Spring is back, and besides warmer temperatures that means Mississippi’s summertime garden specialties are on the way.
Peaches, watermelons, blackberries — they’re all among my favorites. But when it comes to fresh produce, I’m more of a vegetable man.
I’m betting a lot of south Mississippi folk — you among them — remember the days of youth and the tedious task of shelling peas on the back porch. It wasn’t a fun chore for us kids on a hot summer day, but boy, was it ever worth it. The reward was a plate of home-cooked peas or butter beans at suppertime. (Pass the cornbread!)
My Grandma Rosie used salt pork to season her peas, but every Southern cook had their own favorite meat to use for seasoning.
The thing about many of the vegetables we ate back then is rather than being purchased at the A&P, they were just as likely to have been grown in a family’s garden or shared from a neighbor’s homegrown bounty, which was common in those days.
I grew up on Fairley Street in east Hattiesburg and while my mother bought plenty of vegetables from Better Living supermarket on Main Street, just as many came from my grandfather’s garden.
His name was the Rev. Elijah Jones. Hattiesburg will remember him as the Rev. E. L. Jones and — obviously — I am his namesake. Everyone in town knew him as Reverend Jones, but to his grandchildren he was affectionately called “Big Daddy.”
Big Daddy was a living legend here in town, but he was raised in the woods near Shubuta. You’ve probably noticed the exit for Shubuta driving Interstate 59 between Laurel and Meridian.
Besides being a Baptist preacher, Reverend Jones was also a carpenter. He built several houses in the area, including the home I grew up in on Fairley. It was destroyed by the tornado that swept through Hattiesburg three years ago.
My grandfather pastored two of Hattiesburg’s historic African American congregations, Friendship and Mount Olive Baptist, my church home. He helped construct Mount Olive’s older sanctuary, which is connected to the church’s new sanctuary on Country Club Road.
I guess you could call him a Renaissance man for his time. But, in our neighborhood, the Goula, Big Daddy was known just as much for his gardening. He maintained a huge garden within eyesight of our front porch on Fairley Street and grew some of everything. Bring your shopping list!
Among his specialties: corn, sweet potatoes, field peas, butterbeans, squash, and my personal favorite, okra, a vegetable I constantly have to defend on Facebook. I need my fellow okra lovers’ support on this one. There was nothing like a cast-iron skillet filled with some of momma’s fried okra for dinner.
Big Daddy also grew a variety of greens — mustards, turnips and, of course, collards, a first cousin to that snooty kale, so popular lately at hoity-toity upscale markets such as Whole Foods.
Foodies swear by kale’s healthy reputation. OK, fine. But kale doesn’t hold a candle to Big Daddy’s collards, and no one cooked them better than my mother and her sisters from Leakesville, Aunts Sudie and Martha. Hey, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned south Mississippi country cook. (Bet I get no argument there!)
Growing alongside all those vegetables, Big Daddy had plenty of fruit trees in his garden, too.
You don’t see fig trees growing in Hattiesburg like you used to, but my grandfather had several. He also had a few pear and peach trees, too. But us Goula kids kept our eyes on another summertime love: his plum trees.
Big Daddy had a small orchard of them, and around this time of year, we knew plum season was close. By April, his trees had begun to bloom. Honeybees chased the nectar and the fragrance wafting off the pretty pink blossoms filled the air. Like figs, plum trees were much more abundant in Hattiesburg than today. In many parts of my old neighborhood, the trees would “volunteer” from seeds we’d tossed onto the ground after finishing a big, juicy plum.
Of course, half the fun of growing up surrounded by all this goodness was that we didn’t wait until the plums were ripe enough to eat in midsummer. Southern children will tell you there’s no better early summer treat than a fat green plum with barely a hint of pink on its skin, sprinkled with a dash or two of Morton’s salt. The flavor combination of tart and salty couldn’t be matched.
Big Daddy’s garden was enclosed by a makeshift fence that did more to define its border than keep anyone out. Neighborhood kids could easily stroll into the garden and load their hands with green plum rewards. The grown folk used to warn us, “Y’all better stop eatin’ them green plums, they gone make you sick!” We took their warning as a dare, filling up on as many as we could eat.
Generous soul that he was, my grandfather didn’t mind the kids grabbing some green plums before they’d ripened. He had so many trees, there were plenty of plums to go around. As they matured, the tree branches would be so loaded under the plums’ weight they’d bend almost to the ground.
A true mark of the summer season in the Goula was seeing Big Daddy walking down Fairley Street carrying a huge plastic bucket filled with ripe plums. He loved sharing them with children in the neighborhood, the same ones who’d raided his trees in early summer.
Have you grown your own vegetables lately? Or have you, like me, grown accustomed to purchasing them at Winn-Dixie or Walmart?
Since spring is back, do yourselves a favor. Head downtown to Hattiesburg’s Farmers Market, held every Thursday at Town Square Park. You’ll find plenty of locally grown produce, not to mention an array of unique, handmade crafts and even prepared foods for lunch.
Another good bet for locally grown produce is the permanent Farmers Curb Market at 1200 Corrine Street just off Broadway Drive. It’s been there for years, an underused little treasure in Hattiesburg’s historic district. Support your local farmers, and have a little fun while you’re at it.
We’re also blessed with a number of country stores. One of my favorites is Old Tyme Country Market on U.S. 49 north of town just before the Mississippi Highway 42 turnoff to Sumrall. After gathering a few jars of their Amish pickles, I continue three miles north on 49 to another favorite, Shady Acres Country Village. You’ll love their selection of homemade pies, cakes and cookies. You can also enjoy lunch in their restaurant, featuring plenty of the southern foods you grew up eating (not to mention some of the best barbecue ribs in the Pine Belt).
And, oh yeah. Along with a fresh selection of tomatoes, okra, corn and sweet potatoes, this time of year, they’ll soon have something else I can’t find anywhere else: green plums! (Only thing now is I have to pay for them.)
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: email@example.com.