Tag Archives: garden

Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago. Since today is Labor Day, precisely the sort of cool, clear, late summer morning when we would make Brunswick stew, I wanted to put it out there again.

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from trucks, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside boxes of huge tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market.

Mounds of homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins.

From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke coming from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids and a cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek… By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points: Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store-bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and a gang of cousins. All gathered there under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Doing Corn!

Prompted by friends who insisted others might enjoy my stories from home, I began this blog. Seven years ago now! Below is the very first story I posted. Appropriate because it was this time of year when I began the blog, this time of year when the story occurred, and this particular memory which inspired the name “Storyshucker”.  Blogging has been fun, has led to other writing opportunities, and most importantly has shown me how alike we are. You can blindly pick a spot on the globe and know that the people you point to have memories of home, reminisce about the old days, and love to share their stories. You have a story too. Write it down.

 

Doing Corn!

Years ago I reminisced with coworkers about past experiences we longed to relive. One said “I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime excitement I wanted to have again I whispered, “I want to do corn…”

Nannie, my grandmother, had acres of garden which were summer’s focus for our huge extended family. We anticipated nothing more than corn. Excitement began the day Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor, dropping seed kernels into the many long rows. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield.

“Straighten up the stalks as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief.

As weeks passed, Nannie checked the developing ears by pulling back shucks just enough to stick a fingernail into a single kernel. Others leaned in to monitor her testing…

“If we’d get some rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted.

“You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted.

More weeks passed and as the entire field neared “readiness” everyone waited for word from Nannie. On pins and needles we kids anticipated an exciting proclamation, but in true Nannie-style she only casually posed the question. “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”

Tuesday morning aunts started early “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, tubs, and knives. Out in the field we saw tops of cornstalks jerk and heard the distant “sca-runch!” of an ear being pulled.

“Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again.

One by one, aunts emerged from the cornfield pushing heaping-full wheelbarrows. They made it to the shade of the ancient oak by the barn, wiped sweaty faces, and sat in chairs arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks off “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to experienced aunts who flicked away the wriggling offenders and cut off damaged kernels with surgical precision. As each tub filled with shucked corn, a younger cousin ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water on her old stove.

Nannie hummed hymns as she took steaming ears of corn from the pots and plopped them into ice water in her old ceramic kitchen sink. Older cousins stood at her counter and cut corn from the cobs.

Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons.

“I’ve still got some from last year so don’t count out any for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.

We snuck mouthfuls of corn as we cut it from the cobs, but we didn’t need to. Nannie always saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. We ate on her huge porch, leaning over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.”

The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to put them in our freezers. We had done corn.

My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be of Paris and Italy where shopping, sights, and sounds made them happy, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands and a chin covered in dripping butter is what I long for again.

I don’t need to visit foreign places to hear the sounds I loved. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum, cousins giggle, and a “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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A New Leaf

While working in the flower garden out back yesterday, I noticed a few “weeds” in full bloom. I was reminded of this little piece I wrote not long ago about those very plants:

A New Leaf

My bed felt too good to leave that early summer morning years ago. I yawned, fluffed my pillow a little, and rolled over. The house seemed quiet. Hopefully no one was around to tell me to get up.

“Get up!” my sister yelled from the hallway.

“For what?” I yelled back in a tone indicating I had no intention of leaving the bed.

“We told Nannie we’d pull weeds.” My sister loomed over my bed, hand on her hip.

My grandmother’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Richmond was surrounded by huge curved flowerbeds, with several more dotting the ample yard. In addition to tending to the yearly cycles that played out in her massive vegetable garden, there were also routine chores in her yard that required a good deal of work. One tedious task was pulling the first flush of summer weeds from her rose bed. The entire bed was periodically smothered in wild violets and other low-growing things we had to pull, which we at home simply referred to disgustedly as “chickweed.”

My sister and I pulled for hours. Starting at one end of the long bed, by the handfuls we ripped out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load until we had nearly reached the opposite end. Tired of persistent gnats and wiping gritty sweat from my face, I could think only of getting on my bicycle to meet friends down at Falling Creek for some cool relief. Just one more hefty patch of chickweed and we would be finished.

As I stood to stretch, I noticed a thick stand of violets under a nearby crepe myrtle. In years past we had never been able to get rid of that particular bunch of violets, try as we might, and we knew we would be back at it again this year.

“We’ll pull those violets when we finish this,” I said with resignation, pointing to the chickweed at my feet.

“You can leave the violets be.” Nannie responded as she walked towards them. She tossed a small handful of fertilizer into the center of the mass from the bucket she carried.

“Did you just fertilize those weeds?” I asked, puzzled. She had always wished the violets gone.

“It’s only a weed if you don’t want it.” Nannie said, tossing a second small handful of fertilizer.

Still puzzled, we agreed to leave the violets alone. Stretching again, I sat on the ground to rest and noticed several strands of chickweed lodged in my shoelaces. I plucked out one stem and absent-mindedly studied the small piece of nuisance.

Although I had pulled up pounds of that plant over the years I had never bothered to look at it closely. “Hey!” I yelled to Nannie. “The stems on these things are square, not round! And look! The flowers are like tiny orchids!” In my mind, I had discovered something remarkable.

What I had “discovered,” I learned years later, was that this was not chickweed. It was actually purple dead-nettle, a non-native intrusive plant with purplish-green leaves and tiny purple flowers. The plant is found, well, all over the place. That was unknown to me at the time.

“Can we keep these?” I asked excitedly, pointing to the last bit we had yet to pull from the rose bed. I was certain I was preserving something special. “These might be the last of their kind!”

“Yeah, except for those.” my sister said sarcastically, pointing towards the barn where at least two acres of pasture appeared dusty purple in the sun from the masses of dead-nettle growing there.

Nannie stared down at the remaining patch of green in her rose bed. “You want to leave these weeds?” she asked.

“But it’s only a weed if you don’t want it,” I grinned. The very same weedy problem I had cursed every year was suddenly something unique and worthwhile to me.

Nannie smiled and said nothing. She walked back to the crepe myrtle where she tossed another small handful of fertilizer onto the violets growing beneath.

Nannie had shifted her view of those violets. Practiced at picking her battles rather than fighting them, she embraced them and by doing so turned a headache into a showpiece. It was all about perspective. Satisfaction can come by a simple change in attitude. Nannie learned that lesson long ago. And now she taught it with the help of a few insignificant weeds.

I quickly understood Nannie’s change of heart regarding the violets, and I marveled at how smoothly she turned a problem into a bonus. But I wasn’t sure she agreed when I applied that notion to the scraggly green weedy blob remaining in her rose bed. Nannie walked towards the house, passing my sister and me still sitting on the ground.

She was just a few steps past us when she stopped, turned around, grinned and tossed a small handful of fertilizer onto my chickweed.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Southern Roots Magazine – Stew Day

Just a little announcement:

As a regular contributor to Southern Roots Magazine I’m excited to let you know about my latest piece.

Southern Roots Magazine focuses on “Southern history, heritage, and hospitality through photographs, articles, essays, stories, poetry, and event coverage.”

Please check out their website and leave a comment there, in the space they provide, if you enjoy my essay which was chosen for them as it captures a bit of what they are about.

https://www.southernrootsmag.com/stew-day/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities like this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

 

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Wait…

I’m watching from my window today.

For a few minutes more, at least. Saturday errands call, but right now the view into the garden has my willpower paralyzed. Soothed by the peaceful nothingness happening out there, I stare blissfully through the glass a little longer.

Oh well. I need to start those errands. Yawn, stretch, and one last glance outside before I begin. I stand up.

Wait… I sit back down.

There’s a bird. A little yellow bird. He flits and darts to the top of a frost-covered evergreen. Stops, hops, poses, and drops to another branch to repeat his mesmerizing moves. He struts and prances along several branches then flies away in a blur. Gone. How lucky I was to have shared that moment!

It doesn’t matter.

I have to get the car inspected. It’s too important not to. I stand up.

Wait… I sit back down.

Those leaves. Those five little leaves left clinging to a twig on the winter-bare crepe myrtle. They were yellow a second ago. Wow look! In one fluid move they drift from yellow to gold to fiery orange as a shifting morning sun illuminates them from behind. Amazing to have seen that magic display!

It doesn’t matter.

I have to get to the post office. It’s too important not to. I stand up.

These errands and many others! Now I have to hurry! So much to do today! Urgent rushing and running!

Wait…

Just wait. Maybe I’ll get the car inspected tomorrow. And the bank is open next week. What’s one more day for a few insipid tasks?

How often does a yellow bird dance in the trees for me while the sun turns tiny leaves into fire? Moments like these happen every day, but I won’t see if I don’t watch.

I really should watch. It’s too important not to. I sit back down.

Saturday errands call but I know what they can do.

Wait…

I’m watching from my window today.

Stuart M. Perkins

 

 

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Virginia Living – The Greatest Show!

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have another essay appearing in the current issue of Virginia Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (my fourth essay for them) and as a Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my piece in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out, and if you like please comment on their site in the space just below the essay. I’d love to hear your feedback!

http://www.virginialiving.com/home/the-greatest-show/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to some great opportunities.

I’ve included some garden photos (before-ish and after-ish) from the experience.

Stuart M. Perkins

23.4.5.1

7.8.9.11.6.

 

 

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Get Dirty!

This is another re-post from a few years ago I was reminded of when I walked outside this morning. Nothing gives me an instant shot of happiness like the smell of spring, and more specifically, the smell of good old earth in spring. I played in dirt as a kid, I play in dirt now as a gardener, and I certainly expect to become a dirty old man. In the garden!

Get Dirty!

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off mere dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Near Miss

Wait! Frantically I chased the bus trying to catch the driver’s attention. Brakes screeched and exhaust puffed as he threw open the door and impatiently waved me in. Out of breath from my unexpected sprint, I leaped onto the bus which jerked roughly into motion. Why does everything seem so urgent?

Ear shattering noises blasting from my alarm clock that morning had startled me into reality. Abusing the snooze button meant ultimately springing from bed in a hasty rush. After a speedy shower I dressed in a hurry and dashed out of my front door to see the bus pulling away.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Anxiety at work as constant emails popped up. Between fast-paced phone calls I zipped out for a quick lunch and realized in a panic that I was late to a meeting. Choking down a sandwich while running, I flew through the doors of the conference room just as the meeting began.

Frazzled and heading home, the congested commute included a hectic stop by the crowded market before charging off to meet others at a restaurant across town. The cab was late, I anxiously begged the driver to speed up, and barely made it before losing the reservation.

Busy Saturday’s numerous errands included a breakneck trip to the dry cleaners before stopping by the bank. Next, off to the post office. Back towards home to drop off the car for repairs before the mechanic closed. Heavy traffic and honking horns added to the stress of trying to make it in time.

And from now on I should hurry! I nearly missed it!

Breathe. Calmly, I began the next morning determined to take it easy. Though always much to do, this day would not suffer the angry push from an alarm clock. Lusciously aromatic steam billowed from my coffee cup as I eased into the cushioned chair on the patio outside. The fountain trickled peacefully in the background.

Beautifully, a cardinal sang from a branch in the maple as a nearby squirrel gave himself a lazy scratch behind the ear. Two small white butterflies danced and drifted as a pair across the garden. A fuzzy bumblebee covered in pollen took his time crawling over marigolds blooming under the crepe myrtle.

Gracefully, a sparrow floated down to land at the edge of the fountain. The little bird dipped its beak into the water, ruffled its feathers, and with eyes closed sat motionless in the early sunshine for several minutes. No sound. No movement. That tiny fellow had made a decision to find some peace in that moment. A valuable lesson.

And from now on I should slow down. I nearly missed it.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Nannie’s Roses

Nannie would do it here, I think.

“Snip”

And probably right here.

“Snip”

This one could use it too.

“Snip”

With new clippers in hand I trimmed spent flower stems from sad looking rose bushes in the backyard. These were nothing like the ones my grandmother used to grow. When I was a child Nannie had dozens of healthy rose bushes vibrantly blooming in the yard around her farmhouse. I don’t think she had purchased a single one of them.

Some may have been given to her by friends, but most she had rooted herself. Usually people admire the gift of a flower arrangement for days until the flowers fade and are thrown away. Not Nannie. Almost upon arrival, flower arrangements of any kind and especially those containing roses were dismantled, clipped, stripped, dipped in rooting powder and plugged into her rooting bed. Some months later and voila! One more rose bush for her yard or to give to someone “down at church”.

As a child it seemed a miracle to me that short thorny sticks with a few wilted leaves could become anything at all. I said so to Nannie, remarking that I thought it a miracle and asking how she could be sure they would grow. She agreed it was a miracle and said she was never sure they would grow; she had faith they would grow.

Nannie’s faith was the backbone of her existence. I’ve never known a more faithful Christian than my grandmother. She didn’t preach about what should be done, she shared her faith showing what could be done. A true teacher by example. Oh sure, she often asked why I hadn’t been in Sunday School the week before, or said if I went to church the next Sunday she’d sit with me, and other guiding comments any grandmother would make but she had a way of weaving her suggestions and lessons into everyday conversations. We had many good and deep conversations while working in her rose beds, most of them about the importance faith and family played in her life.

I’ve never claimed to be a good Christian. Actually she never made that claim about herself either, being a modest woman, but to everyone else she certainly was. All who met her were struck by the love she had for her family and her endless solid faith in God.

Nannie died twenty five years ago. Only twice in my life have I attempted poetry and both pieces were written about her shortly after her death. I reread this poem after all these years and had to smile. Economy of words has never been my forte when writing but I had to get it out, I suppose. With few alterations I’ve included it below.

I’m solid in my own beliefs and thankful that a remarkable woman, who happened to be my own grandmother, was there to guide me in such a way that I learned early on about the power of faith and importance of family. But this poem isn’t about me and my beliefs or love of family as much as it is about Nannie and my respect for the lifelong commitment she showed to hers.

 

 

Nannie’s Roses

 

I loved helping Nannie

With her roses. One day

She tried telling me something

That went sort of this way:

 

“I like watching things bloom,

Not just flowers, you know.

With the right sort of touch

You make anything grow”.

 

People and roses,

She told me that day,

Both need some training

To grow the right way.

 

“Sometimes they ramble

To grow where they could,

But it’s for me to see

That they grow where they should”.

 

And I knew she meant us

For as everyone knows,

Each one in her family

She considered a rose.

 

She rooted us strongly.

We were tended and groomed.

Then she’d smile as she waited,

She knew we would bloom.

 

She said “Family and roses

Were trained by my hand.

The old ones grew tall

And learned how to stand.

 

My younger ones now

Are not quite so tame.

Their blooms may be different

But I love them the same.

 

And I know with some work

And the help of my hands

They’ll grow as the others

And with them they’ll stand”.

 

“But these older ones now,

Still need help today?”

I asked and she said,

“No I’ve shown them the way.

 

I’ve given them love

And plenty of room.

They’re on their own now

To grow and to bloom.

 

For both family and roses

There does come the time

To depend on their own strength

And let go of mine.”

 

Now we and the roses,

Alone we all stand.

Sadly she’s gone

With her strong guiding hand.

 

Each a rose in her garden,

We were guided with love.

Now she’s watching us bloom

From somewhere above.

 

As we bloomed in her garden,

We’re all sure somehow,

That she’s a rose blooming

In His garden now.

 

Stuart M. Perkins

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Virginia Living!

Just a little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the June issue of Virginia Living magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine again (I also had an essay published back in their February 2016 issue) and as a native Virginian, like my parents and theirs, it was especially fun to contribute to a publication I’ve had in my own home over the years.

Below is a link to my essay in the online version of Virginia Living.  Check it out and if you like please comment on their site below the essay!

http://www.virginialiving.com/home-garden/a-new-leaf/

Thanks to all those who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to some great opportunities.

Stuart M. Perkins

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