This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. It’s time for another episode in this long journey that starts in my head and ends on the radio, and sometimes when I’m stuck, I look over my archive of random bits for some jumping off place, a place to begin.
When I go there, I am always surprised at how many things I talk about that seem to revolve around the garden, from the food it produces to the attachment to the seasons it provides and all manner of stuff. And as you probably know, I recently put out a whole book of such thoughts, and I thought I’d pretty much covered everything.
But still, even when it’s too darn hot to be out there, it’s the first place I go in my thoughts. You’d think that with that kind of attachment I’d be growing lots of flowers and trees and objects of beauty. But actually not so much. Just the odd Echinacea and a few blackberry lilies, a dwarf buckeye in a pot. And some perennials and self-seeding annuals that just spring up whether I remember to plant them or not. And of course there are the houseplants of which there are too many to contemplate.
I think I must have picked up the habit in childhood of placing the vegetable garden in the center of my universe, especially the seasonal part and the relationship I always make between the food harvest and good fortune, riches, actually, because although I’m in my 70s now, we didn’t have supermarkets or big box stores or year round produce vendors when I was a child. We didn’t have so many things that others in more prosperous parts of the country had for decades before us. We got a television when I was 9, a telephone when I was 13, indoor plumbing at 15.
That world then, in a tiny town in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1940s and 50s and a little bit of the 60s was so different from the places we live now as to be almost on another planet. We wrote letters. We talked to our neighbors face to face. We got our milk from an uncle who farmed, and made butter and cottage cheese from it. We washed our clothes in water drawn by hand from a well pipe and more than 60 feet of rope, which is what it took to get all the way down to the water.
The gardens we grow now are likely to be tilled by electric engines and filled with small stands of whatever delicacy we like to eat that the supermarket carries, but only in the gourmet section.
I grow Black Krim tomatoes because I like them. And bronze fennel so I can harvest the seeds to make Italian sausage. And six kinds of potatoes so I can decide which one tastes best. It’s silly, really, a good deal of this gardening fetish. I remember back when I was starting to garden seriously on my own, and my two aunts would laugh at me and say, you know you can get all that and more at the store. Why bother.
Well, it may be easier and cheaper, but homegrown is way fresher and tastier, I would argue. But I’m in my 70s now, the same age they were then, and I’m just now using up the last of my green beans canned a couple of years ago. Now I plant just 6 seeds of Fortex beans against a fence and they give me plenty for eating fresh. If I want more, I’ll buy them at the store. They won’t be Fortex, but that just makes the ones I grow in summer all the more precious.
Recently I cut my garden space in half and I still have too much garden for what I want to grow. But this elderly me has a supermarket and a farmer’s market and just about the whole world at my fingertips. Times, as they say, have changed.
When I was a child, my family could grow a garden that would feed us all year round if we knew what to do with it to make food we could store, and if you had a little patch where you could raise a few chickens or a hog just on garden leavings and table scraps and if wild grapes and blackberries and Indian peaches were plentiful, and if Uncle George shared his catch of, and if other assorted relatives shared the contents of their rented freezer drawers at the local locker plant.
Families who were fortunate had their own chest deep freezes. The rest of us canned that meat, along with peaches, berries, green beans and gallons of tomatoes. By October our cellars were full to bursting, the upstairs or a back bedroom packed with sweet potatoes, hickory nuts and black walnuts; the Irish potatoes in their slatted crates buried under stacks of burlap sacks on the north wall of the barn. By spring, all those shelves and crates and bushel baskets were empty except for a few wizened spuds, and dinners were heavy on brown beans, fried potatoes and bread from home ground corn. Looking back from a safe distance, we say those were the good old days. Those with better memories concede they were the pretty darn hard old days, too. Not that we are living in paradise. Today’s world has its own challenges, and some are enormous. In fact I think it’s fair to say we lived in simpler times then. Simpler to us, who knew what to do with 40 lbs. of thawing beef, or 100 lbs. of freshly dug potatoes, or 50 lbs. of hulled but uncracked walnuts. We made do, just as we did when the food ran out too soon and we were grateful to God there were enough little leftover spuds and ears of dry field corn whose seeds grandpa got from that old Indian, and we could shell and pick enough black walnut meat to afford a nickel’s worth of pinto beans. Or somebody could, and was willing to share. That’s what we did. That’s how you got through a cornbread winter. Nowadays, when we know so much more and have so much more, I worry at how we seem only capable of finding ways to divide ourselves from one another, making those we see as others either irrelevant or untrustworthy. Perhaps someday we can each have our own planet and just not be bothered by our differences. But I’m reminded of that old Ozarks saying that stated so clearly our interdependence and the necessity of having our means of survival spread beyond relying on just one household. It went like this; If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs – if we had some eggs. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, and I’m just gonna say right now, if times get as hard as everyone worries about, I’ll bring the biscuits and the blackberry jam.