Our next door neighbor when I was growing up owned the lot behind his house. He was an engineer for the Southern Railroad, but had grown up in north Georgia in the country and was an able gardener in his spare time. Mr. Lingerfelt’s lot was at least a half acre in size, set in the suburban Atlanta subdivision where we lived, and on it he grew fine tomatoes, squash, corn, and okra in the summer and various greens in the fall. He’d load up a basket and bring it to the back door and offer them to my mother for a few dollars he used to help support his large garden and large family. You couldn’t get much fresher than Mr. Lingerfelt’s vegetables, and we enjoyed them for as long as my parents lived in that house. He even brought over a squirrel stew once, not to sell, just for them to taste. That, my mother turned down.
Here in Aiken, our next door neighbor, Wade Brodie, is equally generous with the bounty from his garden in the country east of town. He reminds us through the summer that there are tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers out back, sometimes still on his truck, and we can help ourselves. Occasionally, Sissy, Wade’s wife, brings a jar of her famous gazpacho, the perfect meal for a hot August night.
A few months ago Wade called with an offer of scuppernong juice, ready to be made into jelly, and last week came the greatest gift – a huge bag of collard greens he and Sissy had picked that day. I suppose they knew their citified neighbors well enough to know that, even if we had the inclination to wash those collards – and it takes, I’m told a great deal of washing – we probably weren’t up to the task and would wind up with a pot full of greens and South Carolina grit. So, he brought them washed and chopped and ready to go in the pot. It beats squirrel stew any day.
Mr. Wade’s collards and Mr. Lingerfelt’s turnip greens all belong to a large family of vegetables called Cruciferae, which gets its name from its four-petaled flower that looks like a crucifer or cross. This clan also includes arugula, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, mustard, and radishes.
Collards are a form of a variety of cabbage called kale. The leaves are thick and rather rounded like cabbage, while kale has leaves that are usually curly and often finely divided. Turnip green leaves are less dense, more elongated and have an edible root called, of course, a “turnip.”
Collards and turnip greens have been discovered by the foodies lately and some of my favorite cookbooks have recipes for them. Donald Barickman’s “Magnolia’s Down South - Uptown/Downtown Southern Cuisine” from his famous East Bay Street restaurant in Charleston ( I saw Oprah there once), recommends cooking collards with a little onion and garlic and olive oil, cider vinegar, lots of chicken broth and a ham hock or neck bones – “till the greens have a good flavor and are silky in texture.” Silky collards – who’d have thought it? I put in a little sugar too.
My gardening neighbor and mentor Judy shared her gardening space with me this summer. Out behind our houses, it’s the only sunny spot available to both of us. She planted tomatoes, some okra, and green beans, and I planted lots of basil, a row of zucchini and yellow squash and, rather as an afterthought, three ichiban eggplants.
The tomatoes are played out now. The squash is turned under. The basil and okra and bush beans have been replaced by Judy’s sweet peas and spinach and some broccoli she started from some heritage seeds she found at a farmer’s market this summer. The eggplant, however, plays on. It is even sort of pretty, as vegetables can be when they’re healthy.
Ichiban seems less bitter than big old eggplants we’re used to, and the long narrow body, peeled, hollowed out a little, and dipped in flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs, make a perfect little boat for the seafood and sauce that go into Eggplant Bayou Teche, the tastiest Cajun dish I’ve ever eaten. It’s also the most time consuming, but you can get it at VZ’s Big Easy now in Aiken.
I looked the other day to see if Mr. Lingerfelt was still living in our old neighborhood, and found he’d died just a few months ago, still living in the house where he’d been for over fifty years. There was his picture, grinning, with a big cigar on one side of his mouth. The obituary even mentioned the half acre garden I remembered, and I found a google earth shot of it, probably taken in spring or early summer. There it was - that red Georgia clay, surely enriched by now from constant tending, fresh plowed, looking ready for the first summer crop of tomatoes and squash.
I hope another gardener buys his home and his garden. What a great selling point for the houses around him, and around the Brodies and around my friend Judy - “Neighbor with garden – likes to share.”