peas and cornbread when I spied a couple of beautiful specimens of tomatoes sitting on the counter---waiting their turn to be on the menu.    So I sliced them into thick and thin slices.   People tend to come from one of the two schools of thought on the proper slicing of a tomato:   A. It should be sliced into a nice, thick slab or B. God forbid you cut it thick and instead make it as thin as possible, requiring a razor sharp knife to get the deed done correctly.    Since we have one of each in our household, we get both styles---thick and thin slices.

As I sat down and stared at my plate I couldn't decide where to start first but ended up taking a mouthful of the peas and rice.    For a moment, I thought I might swoon.    It was so good, so flavorful and delicious I was instantly struck with how iconic it was for most of my youth, having spent the majority of that time growing up in Mississippi.   Peas and cornbread are standard fare in the South during the summer.   You just couldn't escape having that if you grew up in Mississippi during the 50s and 60s.    I suspect it may still be that way, but for sure that's how it was back then.  

And then I realized that I had Summer On My Plate.    For a few moments, I was transported back in time ---- a time so far away that you'd think the memory would have faded into infinity.   But no.   It was still there, embedded like all the other memories of that time.    On our recent camping trip with the grandkids, they were begging me to tell story after story about when I was a kid.    And the stories just kept coming and the more I told, the more they wanted to hear.     I never got to this one but this is one that maybe I'll get around to telling them on the next trip.

Every summer between the ages of about 9 until I was a teen ager, my sister, Ginny and I spent with my older sister, Charlotte, her husband, Wilson and my niece, Rebecca.    It was not unusual for us to spend a big part of the summer with them, which was just fine with us because life was never dull with them and besides, we absolutely adored our older sister and Rebecca was our very own Little Princess.  Wilson was studying to be an ordained minister and spent several years in Kentucky at seminary and later came back to Mississippi to begin his career as a United Methodist Minister.    Only back then he was mainly called Brother Brent.   

All of the churches he served tended to be way out in the country, down dusty roads, back in the woods and getting there usually entailed a long ride in a hot, un-air conditioned car.   Once you got there the church had all the windows slightly open and a fan would be humming in the background.    Occasionally,  a wasp would come in during the middle of the service adding a new reason for praying earnestly during the morning prayer.   

Every summer, along with Vacation Bible School, churches had a Revival Service that might last for one week and once in a while up to two weeks.  It was the common practice to invite a guest preacher to come in to do the nightly preachin' and if their budget could stand it, they would bring in an Evangelist to be their guest speaker.    Wilson was sometimes invited to go to other churches while another preacher might come to his church to preach.   When Wilson went to preach a revival it always included all of us.....Charlotte, Rebecca, Ginny and me.    We'd load up the car, drive to the church and get treated like honored guests wherever we went.  

One thing about that time---churches certainly couldn't afford to pay their guest speaker a lot of money, but they sure could feed us.     Since it was summer the bounty coming in from their gardens was plentiful.     And since it was the PREACHER coming to their house to eat, you can bet they pulled out all the stops to present a meal fit for a king.    It was not unusual to have three or four kinds of meat at one meal:  fried chicken, ham, pork chops and roast beef.    Then there were the vegetables.   Oh my word!    Peas, butter beans, fresh greens, squash, mashed potatoes (the real kind, not something out of a plastic bowl and microwaved), string beans, fresh tomatoes.    It truly was overwhelming to see the vast array that would be put on the table for us.    And that certainly didn't include the desserts that were awaiting us.     Those things would take up a table all by themselves.   

And so it went summer after summer.    And if we weren't attending a revival, we were going to Dinner on the Grounds.    You have not lived until you have been to a true "Dinner on the Grounds" in rural Mississippi in the summer time.    Every cook in the county tries to out-do every other cook and the sight of a long row of banquet size tables with dish after dish is enough to make a strong person buckle under the pressure.    No short cuts, no Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets or deli containers of potato salad there.   The feast would start shortly after church services ended for the morning and would go on long into the afternoon.     Desserts would come out later on and it's for sure there would be cakes, banana pudding, pies and a variety of congealed (Jell-o) salads in every color of the rainbow.   

Later on there might be singing.    Many of the churches Wilson served had musicians who would form into groups to sing gospel songs familiar to all who heard them.     They would pound out the tunes on an old upright piano, that was only slightly out of tune and frequently had a key or two that would stick.    Sometimes there would be someone who played a fiddle or guitar.    But mostly it was the piano and a trio or quartet of singers, accompanied by others in the congregation who wanted to sing along to the familiar and comforting tunes.    

As the afternoon faded into sunset, the preacher (Wilson or invited guest) would take the to the pulpit once again to bring a message to the (usually) packed pews.    Once I remember Wilson had invited his Uncle Jimmy to preach a revival.    He and his wife, Aunt Kitty, were true Missionaries and had been to all sorts of interesting and far lands doing their missionary work.    Uncle Jimmy was what some people would call a "Fire and Brimstone" preacher since he often preached on the Book of Revelations.    When he got finished with a sermon, you KNEW you had been preached to by a master since he usually had his audience in the palm of his hands when he got to the end.    He could also scare the living life out of you if you were young and impressionable, like I was.    If the hair on the back of your neck was not raised when he preached, you weren't listening to him.   

And this is how many of my summers were spent when I was a kid.    Funny how a plate of peas and cornbread could bring all that back in one bite.    Those memories of my life are from a time long ago and so so far away.    My life was really simple then, as was the life of many people in my life.     I think the reason that we tend to gravitate back to things from long ago is that they are familiar and in some ways comforting. 

You see most of the people in the story I've related to you are gone now.    Charlotte in 2000, Ginny in 2003 and Wilson in 2010.     Rebecca and I often say to each other, "We're all we've got left."   That's not quite true but we each know what we mean when we say that.    We are the only ones left who hold the memories of that time in our lives like a king holds his treasured jewels.    In some magical sort of way, when I go back in time and relive those memories, it brings those dear ones back to me for a little while.    I miss them so much and it comforts me to have those great stories about shelling and eating butter beans, bouncing down dusty roads on the way to a tiny church in the distance and walking out into a moonlit night with the heavy scent of honeysuckle in the air.   It brings them alive once more and for a little while I am thirteen again when life was simple and easy.  

So if you have a Farmer's Market in your town or maybe even have a garden spot in your backyard, enjoy the summer bounty.    You never know where that bowl of butter beans and zipper peas will take you.    Maybe somewhere special, magical and comforting.

Happy Trails,



  1. Great story, Marcia! My backyard garden reminds me every day of my Granny and Grandpa, who feasted all summer on fresh peas and squash and whatever else Grandpa felt like planting. Granny also "put up" a lot of food to get us through the less-bountiful winter months.

    Let us know how Larry's experiment turned out. By the way, did he plant his square foot garden this year? We carefully followed the recipe for Mel's Mix, and we've had an abundance of vegetables (in addition to the zucchini you've already heard about). Next year, I think I'll try to grow some butter beans. :-)

  2. Even though I just got through eating, you make me hungry. I can't wait until the FAIR for mom to fix some yummy veggies. We now have to get them at the farmers market of hope someone with a garden will "share" some with us, since there is no family garden anymore.

    Growing up I was a "meat & potatoes" eater when my Dad would grow a wonderful selection of veggies. I am greatful that Virginia "trained" me to eat veggies. I also miss my Dad and his garden.

    Thanks for posting.
    Love y'all

    1. Thanks, Greg. Yes, I know your Dad was a great gardener and your Mom is a good cook who knows how to make some really tasty meals from the things that come out of a garden. A lot of people enjoy gardnening these days so maybe someone will come to Neshoba..knocking with their elbows, as Charlotte used to say! Sorry we won't be able to join y'all, but hope you have a wonderful time with lots of good food and conversation. :)

  3. This is a beautifully written chronicle of a long-gone time, Marcia. It's nothing like anything in my growing-up experience, but while reading it I had a strong feeling of knowing what it must have been like. What a gift you have!

  4. Well, Marcia, you've done it again--written a beautiful entry that makes me think and feel so many things. It's especially precious because your memories are my memories, too. Thanks for writing!


  5. Really enjoyed reading this, fine writing. Wilson was one of my best friends from grade 1-12 and we roomed together the first semester of college before he and Charlotte were married. We remained close friends for the rest of his life. He was the best and it was wonderful to hear your loving stories. With your permission I would like to add, with attribution, some of this to our classes' web page.

  6. marcia...i LOVE your writing!!! david is reading too...this is great! cindy


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