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ALMOST EVERYONE had a garden behind their home or a potato and greens patch on the hills. The garden provided much of the food for the family, especially in summer. It also provided much produce for winter canning. Housewives took pride in announcing to each other at some opportune time that they had canned from fifty to one hundred jars of fruits and vegetables for the winter. I always felt right chesty when I proudly surveyed Mother’s well-filled shelves of canned fruit and jellies, and I sometimes also bragged a bit about them.
Besides canned beans, tomatoes, corn, and similar vegetables, there were nearly always a few jars of special delicacies such as pickled peaches, watermelon rind preserves, green tomato pickles, and chow-chow.
These delicacies usually graced the table for special dinners and for Christmas and Thanksgiving menus. Mother would let us sample some of these goodies and in-between times occasionally, but there always had to be enough pickled peaches saved for holiday eating. To be out of pickled peaches for holiday feasting would have been a serious calamity not easily overlooked.
Canning time was an especially busy time for the housewife and girls in the family. My mother always insisted on her sons being responsible for outdoor chores such as chopping wood and bring in kindling wood, but things that related to housework always fell on the shoulders of the girls. When Mother had a specific job to do, she’d always rise early. If she had bought a big basket of peaches or pears, you’d see her in the kitchen at an early hour, paring knife in hand, busily preparing her fruit.
Mother would call, Come on girls, and let’s can the fruit before the heat of the day. We usually cheerfully helped with the household chores, so soon several pairs of hands were pealing and slicing fruit. The fruit was put in a big yellow bowl, and the peelings were put in piles and saved for jelly-making.
After the fruit was prepared some of us were charged with finding last year’s jars. With this accomplished, we would wash, scald and dry them for this season’s canning. All of the jars were not of standard size, so Mother would caution us to save the best ones for fruit that had to be put up in an air-tight method and to use the nondescript ones for jellies.
Mother was an expert at making jelly. She would get all of the substance out of the peeling by boiling it. She then put the soft mixture in a bag and squeezed it dry to remove all the juices. Then followed hours of slow boiling the fruit juice combined with sugar until it obtained the right consistency for jelly.
When summer was about over, Mother would have consumed a good portion of the vacation trying to preserve food for her family to eat in the winter. The wide shelves in the big kitchen safe held row after row of clear jelly and preserves, which meant something sweet and tasty for the lunch boxes and great saving of family finances.
A garden meant extra work for the fathers and children in many families, but it also provided a way to make extra change for the household coffers. The mother and children peddled the vegetables up and down the street if there was enough to sell after household needs were satisfied. In our family, my older brother and my sister, Henrietta, who was blessed with a certain skill in handling money, peddled our surplus vegetables, especially beans. My sister was younger than my brother, but she possessed a strong power for directing, and according to my brother, she used it on him. He always tells the joke that he would help plant the garden, work the beans and pick them and then when selling time came, she would always decide to go with him that morning to help him with the sales.
My mother always tried to plant her garden on Good Friday. This day, of course, is a special religious holiday for people who attend church services, but at sometime during the day, the garden was usually planted.
Mr. Edmonds, Mother’s main gardener, would be notified to come and get the ground ready for planting when plowing was over. He would usually come early in the morning and start to work.
He would patiently beat the clods and rake until the soil was pulverized. Then he made a walkway down the middle of the garden, and the sides were divided into beds for beets, okra, cucumbers and other vegetables.
After the plant beds were prepared, Mother would gather us to help plant the seeds. Explicit directions were always given, Put three kernels of corn in each hole. Spread the beans down the row. Don’t sow the okra too thick. Each one of us accepted the assignment, which we thought was fun. The butter bean hills were always planted close to the fence, and the pole beans were planted by the corn so that they could run up it, thus eliminating the need for stakes.
I remember how Mr. Edmonds planted okra with us one day. He said, Hold yo’ hand jist dis’ high when you plant dat okra, holding his hand above one foot from the ground. Then he added, You’ll get okra when dah plant is just as high as you hold yo’ hand when yo’ planting.
To test this saying, we held our hands up high while we planted our okra, and Mr. Edmonds held his hand down low. It did see odd, but Mr. Edmond’s okra bloomed when it was just off the ground and soon had okra pods on it. Ours seemed to take a much longer time. We made much ado over the seeming truthfulness of Mr. Edmond’s prophecy.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996