Driving along the gravel, single-lane road, I glance to the right and note the manicured lawn. Marred only by rain-deprived browned grass, the level area serves as backyard to a fine home. As I peer closely, I see a rectangular outline of darker green grass and along that border, a stack of wire cages near a pile of compost, remnants of a once-productive, thriving backyard garden. The gardener died, but the sweat from his brow, his tender care of plants and his eternal gardener's optimism remain, both in memory and soil he worked. Maybe invisible to our human eyes, but that ground is special and, perhaps in the future, will again produce fruits and vegetables.
|This backyard used to be a productive garden site|
|Clearing Brush at Heart & Sole Gardens, February, 2008|
|Pottery Shard Revealed by Tiller|
In September, recalling my maternal grandmother's garden, a large expanse of property that produced abundant harvests, I decided to pay a visit, in hopes I would find a carefully tended autumn garden. As I pulled into a street, much shorter than my childhood memory of it, there was no sign to indicate anyone lived at my grandmother's former home or at the one where I lived as a young child, but a neighbor was building a new front porch on his house. I explained why I was there and the man offered to allow me to walk through his backyard to where the garden used to be, but when I reached the area where huge sunflowers once bloomed, I found tall trees growing among bushy shrubs and weeds so thick, it was impossible to walk through them. Dismayed, I walked along what used to be a well maintained garden's edge until I came to the end where an apple tree used to stand, its small, tart green apples a taste memory I love. I held hope the tree might still be living and I could take a small cutting, but there was no sign it ever existed. As I turned to leave, I noticed a particularly tall weed and when I realized it was pokeweed, I smiled.
|Pokeweed grows in Granny's former garden|
As I took my leave, I paused to thank the man who allowed me to stroll across his property and a young girl appeared at his side. Six years old, the man's daughter shyly smiled as I told her I used to live on the same street when I was her age. I described my grandmother's garden and how I used to help pull weeds and pick vegetables and fruits. The girl's brown eyes brightened and as I drove away, I hoped her family would plant a garden in their backyard, only feet away from where Granny's grew. Perhaps, when spring warms the soil and frost danger is over, I will pay another visit and take some of Granny's heirloom seeds to the young girl. I think Granny would like that.
*Note: Pokeweed can be toxic and this recipe should only be prepared with leaves that are very young and tender. If cooking pokeweed for the first time, it is best to pick leaves with one who is experienced with harvesting. Pokeweed berries are toxic, but make a beautiful dye for fabric or baskets. This recipe is a traditional Southern Appalachian preparation.
Wash about 1 pound fresh, tender young pokeweed leaves, cover with water and bring to a boil in a large pot. Cook 20 minutes, then drain water and rinse pokeweed with fresh water. Again, fill the pot with water, bring to a boil with the leaves and cook for another 20 minutes. Drain pokeweed and again rinse with fresh water. For a third time, add water to pokeweed and bring to a boil. Cook for another 20 minutes, then drain water and rinse pokeweed. Pat leaves dry or use a salad spinner to remove water.
In a large cast iron skillet, heat bacon fat until smoking hot. Add cooked pokeweed leaves and lower heat. Stir leaves with hot fat for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with red pepper flakes or hot sauce, if you like a spicy kick.
Serve pokeweed salad with crumbled bacon and vinegar on the side.