Fried Green Tomatos

Here at the end of March the snow has mostly melted, albeit early this year. The ground, which was frozen to 20 inches down is mostly thawed. I look out the window of this new house of ours that that replaces the one that burned in a wildfire in 2012 and wonder how its garden will turn out. My last garden burned in the wildfire.

As I plan, I look out my window, sometimes getting up from the computer to peer intently taking measure of the small plot of ground where my elevated raised garden beds will be chocked full of plants this spring, summer and fall. That a plant can come forth from a dried seed and some black dirt is magic. This mythical bounty will feed us fresh produce spring, summer and fall and with putting food by for the winter, all the way to next year’s crop.

Before the fire, my last garden had been in 1980 so I was not sure what to expect when I took up vegetable gardening in 2012. That fateful summer when our house burned completely my garden was just beginning to feed us. Each plant sinks its roots into the soil in a manner suited to itself. No two plants are the same. Each is unique. As humans we can learn from the plants to let our roots sink deep using their organization to help us be what we are meant to be.

When I was a kid we did not have a garden since we lived “in town.” We were the first generation to migrate from the farm to the city. Even “citified” were were expected to come on the weekends and work in the fields in my mother’s family farm. My mom also bartered making dresses for the daughters of a friend who had a 2 acre “garden.”  I remember watching this sturdy woman on her John Deere tractor plowing the rows of her garden. I was told in good authority that if it was any larger it would have been a farm and women were not supposed to have farms. Her garden, should it have been a farm, would have competed with her husband’s ability to be the family bread winner.

Between the the farm and the garden, along with judicious farm-stand purchases of peaches and apples, had an ample harvest.

Mostly my grandfather was a cattle rancher so we got quarters and sides of beef. He grew peanuts. After the market harvest, we gleaned. It was our job to walk thought the rows, peanut plants akimbo in the dirt which was furrowed so deep it came nearly to our little-kid knee height. We lugged burlap bags over our shoulders. I remember my feet getting tangled up between the narrow, deep rows, the chaotic peanut plants and my big burlap bag. In my memory I picked pounds and pounds of peanuts into my bag. Looking back I suspect the mathematical equation looks like this: child’s bag = 100 pounds of peanuts/.25 of a person.

We picked okra. When I was little all okra had spines. You harvested okra with a small, curved knife that you slipped up just past the top of the okra pod and sliced it off the vine. Okra also emits a sticky white substance. By the end of the day spines were glued to your hands by the sticky substance. You had to rub hard with pumice soap to get the sticky off and the spines came off as best they could.

Though mottled and sore, the woe of our hands faded into the background when my Grandmother made a “mess” of fried okra. Her okra might not have been the best in the world but it was the best in our world. Fried okra in the Old South was not battered and fried in a fryer. It was pan-fried like a large cake in a cast iron frying pan. I was painstakingly taught how to cook it. It was my job to make the flour coating on the okra just right. To do this you washed and sliced the okra, sprinkled it liberally with salt and pepper and then started sprinkling flour on top and turning the mixture with your hand. When it “spun a thread” it was right. The same gooey white stuff that piggybacked on us from the field  is the same thickener in gumbo and when bound with flour makes old-style fried okra. The mass of thready, sticky okra was turned into an iron skillet and cooked until golden, sometimes blackened. The thickness of the “cake” (and the flour within it) depended on the size of your skillet and how many were coming to the table for dinner. When we were all there my grandmother would have two skillets going. I remember her standing in her 1950’s aprons with rick-rack on them, her left hand propped on her hip and her right hand, spatula enhanced, hovering over the pans with authority. If I were the okra I would have behaved because you could tell she meant business.

We had huge, thick slices of tomatoes and cornbread. On the good days she also cooked shelly beans or field peas. Always in them was an onion and a liberal dollop of bacon grease. We rarely ate cornbread since her cornbread really did not taste good. She would faithfully put it on the table and when no one reached for any, she passed it encouraging us to take a piece. As best we could we surpitiously looked the other way. When she pinned us to the chair with her steely gaze we tried to look innocent and say, “Oh, Grandmama, the okra is so good if I eat the cornbread it will fill me up and I won’t be able to eat so much okra.” She always fell for it, or at least she seemed to fall for it. Now, a half century from those hot summer meals I cannot even guess if she knew all of us, adults and children, were trying not eat her cornbread.

I make passing fair cornbread but it is hard to get good stone ground corn meal here in Montana. Family members who still live in the south bring bags of it in their luggage when they visit.

Okra is a different story. We just don’t have access to it. This year I bought okra seeds determined to produce a crop even if it was a tiny harvest of tiny okra. I plan to keep the plants in the germination stage in the living room by the south facing window and grow them as big as I can. I will then take them onto the deck where the sun shines hotly during the day. I will lug them back inside to the living room at night. After a while I will put them in my raised garden bed and tuck them into a cold-frame that I got for 50% off with free shipping. Beside the okra I will grow shelly beans. They will lock-step try to be southern plants grown far north, just south of the Canadian border.

My sister started our garden off this year with very carefully selected heirloom seads that were just right for out climate. While questionable for the climate, the peas originated in the North Carolina mountains and have been protected by the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. We have heirloom seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I will have lettuce and Early Siberian kale, beets and carrots. I will grow Catskill Brussels sprouts in the fall along with the second sewing of Bordeaux Spinach. We will have pickling cucumbers and bell peppers. Quite by accident we have five types of tomatoes. We have Tommy Toe, and Red Current grape tomato that produce reliably even if bad things happen to the big tomatoes. We have Principe Borghese tomatoes to sun dry and savor all winter. We have Bonny Best tomatoes for canning and we have big fat meaty tomatoes called “Money Maker” for summer salads and sandwiches.

It will be hard to find room for all these roots in my small garden of raised beds but it is a worthy endeavor for the health of the body as well as the soul. Sometimes I wonder about that garden of 2012. What would my carrots that were only seeds when the fire came would have looked like? Our tomatoes were plump and hot in the sun, green, not quite turned to red. I have joked often that in 2012 I had friend green tomatoes in the garden.

From my garden that was consumed by the fire, I had the magical promise of food emerging from rich brown dirt and the wonder of seeds. In this new-post fire life my garden, small though it may be, will start in the same way, seeds in dirt, but, God willing, when we put the bounty of our garden on our new table, it will bring to mind those hot days of my childhood in the garden and in the fields when food was easy and the promise sacred.

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