I am loathe, even during a period of no entertaining musings, to speak with anything other than reverence for the South’s cultural mileau. First of all, I forever will run a shabby runner- up to the observational and humorist skills of the late genius Lewis Grizzard, columnist for the Atlanta Constitution and multiple insightful treatises on what it means to be Southern, like Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You. I would be a nitwit to try to match his acumen and folk-wisdom. Second, my wife’s entire family is from Tennessee (and so far up into the north of Alabama to the border that it feels like you’re in Tennessee). This is where I have dwelled this past month on our farm. I am not a suicide; and I know the value of good family relations. So with a bit of mirth, here are a few pleasant observations on my time in the South this month of August, beginning with a bone I must pick with the local home – gardening population.
I always engage in agricultural pursuits while there. Since practically any plant in any state of carbon decay (i.e., living or dead) causes me to sneeze, I have spent minimal time among the denizens of garden plots. But I am learning about them. I must “allow,” with certain pleasure, that I am rather adroit at finding black-eyed peas, string beans and lima beans secreting themselves under their leaves and stalks. Twice on this sojurn I have picked a mess of beans. Two things emanate from this work. First is gaining a definition of what constitutes a mess of beans. After asking several dozens of locals how to measure a “mess,” I came to discover that there is a metric of sorts applicable to the term. A “mess” is the amount of beans that will feed the number of hungry mouths at the dining table at the meal in which they are served. Of course, the challenge for the picker is to know, in advance, how many of said mouths will be present at said dinner/supper AND how hungry that congregation will be where beans are concerned. The secret to acquiring a mess, therefore, of peas, beans or what have you is to pick a lot, and hope that they will be shelled in sufficient quantity that no one at the table will complain of being shorted in the beans department.
Once the raw material from the vines is acquired, you have to liberate the vegetal innards from their casings, a whole ‘nuther exercise. Shelling is not one of my skill-sets, although my yield per hour has ramped up considerable. The secret to shelling is to discover the vulnerability in the enclosure. In the case of black-eyed peas, the trick is to crack the ends of the shell, then pull the strings exposed at either end as far down across the seam as possible. Then, it’s possible to use your thumb to run along the weakened seam, separating the shell into two halves stem to stearn, causing the peas to cascade into your beat up bowl. You must have a beat-up bowl for the experience to have the correct flavor. This container ideally will look like a steel drum’s inside, played by a prodigy, well-hammered from the drubbing it has received at the hands of gardeners and cooks knocking the bowl about on hard surfaces.
The other mystery that I’m still working on is the definition of beans. Your black-eyed pea is a bean. I know this because it has an eye, like all beans of the genus. I also know this because my nephew J, the Tennessee Young Farmer of the Year, told me so in confidence, likely embarassed by his uncle’s ignorance of even the simplest facts. Problem is that some folks call them peas, some call them beans, and most use the terms interchangably. So, it’s common for me to be charged to pick a “mess of beans” out in the garden; this throws a literalist like myself into a tizzy of uncertainty over the genus, species and quantity. But my default behavior is to pick a lot of black eyed peas. No one ‘cept a commanist don’t like those beans! Indeed, fresh from the garden black-eyed peas don’t even require relish – they are so mild and pleasant-textured in the mouth that they stand alone, flavorfully speaking.
Fish frys are something of a tradition in this part of Tennessee during this time of year. Frequently, they are tied either to fund-raising or reunions of families or school graduating classes. A fish fry features fish (typically fried catfish), beans (your guess is as good as anyone else’s), a roll or corn bread, typically a slaw, and the “house wine” of this county – sweet tea. And of course, dessert. Lord have mercy, is there dessert! Peggy and I enjoyed a trip to a fish fry last week, courtesy of the Elkton Methodist Church, raising funds to save the foundation of the church in which we married 33 years ago. The cause by itself made the trip worthwhile, but the event was worth every penny as entertainment and mouth-watering fantasy. We enter the volunteer fire station, site of the event, to be greeted by the sounds of a very tight bluegrass/gospel group. Can’t call it a band; it’s a gathering of folks who donated their time (a 3 hour concert) and talent to the Church – musicians who, we were told drove in from all over the place at the urging of David Austin, a guitarist/mandolinist/banjo-ist who grew up in Elkton and, so I’m told, spent time backing up Loretta Lynne. It appears that he and his fellow musicians knew what they were doing, all right. They could play most any song of the genres, and had not rehearsed prior to the event. The five musicians (a sixth vocalist didn’t pick up an instrument) seemed to be interchangable music machines, playing anything constructed of a box covered by strings. It seemed the only delay in the smooth transition from one tune to the next was deciding what key they would prefer to sing in. They sang mournfully, then joyfully, then frantically to banjo pickin’. Dang, that’s music, folks!
On the food front, the little gals in the serving line put a couple of catfish filets (about 3 fishes worth) on my plastic plate, then piled french fries and hush puppies on top of that. All of the food was lumped up in one of the three divider sections on the plate, which I thought was a bit disorganized and aesthetically displeasing until I realized that they needed the other two divider sections to pile on the slaw and the white beans (in brodo) and the bread and the dessert. (Never doubt the wisdom of the servers at a fish fry.) It was all washed down with about a quart (well, maybe two quarts) of sweet tea, sitting around church long tables made out of heavy plastic with the folding metal legs- you know the kind. Sweet tea is worthy of its own post, but not here by this correspondent. It is enough to say that sweet tea likely is to blame for aggravated kidney stones and tooth decay. But heck, none of us is emerging triumphally from this vale of tears, and there are a variety of worse ways to depart this life than by OD-ing on sweet tea. Bring it on, says I.