Heavenly Hampers of Okra

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The word abundance comes to mind when I think of Papa Graham’s garden. Charles’ father was a true honest hardworking farmer who found delight in harvesting that first hamper of okra, picking five gallon buckets of squash, butter beans, and all the rest. Mama would make coffee first thing, before daylight, and Papa would drink a cup and then head to the barn to load feed for sixty cows onto his truck. Mama would make a huge breakfast of grits, eggs, biscuits and gravy to have ready for him when he returned. After eating, he would be on his tractor in the corn field–or would b e working rows of vegetables in his garden.

Charles and I lived in a small upstairs furnished apartment while he was studying at the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine. It was 250 long miles to Papa Graham’s garden in Merrillville, Georgia. But on several exciting occasions during those years Papa and Mama brought their garden to us. We’d open our door and there they’d be, their arms loaded with brown grocery bags bulging with okra, squash, corn and peas, even a cantaloupe. It was almost like Christmas!

Later, after we moved to Cairo only twenty-five miles from Papa’s garden, we were blessed by many more bags, hampers, and boxes of delicious vegetables. From June to September, whenever Mama and Papa visited us, they brought beautiful tomatoes, a box of potatoes or whatever was the current crop. Sometimes they even shelled peas and brought them in a ziplock bag ready to cook. Or they would insist on sitting with us on our porch to help us shell the peas.

Papa grew many long rows of peas, a staple in south Georgia cooking. I learned to tell the difference between black-eyes, pink-eyes, lady peas, and crowders. Then one year there was a new variety. We all were delighted with the zipper peas which, as you can imagine, zipped open so much more easily than any of the others. And they were delicious. I was always ashamed when I picked peas with Mama and Papa because I was always a row behind where I should have been. My back started hurting before we were half done but I couldn’t admit it because here were these folks, riddled with arthritis, plugging along with only an occasional grunt.

Then there were those lush squash vines–yellow crookneck, zucchini, and even some years the white scalloped squash that looked like squatty dishes under the vines. You could fill a bucket in no time. In fact, sometimes the squash crop was so heavy Papa hauled squash to market, to all his neighbors, as well as to church members. Cucumber vines vied for being the heaviest producers. As a kid, in my mother’s sweet garden I’d enjoyed picking squash and cucumbers more than any other vegetable. It was like hunting Easter eggs. And that was true of Papa’s garden as well. Only his garden was so much bigger.

Speaking of vines, I was very fond of Papa’s cantaloupes. Splitting open one of those melons was a thrill every time. The gorgeous soft orange color itself made me happy. But the taste! To use a cliché, I could eat my weight in those cantaloupes. Cantaloupes are still good but, somehow, not as good as Papa’s. Some years he didn’t plant cantaloupes or watermelons. It seemed as if those were luxury products he only grew if he had some space left after planting the necessary vegetables.

And one of those necessary vegetables was okra.

Not only did all of his family depend on that good okra, but there were businesses in town like Holiday Inn that were on his list for weekly deliveries, and of course the Farmers Market too. During the peak season Papa broke okra every other day. “Breaking” okra was a new term to me. In my mother’s garden we cut okra with a knife. It was certainly not a favorite job because okra makes you itch. But it didn’t seem to bother Papa. As the season progressed the okra developed higher and higher on the stalks until in September he’d be reaching above his head sometimes. When he left his house with two or three heavenly hampers of okra in the back, he was the picture of peace and contentment. Or when someone would pull into his yard having come some distance to claim a reserved hamper of JB Graham’s okra, then, too, he looked as happy as anyone who’s won a foot race.

It was not just corn that Papa grew. It was silver queen, sweet corn, field corn and others I can’t remember. But it was all so good! From planting time to fingerling size to tasseling and then those first wonderful ears, the progression of the corn crop was a subject of great interest. When the harvest began, you might find Papa under a pecan tree shucking corn by the bushel while Mama “creamed” or grated the corn in the kitchen. There would be a fantastic huge dish of corn at every church dinner, every family reunion, and, of course on the table for us when we “dropped by.” It was so good you’d hardly be able to eat anything else.

Between them, Papa and Mama grew, processed, and froze hundreds of quarts of vegetables every year. Their freezer along about mid-August would be filled to the brim, everything neatly dated, sorted, and recorded in Mama’s records. All through the year Mama served those wonderful vegetables, fresh as if just picked. The only year we missed those vegetables was 1968 when lightning struck Papa and Mama’s house. The whole house was ablaze when they came home from church that Sunday night. And it was August so the freezer, fully packed with the year’s crop, was ruined along with everything else. All they had was what was still in the garden.

Now, I sniff the cantaloupes at the grocery trying to find one as good as those Papa grew. I buy a bag of shelled peas remembering hot afternoons sitting on the porch with Mama and Papa shelling crowders or zippers. Or I buy a sleeve of frozen creamed corn and try, unsuccessfully, to make it taste like Mama’s. And when I see a bin full of perfect tender pods of okra, I simply have to buy some to fry in an iron skillet.

Papa never won the prize for selling the first hamper of okra or for growing the best crop or the biggest crop of anything. Unless, that is, his prize was seeing all of us, and many more, benefit from his hard work. He didn’t consider winning prizes, just wanted to work hard and reap a bountiful harvest, to pay his bills, to enjoy partnering with the soil, the sun, and the rain. To him, delivering a heavenly hamper of okra to an eager customer was worth more than any blue ribbon.

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