Today all my gardening friends are talking about the harvest and putting up food for the winter. They are reporting how many quarts of berries they have picked, how many jars of tomatoes are being canned, and posting pictures of fresh peach pies. I found the images familiar in some way, like a long lost memory that hangs around in the cobwebs of my brain. Once brushed off, they transported me back in time, to the front porch of our mountain home with my grandmother, Floris. Decked out in her floral apron, she assigned me a job so my hands would not be idle. My floating work station was a barn-red porch swing. Hers, a rocking chair with a foot stool. She had a basket of beans, or peas, or corn and I had a trash sack. Her apron covered her lap as she snapped the beans deftly and discarded the ends and strings. When the basket was empty, the apron was full. She gathered it up, still around her waist, and carried the beans inside where they were cooked in a pressure cooker with fatback, a bit of sugar, and salt.
On corn day, we sat together and shucked each ear. (I always thought the silks at the top looked like hair sticking out and I imagined a face there yelling as I pulled the hair off…ah, a child’s imagination.) To freeze creamed corn, you have to have a lot of ears and therefore, a lot of helpers to shuck. It was a family event where rocking chairs moved to the motion of the easy conversation. There was always a cool breeze blowing wisps of hair around the faces of the women on that porch. Even when the temperature was scorching hot in the garden, the shade on the porch gave some relief. Sweet iced tea, filled glasses beside each chair so no one would get parched. The goal was to finish a basket of corn before the men brought the next one. The porch was like a hen party with clucking and pecking…storytelling, the latest news, opinions on every topic, recipes discussed and exchanged. On occasion, a summer storm would roll across the distant mountains and we would watch it come. Chatter silenced so we could hear the thunder, and soon we smelled the rain coming close, as if to listen in for the latest gossip.
Peas were handled in the same way as corn…black-eyed peas, purple hull, and English were all on the list to be hulled. I think hulling peas was my least favorite, too much work for too little reward. I didn’t even like peas, and the hulls made my hands turn purple and my small fingers hurt. I feel sure I didn’t do very many of them, but I still remember the day I had some English peas straight from the garden for the first time and being amazed at how those buttery bites seemed to melt in my mouth. It ruined me for eating canned peas ever again. Hulling peas was hard work which I resisted doing, however, the porch-sittin’ was still a reason to at least pretend I was participating in it. It felt like being a part of something magical and mundane all at once. The everyday weeding, the bugs, the shucking and shelling transformed into fruitfulness before my very eyes on that porch.
On jelly day I was responsible to gather “horse apples” which was our name for the apples in the pasture that the horses ate. The ancient trees were sporadically placed and gnarled into shapes that rivaled pretzels in their twists and turns. The fruit was equally deformed…small and misshapen. If you had to pick an apple out of a pile the last one you would pick would be a horse apple. However, for jelly making purposes, my grandmother favored these odd fruits instead of the ones from the apple trees in the garden. My dad loaded up the jeep with any helpers willing to go, and off we went to ‘pick’ some apples. Pick is a misnomer, because at jelly time most of them were on the ground already. Once the gathering was finished, the jelly making commenced, and because I was too small I was banished from the kitchen so as to not be underfoot. All I know was it was an enchanted place, the kitchen. Where nasty old horse apples were changed to transparently pink liquid that was like heaven once it set. My grandmother’s apple jelly was THE coveted gift on every one’s Christmas list. Christmas was the time the summer Mason jars full of nature’s bounty reappeared, and you were considered rich if your jar contained apple jelly.
I look back at those days with the generations of women from my family with fond memories. I don’t remember too much about the work, probably because I was too small to do much of it. What I recall is the feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself…a family. A place where love trumped opinions, though there were many strong ones on every topic. A place where every one of us felt we were an important part of the larger unit…a valued part. Where participating in conversations that were frivolous and meaningful at the same time broadened our world view as much as it helped form our personalities. Where watching hard work being turned into nourishment brought as much pleasure as consuming the marvelous food itself. Where celebrating the harvest was tempered with planning for the future. Where pantry shelves lined with cans of food brought a sense of pride in a job well done. It was on the porch we learned to value one another. It was on the porch that we learned to voice our opinions respectfully. It was on the porch we learned about hard work. It was on the porch we learned that nourishment is about more than food…that there is such a thing as nourishment of the soul. I believe what this world needs is more porch-sittin’ time.