By Anne McKee
Yep, it’s that time of the year. Uh-huh, late October and November – both months are embellished with veggie gardens and little turnip patches, as my Granny called them.
Those dark green leaves illuminate every garden area — whether large or small – throughout the Deep South. For many years, when the southern kitchen celebrated the first “cooking” of the turnip green season, I remember, that I turned up my nose.
I was almost 30 years old when I discovered what I had been missing all of those years of “No, thank you,” to the savory flavor of a pot of greens that simmered on the stove and were brought forth to the dinner table. Oh, the folly of youth.
Lord, I thank you for
being born in the South
and for cornbread and
turnip greens in my mouth!
No, I didn’t write that little ditty, but wish I had. Notice the three momentous phrases: Lord, I thank you, born in the South, cornbread and turnip greens in my mouth! As a storyteller, I pick up on the imagery. In my mind’s eye, I clearly see Granny keeping watch over a pot of turnip greens, seasoned with a ham hock – simmering low until the pot liquor was “just right.”
The cornbread was made in a double-gripped, black-iron skillet, crispy and brown. Add a bread pudding and a feast was served.
It is recorded that during the Civil War, the folks at home literally survived on turnip greens and pot liquor.
If the greens were not available, Polk salad, a product of pokeweed, was a nice substitute, especially for filling the belly, when desperation was a daily trial. There was even a song written about Polk salad – recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 1968 — performed by Elvis, Tom Jone, and others.
Polk Salad Annie (in part)
Down in Louisiana
where the alligators grow so mean,
lived a girl that I swear to the world,
made the alligators look tame.
Polk salad Annie
Gators got your granny.
Everybody said it was a shame,
for her mama was working on the chain-gang.
Every day before suppertime,
she’d go down by the truck patch
and pick her a mess of Polk salad
and carry it home in a tote sack.
Polk salad Annie
Gators got your granny.
— Tony Joe White
Tony Joe White described in the song the plight of a poor, rural Southern girl and her family during the hard times after the Civil War or during the years of the Great Depression, when folks were glad to “pick a mess of Polk salad and carry it home in a tote sack.”
In this 21st century, there’s not too much desperation, but a real yearning each fall for a fresh “mess of greens.”
Now to the cornbread – not mixed with sugar, thank you, but with yellow cornmeal, buttermilk, one egg, and bacon drippings – true Southern cornbread that is poured into a hot, hot black iron skillet, where there has been a tablespoon or so of bacon drippings heated in a hot oven of 475 degrees.
Here is the secret, according to Granny: three quarters through the baking, flip the cornbread mixture over in the skillet to assure a brown crisp crust on both sides. The “flip part” is a little tedious, but with practice – uh-huh, one may become an expert. Of course, I’m not capable of such success, just too stressful for little-ole-me, but husband can sure make a fine plate of the crusty stuff. Wink … Wink.
However, first things first – without a total cleaning, the greens might have grit or leftover dirt from the garden, but worst than that – little bugs lurking within the leaves. Some smarty might remark – oh, a little bug never hurt anybody – gives a little protein to the pot. What?
I’m just saying … don’t forget Polk Salad Annie – she made gators look tame. Now don’t go messing with her greens ‘cause her mama was working on the chain-gang.
Some favorite turnip green comments:
1. Do I look like I just fell off of a turnip truck?
2. She’s as country as a turnip green.
3. There’s nothing more pitiful than a pretty girl with turnip greens in her teeth.
4. No one but a Southerner can tell you how many turnip greens make a mess.
5. You can’t get blood out of a turnip.
6. I feel like the underside of a turnip green – low and green.
7. Only Southern folks know how to handle their “pot-likker.”
One final, but equally important component to the Southern feast I’ve featured today, and that is hot pepper sauce, per my Granny:
Mighty Good Pepper Sauce
8 oz. white vinegar
6 dark green hot, hot peppers (washed and cut into pieces – you may remove the seeds, unless you are fearless).
Pour vinegar over chopped peppers and boil for 15 minutes.
Cool – then pour into glass containers with tight lids.
Put them away in the pantry for two months, then they are ready (just hope you are)!
So here we are – cool fall weather and turnip green time of the year. Don’t forget the cornbread and pepper sauce. Call me when it’s ready!
One more thing … I invite you to read my contribution to the holiday issue of Mississippi Magazine, just out on the stands and regular mailed subscribers as well. My story is entitled, Christmas with Miss Betty Lou, and located on the On Being Southern page (final page in magazine). Many of you will have known Meridianite, Miss Betty Lou Calvert (originally from Kemper County) – a true Southern lady and cousin to my Granny, Mrs. Ila Calvert Brooks.
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. Visit her web site: www.annemckee.net