Sunday, August 07, 2016

Summer Gardens

Time for Squash
Summer Gardens
Salt Shakers and Gurgling Water
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            The image of my paternal grandmother in her melon patch on the Mangus remains vivid.
            Grandma Sabre always wore a dress, and, there she stood, covered from the sun with long sleeves and a floppy hat that was big enough to make her lean backwards to look out from under it when she talked to you. She had been hoeing and her experience was equally adept at the weeds of her immediate attention or at killing snakes.
            She was an expert at both.
            The melon patch was down by the corral. I suspect her water supply had to have come from the big trough under the 12 foot Aermotor that provided water both outside and inside the pens. I just don’t remember, but I suspect that is why it was there as opposed to her kitchen garden which was up at the house. Maybe it was just a matter of space or maybe it was because the domestic well didn’t produce enough water. Water was a precious commodity on ranches then just as it is now. Ranch gardens were frowned upon by some perhaps, but my grandmother’s was important. It provided food for her table in season and it filled her cellar through the winter until next year’s production started. I suspect it also maintained a link to her childhood. She may have been a rancher’s wife, but my grandmother was really a farmer. She was good at making things grow.
            She believed that getting your hands dirty from work was good for you. Her garden became symbolic as an oasis from harshness outside. It was a retreat, a place to enjoy, and a place to rest your soul.
            Summer Squash
            It was finally summer when the first picked squash was served at suppertime.
            My maternal grandmother, Nana, was the master of summer squash. Her recipe is the same that we still use. She always added chile. The first taste of squash freshly picked out of the garden was like greeting an old friend. We looked forward to it.
            Meals at both grandparents always had meat and that was usually beef, but that was normally a minor portion of the meal. Vegetables in quantity were served and they became a focus of summer meals. On the heals of the first squash, came roasting ears. We didn’t use the term corn-on-the-cob until we were around city people. It was roasting ears in our vernacular. Mostly it was field corn and not sweet corn, but my preference remains field corn when it is picked right. We learned to pick it as well as our elders. We wanted it heavy in the milk but long before it dented.
            The first were boiled and then buttered and salted. The butter, of course, came from the butter we churned. For that matter, it came from the cows milked within short walks from the kitchens where meals were prepared and eaten.
            Subsequent meals with fresh corn became varied with corn added to vegetable mixes. Nana could cut kernels off a cob like a machine. Later in the summer she would make it much like she did the squash. Of course, chile was added.
            Then there’d be the times you’d walk into the house and a tote of green beans would have been picked somewhere. “Here snap some of these,” would be the order.
            I’ll admit I never liked the smell of green beans at that stage, but I loved them cooked. The butter and the seasoning always made them even better.
            Tomatoes were part of the in season fare as was fresh green chile. The tomatoes were more often stewed or added to something rather than eaten fresh. I have often thought about that and now wonder why that was the case. We ate as much fresh green chile as we did canned. Nana also made chile rellenos from the fresh green. That was usually a breakfast offering along with her eggs and breakfast meats. Biscuits were always made then as well. Jars of tomato preserves were also canned and we ate many hot buttered biscuits with tomato preserves.
            She believed you needed to eat a variety of fresh things. I don’t remember asparagus or broccoli, but we had Brussels sprouts, black eyed peas, lima beans, kidney beans, and cauliflower ad nauseum. I still like them all if there is enough butter, cheese, and … chile!
            Evening Strolls
            Every kid ought to be exposed to a stroll through a well tended garden just at sundown.
            The McCauley gardens, the Ma Rice gardens, the recent Goad gardens, and a few others herein and occasionally elsewhere were wonders of honest endeavors. It was there or similar ones that I am convinced I wanted to like vegetables simply as a result of the experience. Radishes and green onions were and are a place to start. Take a kid in, carry a salt shaker, and just commence. Sprinkle salt onto their off hand palms and let them explore the wonders. Pick a radish and dip in the salt and exclaim how wonderful it is!
            “Oh, my goodness, that is good,” my grandmother would proclaim. “Here, you try one.”
            “Yes, it is so good!” would invariably be the response.
            “Try a white one now,” she would interject. “Be sure not to get one that is too big because it will be hotter and not as good.”
            And, the journey would continue.
            “Let’s try a fresh onion!” she would coax. “They are really good and good for you.”
            When there was nothing quite ripe in the stroll, other lessons would ensue.
            “Let’s see if there are any ripe tomatoes,” someone would suggest.
            “These are green beans. See how they climb these strings.”
            “These are frijoles. We won’t pick them until later and we will store them for winter.”
            “Oh, look at these cucumbers. We love them fresh, but we also enjoy them through the winter. We’ll make pickles out of them. Some will be sweet and some will be dill. You like them I know for sure,” she had said.
            The grandest treat and highlight of the stroll, though, would be found in the melon patch. It was there an elder would reach in and check to see if anything appeared to be ripe. If there was one that passed the inspection it would be cut with a pocket knife by running the blade clear around it and then breaking it if it remained uncut in the center. A perfectly ripe one would draw cheers and everybody would sit down right there in the garden and eat it until it was gone.
            “Don’t you eat those seeds, now,” someone would say. “That’ll give you ‘pendicitus’”.
            In the backdrop of the chatter you could invariably hear water gurgling in a furrow. Birds would be singing, and some cow would be calling for her calf. The sun would be almost gone, and the cool of the evening would be starting to envelop us. In Grant County we would often feel and smell the dew fall. Our elders would be discussing various things, but us kids were always part of their discourse and enraptured with the event. We grew to love those occasions in that setting with those elders in those summer gardens.
Not so long ago … it seems.

            Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Yes, there was a hoe leaning against the fence within reach.”

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