Spring’s First Greens
The other day, Wonderful Husband and I were talking about how early spring is a hard time for wildlife; much of their food is gone, or spoiled, and it’s still too early for new growth and blooms. I mentioned that my people, before WWII, had the same early spring challenges as wildlife. Being raised in the city, Wonderful Husband scoffed a bit at me. But I know what I know.
My Mammaw’s children and grandchildren grew up on her stories. Stories of when she was a child, stories she’d heard from the older folks. She had a gift and you saw the story in your mind and felt it in your heart. This is one of those stories.
In rural southern Illinois, before WWII, most folks lived much as they had lived a hundred years before; no electricity, no running water, no refrigeration, no car, a wood stove for heating and cooking, a mule for plowing and riding. They were poor, but proud – good hardworking, God-fearing folks. Sunday was their day of rest, and they kept it holy…walking to the one-room white church at the top of a hill in their “Sunday Best”. Their “Sunday Best” consisted of handmade dresses made from emptied flour sacks for the girls and women; their newest pair of bib overalls for the boys and men.
After church was social time – the women would visit with neighbors and family and new mothers showed off their babes. The little ones chased each other and tried to catch blue-tailed skinks on the huge sandstone rocks that served as steps for the church. The men would stand in a separate group, catching up on news, seriously discussing the weather and crops. Self-conscious teenagers would eye each other and try to court.
By early spring, everyone’s preserves were getting low; the meat from the smokehouse was nearly gone and a person got hungry, really hungry for something green and fresh. My great-grandma would get on her old, not very warm coat; tie a scarf around her head and go out to gather greens. It was wide open country, nothing to block the cold winds. The pale sun or her old coat did little to keep her warm.
She’d gather up lambs’ quarters, dandelion leaves and roots, sorrel, purslane, colts’ foot, cattail shoots and roots, young poke leaves, wild garlic, and search for whatever may have survived in the garden. She’d harvest as much as she could find, to cook up a “mess o’ greens”.
She’d stir up the fire in the wood stove and set her big stewer on it. Maybe, there would still be some bacon grease left for flavoring. When the bacon grease was hot and sizzling, she’d pile in the greens and salt, stirring them until they were bright green, then adding water and letting them simmer until they were beyond tender. Maybe she’d make “hot water cornbread”, by soaking corn meal in hot water; when it was set up, she’d slice it and then fry it (in bacon grease, of course).
Always, always, before they ate, they would give Thanks – I can still hear my great-grandfather’s voice as clear as yesterday, “Heavenly Father, Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and bless the hands that prepared it, in Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.”
Even all these many years later, I find myself reluctant to toss away an uprooted dandelion, thinking how grateful my people were to find such a gift.
Stay Green, Good Friends!