Thursday, March 1, 2012

Escaping with the Pilgrims

In my family, we cooked with an abundance of what I thought of as “Armenian 
vegetables” — eggplant, squash, tomatoes, onions, green peppers. I didn't consider these vegetables American because they weren't on the dinner tables of my friends. For the most part I loved these vegetables, except when they included (to my disgust) fava beans and (even worse) okra. God, I hated okra! Okra was cooked with tomatoes and onions until it was slimy, slimy, slimy. Even the name of this particular dish was gruesome: “bah-MEE-yah.” It wasn't until my college days when friend Peggy Flaxman from Texas introduced me to fried okra.

In a small town grocery that also served hamburgers and fried okra in the back of the store, only Peggy’s winning grin and plea, “You HAVE TO try it — it’s Southern popcorn!” convinced me to give it a try. In this joint (like none other I had ever seen), the customers plunked down their paper plates on top of the chest-high store shelves (amid the napkin dispensers, the ketchup, mustard, onions, salt & pepper) and ate their batter-dipped, lightly fried and slightly salted okra while standing over the cereal, bottled goods, and everything canned. People gobbled their okra, swiped the grease from their mouths with flimsy paper napkins, and instinctively leaned left or right to shift their bodies out of the way of a shopper’s hand reaching for something on the shelves below. Despite the catch-as-catch can atmosphere: the burgers and okra were simply delicious.

A few years later, my friend and mentor, Ann O’Bar from Chickasha (that's CHICK-ka-shay, Oklahoma … not too far from Anadarko) placed in my hands a bottle of her homemade, home-jarred pickled okra and after the first bite of vinegary crunch, I was sold. In these two southern incarnations, okra took on a whole new life for me and I adored it. 

When it came to the American vegetables — peas, string beans, carrots, and broccoli — all came from the freezer case. My father was totally against canned vegetables…too much salt, not enough vitamins. The corn might come out of a can, and in those days, definitely the asparagus, but those were the exceptions. [It would be decades before I even knew what real asparagus tasted like.] Farm-grown peas, string beans, and cauliflower would not come into my consciousness until we moved south. Then a whole host of other vegetables joined the fray — pole beans, butter beans, parsnips, turnips, collards, mustard greens, and kale. These were the stock of southern kitchens. But in the kitchens of my northern childhood, frozen it was. 

Each night, getting ready for dinner signaled the time when my parents would come home from the drycleaners — exhausted and stressed. This was the time to become invisible. Outwardly I went through the steps of what was required of me while spinning a fantasy world of comfort deep in my imagination. From the time I was seven, frozen mixed vegetables transported me to the land of a collaborative and caring community.

Whenever I ripped off the paper-cover and opened the waxed-whiteboard box of mixed vegetables, I always spilled a few. These few became the kernels of sustenance for we Pilgrims…

We were weathering an awful winter: blustery cold, huddled together, we stoically faced the hardships that life doled out daily.  In the lean-to, around the rough wooden table and hard benches where we sat, we had our bonnets and our cloaks, but by now they were threadbare and poor protection against the blowing winds and the falling snow.  None of us had the comfort of the furs or pelts that draped the Indians and their smooth brown bodies.  I envied them their warmth, but was taught to fear them. 

The Indians were a mystery to me.  At the most unexpected times, they came and went.  Their presence was unsettling and yet, though I would never tell anyone, somewhat comforting.   Even though they were so unlike us, I sensed they were like us; banded together, traveling in a group, watching out for one another.  The elders cautioned us to be wary of the Indians always and to never let down our guard.  Still, to help weather the winter, whenever they silently appeared and then wordlessly disappeared, we welcomed the kernels of corn, peas, carrots, and lima beans the Indians shared.

Sparingly I put each small vegetable into my mouth—at first frozen-hard, but slowly each would warm on my tongue and depending on how hungry I was, I would either wait until it had thawed completely OR I would take a bite through the just-softening edge and my teeth would slice through the miniscule icy bit.  If it hadn’t been for those Indians, I don’t know how we would’ve survived.

Placing the ketchup, mustard, silverware and napkins on our table, I liked the corn best.  It seemed to hold a sweetness past its frozen starchiness.  The lima beans I liked least, followed by the peas, and then the carrots.  These three seemed to have little taste in their frozen state. Once stove-top cooked, buttered and salted, the Pilgrims faded into the background.  I quite liked the vegetables more, but the company at the table far less.


  1. Fun post. We ate mostly frozen and canned veggies, too. Your description of opening the "white waxed board box" sure brought back the memories: chopped spinach, butter beans, mixed vegetables, etc. Today we more frequently get them in plastic bags, true?

    Like you, I HATED okra. My southern mother would put it in her vegetable soup and there it would float, all slimy, pink seeds separating and spilling in among the chunks of soft equally undesireable tomatoes. I have an unforgettable memory that centers around the dinner table and a serving of okra from my 8th year that had my frazzled mother determined that I would finish my okra or I would not leave the table. On the other hand my grandmother (her mother) was my advocate trying to talk some sense in to my mother, pleading with her not to make me sit there and eat it. But there I sat, choking and gagging between bites. It was one of the few times I recall my mother stubbornly refusing to alter her mindset. Probably to make up for the fact that she was so wishy-washy... It wasn't until the 90s that I had the courage to try it again in the more desireable fried state. I do like it now, boy do I like it. As do I most every other vegetable out there. Of course, we eat veggies in their more freshly prepared state now, too.

    One of my favorite escapes, from the table and the rest of my crazy household, was to grab a big fat sour dill pickle from the jar in the icebox (remember that phrase?) and go across the street and climb as high up into the neighbor's ear tree as I could safely climb and sit in a comfy crook and savor that pickle while enjoying my birds-eye view of the 'hood. Loved it. I was a real monkey.

    Keep those stories coming. Cheers!