Planting Popcorn and Pumpkins
When I was a child, we had a garden in the back. It was bigger than most home gardens, but not something I can call a farm. It was situated behind the garage, outhouse, holly trees, and catalpa tree which all formed a line just behind the house. The garden was laid out in straight rows of cabbages, lettuce, corn, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, beets, and whatever else we wanted or thought we might want in the future. Each row was well weeded and neatly trimmed with plenty of walking space between them. It was like a super market with dirt floors.
I eat as well as I do today because of that garden (Lie – I eat with the discrimination of a garbage disposal.) I am as svelte as I am today because of that garden (Lie – I have more in common with Hardy than I do with Laurel.) I am as healthy as I am today because of that garden (Well, maybe…I have never spent a night in the hospital…yet.)
Between what we grew and what other home gardeners swapped with us, we had fresh food from late Spring to early Fall. From late Fall to early Spring, we had vegetables and fruits from the pantry. My Grandmother spent weeks canning vegies and fruits. One of the greatest joys of my childhood was standing in the kitchen during canning season. During the tomato stage, the house smelled like what I always imagined Italy would smell like. Now of days, people pay big money to have their house smell like what ours did during fruit canning season.
Sorry for the break. I had to grab a plum scented candle and light it. I HAD to. I swear.
I loved digging in the dirt for potatoes. Occasionally, I stripped a stray leaf or two off a lettuce head and ate them right in the garden. And the pumpkins! They were like magic. I would go out to the garden every week and I watched them grow, hand to God! My Grandfather did not like me touching everything in the garden, but he encouraged me to touch the pumpkins. “Move ‘em a tiny bit. Careful you don’t break the vine. That’ll keep ‘em from getting’ rotten on the ground.” Every year, I had a home grown, hand-picked Jack-O-Lantern on our front porch step.
The gourds were planted next to the pumpkins. When the gourds got nice and dry, my friends and I would hollow out the body of a gourd and make a drinking ladle. We always had one handy at the water well, just in case we got too hot…or something. If we were lucky enough to have a few firecrackers left over from Independence Day, we would poke a small hole in the dried gourde, insert a firecracker, light it, count to three, and throw it like a hand grenade. If our timing was just right, the gourd grenade would explode in the air scattering pieces of gourd all over the yard. Before you ask, my friends and I still have all our hands and fingers and both of our eyes. I am not sure how we managed that. Lucky, I guess, or it is true what they used to say, “God watches over drunks and fools.”
We had several rows of corn. My Grandfather made sure we had one row of popcorn just for me. That row was all for me, including the work. I put the seed in the furrow. I pulled the weeds by hand. I broke the ears off the stalk. I removed the kernels from the cob. I put the kernels in the jars. In the Fall, when the nights were cooler, and the TV aired the occasional scary movie, my Grandmother and I put oil in the bottom of a pan, and the kernels in the oil. We had a propane stove with a gorgeous blue flame. My Grandmother cranked the flame up to high. We sat the pan on the stove burner. This was not a quick and easy microwave. This was a gas stove and a heavy sauce pan with a lid. My Grandmother put the lid on the pan and, while holding the lid with one hand, she shook the pan back and forth on the burner with her other hand. My Grandmother was not a big person so her whole body shook in counterpoint to the sauce pan. Sometimes, I suspected the pan was shaking her. When she got tired, I shook the pan. I was smaller than my Grandmother. My whole body shook MORE than the pan. After about three days, or at least it seemed like three days, the first kernel exploded against the pan lid. Then a few more went off and a few more and a few more until a machinegun barrage of kernels slammed into the lid. The trick was knowing when to take the pan off the burner. Too soon and you had a thick layer of un-popped kernels in the bottom of the pan. Too late and you stunk up the whole house with the unmistakable odor of charred popcorn. At just the right moment, my Grandmother lifted the pan off the burner, took off the lid, and poured out the popcorn into a large bowl. She then applied just the right amount of salt. We never used butter. “It ruins the taste of the popcorn. If you want to eat butter, there is a stick in the refrigerator.”
When I was older, I thought several times I that wanted to have a garden like my Grandparents’. Then, I did a little research and re-discovered what a Herculean task a sizable garden was to cultivate. How did my Grandfather get the soil plowed? We did not own a tractor. Where did he get all the seeds and seedlings? To me, they just showed up one day. How did he keep the weeds at bay? I never saw him use chemicals. So much planning was needed and so much hard, manual labor. I never grew a garden.