Hoe your own row

A garden was, and is, very much a part of the landscape of Appalachian homes. We didn’t have a garden growing up, but Charlie and Mary had a huge one. I helped in the garden every year. Several of us neighbors did and we all reaped its harvest.

Charlie taught me to operate the tiller. He kept a watchful eye though the first few times. He worried that it would get away from me and I would get hurt. But I did well and mastered it enough that he found me a couple of jobs tilling up gardens for some friends of his. His was a front tine with the plow bar. He would also get out his hatchet, a couple of wooden stakes and string to lay a row, and we would hoe the row to plant.

Corn was always at the upper end, followed by potatoes. Their grandkids would come visit for a couple of weeks every summer, so we all helped pull up the potatoes. We would get good and dirty and then we could play with the water hose. Beans were next and there were usually a couple of varieties. Cabbage and lettuce, squash and cucumbers, watermelons and onions and a few other things finished up the quarter acre. There was a strawberry patch that was separate from the garden, peach trees and a cherry tree that filled out the rest of the back yard. There was just enough room for the clothes lines and their old beagle.

They first taught me to shuck corn and snap beans. Mary would pick what she needed fresh from the garden as it came in and cooked with it that day. The rest was put up. It was a full-time job when that garden started coming in. We would snap the beans and get jars from the cellar. When it was all over, quart size jars of the most beautiful green beans lined every surface in the kitchen. Corn would be prepared and cut from the cob, jarred up and then we headed back to the cellar to store everything. There, a bin also held the potatoes.

The cellar was half dirt floor and half concrete. They poured just what they needed. It was always so cool down there and smelled very earthy. It was also very dark, so while it felt and smelled good, it was not somewhere you wanted to spend too much time. To get into it, you had to pull up the heavy metal covered doors and descend the stairs to the next door. Our grandmaw Barton had the same kind of basement entrance, but she never let us in it.

For dinner, Mary would slice the yellow crookneck squash into 1/2 inch rounds, dip them in beaten egg and then dredge them in finely ground cracker crumbs. Then she would fry them up, lining the pan as she prepped each one. As they would brown on the underside, she would flip them with a couple of forks and let them brown on the other. Then she would move them to a paper towel-lined plate until she finished the whole batch. She could be at the stove frying up squash for nearly an hour as the rest of the meal cooked. I hardly have the patience for that. If I want the flavor of her fried squash, I’ve been known to short cut the process and fry the squash un-breaded. then as it’s almost done, I take a couple of eggs and whisk them up, break up a handful of saltines and pour that over the squash. Then I toss it around until it is all cooked through. It is not nearly as pretty as hers was, but the taste is pretty close. I just don’t look at it while I eat it and I hope she don’t look down.

Mary always wore her apron when she was workin’ around the house. She was preparing Christmas dinner when I stopped by to check on her. I miss her to this very day.

I moved away as Mary’s health began to decline. She lived to be about 88.

Now, I told you that I got my Bread-N-Butter Pickle recipe from Mary. It is a simple recipe that takes the better part of a day to complete. First, you wash and slice your cucumbers, then you clean up your onions and slice them into large rings about a quarter inch thick. Next, you have to get a big pan, tub or bucket and you begin to layer the cucumbers and onions rings. You take your non-iodized or pickling salt and shake it evenly over the top. Here is the critical part. You must cover them with a thick layer of ice and let it set for 3-4 hours. This is the step that will help maintain that crispness to your pickle chips. The second most critical step is to make sure that after they have set long enough, you remove any remaining ice and rinse the cucumbers and onion rings several times in cold water. You must get all the salt off of them.

While your cucumbers and onions are setting in their salty ice bath, you need to prep the rest. Your jars will need to be cleaned and sterilized. You have to gather your white vinegar, pickling spices, sugar, turmeric and a pan large enough to get everything into, on the stove. Mary used her enamel roasting pan, so I do the exact same thing. Once you’ve rinsed your cucumbers, you begin putting everything together in the pot. It only has to come to a boil and cook about five minutes, so you have to make sure that you also have your lids and rings boiling and ready to put on your jars. You also need to have your canning pot filled and on the stove boiling away, ready to receive your jars once they are filled and closed. Another ten minutes in a boiling water bath and you are almost done. You take your jars of pickles out of the pot and set them on a kitchen towel on the counter. There they must set until they cool. As they cool down, you will hear that beautiful tink, tink song of the jars as they sing their way to sealed. When I hear that I instantly yell out, “Sounds like pickles!” They are not quite done until they have set in a cool dark place for about two weeks, though. Then you will have pickles to enjoy for the next year.

With just the right blend of vinegar, spices and sugar, Bread-N-Butter Pickles compliment any meal!

I know I could have given you my actual recipe for my Bread-N-Butter Pickles, but I am still saving that for some time in the future. I make so many each year, that I have become a little famous among my friends and co-workers for them. They look forward to them now. We only eat a jar or two ourselves each year. I love them, but I love making them more. The last time I made pickles with Mary was probably thirty years ago. It makes me feel connected to her again when I make them, when I taste them and when I give them away. I still have the recipe written down on a piece of paper from a notepad she kept on her kitchen table. I made notes as she made a batch. If anyone saw it, they probably could not make heads nor tales of it, but I know exactly what each line means. It is a true occasion of reading between the lines. Mine may be a little different as every cook plays with a recipe once they know it, but how they are made is the same.

My In-Laws put out a garden for us each year because we live in town and they are convinced there is just not enough room for us to do it here. Their garden is just about as big as Charlie’s. Most of what they grow is for us. They eat very little of it themselves. Mom was so proud the day she learned that I bought my own pressure cooker for canning that you would have thought I told her she was about to become a grandma.

The broccoli has been coming in fast and furious. I made the best pot of Broccoli Cheddar soup I have ever had, just the other week. Red potatoes are on the menu for tonight. Cabbage has been bustin’ to get out of the garden and I ate on a pot of it for a week. Lot’s of zucchini bread is in our future and I have to make sure that all of my pickling spices are at the ready. I will also make Green Mater Pickles, Pickled Okra, and Squash Pickles. That reminds me, I need to get a couple of more gallons of vinegar too. When I make my Bread-N-Butters I make sure to make up a little extra brine. I use it all the time for potato salad, deviled eggs and I’ve been reading lately that it’s great for cocktails. I have to admit, I’m more than curious about that.

Life is good. Gardens are big. Hoe your own row, unless you’ve got someone by your side you can trust.

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The Appalachian Tale

Memories, recipes, and Tales of an Appalachian Boy.

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