Growing up in the country, I had access to a variety of freshly grown fruits and vegetables. As a child, I could be found roaming our acre garden, pulling fresh radishes and carrots from the ground, or sitting under our huge scuppernong bush picking ripe scuppernongs (golden muscadines). Even as young as five and six, I could tell when fruit and vegetables were ripe. My papa made sure I knew how to tell, and every year provided a new lesson with a new crop.
I would take my dirt-covered radishes and carrots to the faucet beside the well so I could rinse and eat them immediately. As I gathered scuppernongs for the family, I would eat as many as I gathered. My papa would help me pick a few yellow plums (what we called them – not sure of their real name) only because I wasn’t tall enough to reach them yet. In July, I would hover by the fig tree near my grandparents’ home just waiting for the fruit to ripen. In early to late fall, I would gather fallen persimmons from the trees all over our property. We only had wild persimmon trees, so the fruit was tiny (golf-ball size); so it took a lot of fruit to feel satisfied.
My mom canned most of the vegetables; and one year in particular, she canned 106 quarts of green beans. This was in addition to all of the purple hull peas, black eyed peas, butterbeans, yellow and zucchini squash, stewed tomatoes, new potatoes, pickled okra, pickled beets, pickled squash, and pickles.
We dried apple slices by laying them on white sheets on the roof of my grandparents’ house. My grandmother was responsible for the jellies and preserves each year. We always had grape, muscadine, and scuppernong jellies and plum and fig preserves. If we were brave enough to battle the snakes and chiggers, we would sometimes pick blackberries from our fence row. There was nothing better than a fresh blackberry cobbler. Oh, my!
What we didn’t can, pickle, or turn into jelly, we froze. We always had food, and I seldom remember going to the grocery store during the spring and summer months once we started harvesting food. We didn’t even buy milk because we milked our own cows. (Yes, we drank raw, unpasteurized milk and lived to tell about it. I’m sure people would be mortified by that nowadays.)
As most children do, I took all of this for granted. After my grandmother passed away in 1985 and my papa remarried the following year, there were no more harvests. My papa and my dad wanted to clear the garden area one last time, and I cried as I watched them destroy the scuppernong canopy. (This was several scuppernong plants climbing up four metal posts with the vines entwined over and through a metal arbor-like structure. This is how I could stand under it and pick fruit. I so wish I had a picture of it. I will rummage through boxes of old photographs, and maybe I will get lucky.)
I am now an adult and living in Little Rock just 45 minutes from my home town and my parents’ home, but I still long for that simple lifestyle. Simple? Maybe relaxed is a better word because maintaining a garden of that size was anything but simple. It was hard work from sun up to sun down. However, most of my childhood memories are from that garden – either digging potatoes, shelling peas, or picking okra.
Now, I miss all of those lovely fruits that were so plentiful in decades past. I can find scuppernongs and figs at Fresh Market, but they are horribly expensive. In late summer/early fall, I can find tame persimmons (baseball size) at the Kroger Marketplace, Fresh Market, and sometimes Whole Foods; but they run $3.99 each – not per pound – each! However, we are blessed with friends from my home church who have tame persimmon trees in their yard. That gift of 20 pounds of persimmons last year was such a blessing, and the taste instantly returned me to my childhood.
It’s difficult at times to pay such high prices for things that were once “free” and so readily available. Little Rock has a lovely Farmer’s Market that will begin in late April and run through September, and you can usually find some good deals on fresh produce. However, some of those vendors are sneaky in April and May. I know from experience that if you plant in early/mid-March you will be lucky to have crops by mid-May. So in late April and early May, you need to make sure you’re not buying Walmart produce with the stickers removed. (Some of them don’t even try to remove the stickers.) I usually try to find a couple of farm vendors and ask enough questions about their crops to know if their produce is truly fresh. These vendors are just honest farm folk just trying to make a living doing what they know and hopefully love.
My husband and I have discussed moving to my family’s property in the future. There are still huge areas suitable for gardening. My husband grew up with his parents planting a garden, too. It wasn’t as expansive as ours, but he’s familiar enough to miss the freshness as much as I do. It’s definitely hard work, but nothing is better than sharing your crops with friends and family.