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My mother was a good country cook. She prepared us three meals a day with snacks in between. One of my fondest memories of returning home as an adult is the smell of breakfast cooking and the sound of my mother’s feet scurrying around in the kitchen. I use many of her recipes in my own cooking, but in my memory her food always tasted better in some indescrible way.
Our family’s garden supplied all of our vegetables. In the early spring my parents would go to the local hardware store and select their seeds. The owner would scoop them into little manilla colored envelopes and would mark on the outside the variety. At a certain point my parents would decide it was time to plant the garden. It would be a certain feel to the air, a stirring of warm air embedded in the winter wind, that signaled planting time. Both my parents came from farming ancestry. Our ancestors came into Virginia in the 1600s, moved across into Georgia in the late 1790s and then into Louisiana. Farming was their way of life.
My uncle, who lived across the road, had a horse that he used for plowing his garden and he would come over and plow for us. It was a treat to feel the newly plowed dirt beneath my bare feet and to walk down the straight rows that were awaiting seeds. I often helped my mother plant the seeds. She instructed me on how deep to push in each seed and then to brush the soil over the top. Some vegetables were bought as seedlings or small plants. These we would space a certain distant apart; first making a hole and putting in water, then inserting the plant.
I know there was a lot of hoeing and weed pulling but I did little of this. It was my job just to walk the rows and notice the blooms and look for the little green tomatoes or the small cucumbers. English peas taste wonderful eaten right off the vine—so sweet and crisp. The first garden salad of the spring was always a treat. Fresh new lettuce, radishes, onions and cucumbers; topped with crisp bacon and a little bacon grease mixed with vinegar. Not necessarily the healthiest salad but certainly tasty.
My uncle grew a lot of peas; black eyed peas, crowder peas, lady peas, and pinto beans. It fell to the women of the house to do the shelling and the canning. I recall sitting in our living room with a galvanized wash tub full of purple hulled peas. We all had large bowls in our laps and we would shell as we talked. This was a time of shared stories and visiting. To this day I love shelling peas and will often buy them at the local farmer’s market. They do sell them already shelled and bagged, but for me the ones in the shell taste better. I love getting my bowl of long purple peas and sitting on my back porch. As my fingers fly opening the pods I remember my childhood and the many peas we shelled and ate. I remember the comradery of sharing a task with my mother, aunt, and grandmother.
We also raised our own meat; cows, pigs and chickens. Although this is not a pleasant memory, I can recall seeing my mother ringing the neck of many chickens. My mother was a kind hearted person and it could not have been easy for her to do this, but this is what country women did back in the 40’s and 50’s. This was a necessary part of farm life. I’m glad that I never had to learn this practice and that I can buy my chicken at a store.
I do believe that people in the past had a close relationship with their food. They planted it, weeded it, fed it and killed it; hence they valued it. It was the end product of a lot of hard work. Having been raised in this kind of environment has made me aware of not only what labor is required in raising food but of how good, fresh, food should taste. Every saturday my husband and I frequent the local farmer’s market and purchase most of our vegetables, eggs, chicken, lamb and shrimp. I like having a relationship with the people who actually grow or raise these products and paying my money directly to them. I like eating fresh. It's a taste I acquired from my childhood.