Summer, 1969. With a year of college behind me and freshly turned 18, I was enjoying an overnight visit with my suitemates from the dormitory in their new apartment. Mama’s phone call woke me up with the horrific news that Hurricane Camille had hit Gulfport. “Get here now – we’re leaving at noon to go get Tanse.” My grandmother’s sister lived on the beach for years and rebuilt her home at least twice after hurricanes, but this was different. The 2 story house was flattened, parts disappeared completely. The little vegetable patch out back of her house was a flat mess and I recall vividly that one of her bamboo bean poles was stuck straight through a pine tree like a toothpick through a hot dog. My garden today is a bit different from the one behind Tanse’s house and nowhere near as productive as my grandfather’s, but bamboo bean poles are a staple and I am still amazed by the power that drove one through a tree so long ago.
When we got back to Louisiana, my grandmother had cooked up a table full of summer favorites for her sister’s arrival and I am recreating that meal tonight at my house using the vegetables from my garden. My recipes are a bit updated, but the message is the same: celebrate the garden’s bounty now, while you can.
Fried Green Eggplant. I was never crazy about purple eggplant. It tastes heavy to me and all that preparation: peel, salt, soak or parboil. It’s too much trouble, rather like spraying roses, and I have plenty else to do. Because I grow green eggplant and cook it the day it is picked, peeling is optional. No other prep is necessary either – just slice it think, dip it in a crepe batter and fry in a small amount of hot canola oil until brown on both sides.
Okra and Tomatoes. The only notes I have about this dish are written in pencil inside the cover of Tanse’s copy of the venerable Picayune Cookbook, so my riffs on it change all the time. This is the first time I’ve written one down at all! She used ‘The Trinity’ of onion, garlic and green pepper; I substitute a mild green pepper that I grow. It is a poblano-type, a great one to stuff with cheese, but its sweet flavor is a burpless wonder, too. Sauté the three until very limp in olive oil, then dump in slices of okra. 4-5 inch pods are the most tender and best for cooking, while larger pods can be dried for decorating or to shake in the pre-school rhythm band. Let the okra get bright green, stirring all the time for about 2 minutes, and add a can of tomato sauce or 2 T of tomato paste. Stir and cook, adding a can’s worth of water, salt and pepper. Cook until it starts to thicken and add a can of diced tomatoes or 2 cups of fresh cut Romas. A 2 fresh basil leaves and a sprig each of thyme and oregano. Get the mixture bubbling, cover and turn it down. Check on the brew every 20 minutes and keep it simmering until okra is tender and tomatoes have broken down. Add a dash of cayenne and taste for salt before serving.
Baked Chicken Tenders. Grandma fried hers with skin on, and it was wonderful, like the biscuits we ate before solid shortening became a dietary culprit. Mine starts with boneless skinless chicken cut in strips as thick as your thumb. She seasoned with salt and pepper; I use a bit of cayenne pepper, too. I follow her method of a milk soak and roll in breading, but with a 21st century take: 2% milk, not whole, and bread crumbs, not a flour coating.
The chicken tenders get baked at 350 degrees until the biggest one is fork tender.
Sliced Watermelon. They loved the big melons like Charleston Gray, but we eat a smaller, icebox size grown up the road by a friend and fellow Farmer’s Market vendor. Since he added irrigation to his place, he beats everybody for quality and quantity of produce. Pay heed – if you want to grow, plan for water when you plan for plants.
We’ll pull out the homemade pickles, leftover potato salad and butterbeans, and oh, yes, there will be cornbread, but that’s my husband’s secret recipe…