Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Southern send-off

It’s not often that I write an immediate follow-up to a blog post, but I haven’t been able to get R. Kelly Farms‘ cranberry beans out of my head. When I cooked them after posting an entry a couple of week’s ago, I had the sense that I’d posted too soon.

First of all, while undertaking the pleasantly mindless task of shelling them, I was smitten with the dainty pink freckles dotting their pods and shells. Then, after cooking them using this recipe, along with a little bacon, herbs and garden tomatoes, I was reminded of the transportative–if not transformative– power of food. (Unfortunately, I was too busy eating and reminiscing to photograph the meal.)

Biting into these beans took me back to Mississippi and the night I helped my mom move the last of her boxes out of the house she’d shared with my father for 11 years until that year, 2007, when he died.

It was the night before I was to drive her and her cats, Franklin and LB,  more than 2,000 miles across forests, prairies and deserts to her new life in the West.

You might think I wouldn’t want to be transported to such a time and place, yet beans similar to these cranberry ones comforted us that evening.

With the house an empty shell, we were taken in by Mom and Dad’s next-door neighbors, Billy and Faye. My parents didn’t really know these neighbors very well for most of their time at the house–just passing hellos and “how’re the grandkids?” exchanges. That changed when Faye had a bout of sickness, and my parents helped with meals and such. Then when Dad got sick, they more than returned the favor — helping with odds and ends around the house when the chemo dragged him down, and — most importantly– being the sort of support my sister and I couldn’t be while we were so far away.

So on that late-summer night, Faye cooked us a simple but outstanding Southern dinner. Several other Southern dinners I’d had during previous visits to Mississippi were more of the processed cheese + gelatinous cream-of-x-soup variety, bless their hearts. But this meal’s ingredients came largely from Faye and Billy’s sizable garden.

Strangely, I can’t remember if Faye served us meat that night, though I’m sure she must have — it’s sacrilege not to in Mississippi. But I do remember the beans. I think they were butter beans. And, like the beans I recently ate, they had never seen the inside of  a can and had never been dried, resulting in a wholly different–and in my opinion, better– flavor. With the beans, she also served cornbread, collard greens, crispy fried green tomatoes, and bright red tomatoes. It was the perfect Southern send-off — one of hospitality and heart at the end of a summer, at the end of one life for our family and the beginning of another as my mother moved West and into a great unknown.

These foods that grow right outside our doorsteps and that go straight from garden to skillet, remind us of where we’ve been. It’s why local foods are more than just a mile-radius number or a label slapped on a package of produce. The real local foods carry with them the flavor and histories of the people who grow, serve and eat them. They comfort us and take us back as we keep moving forward.


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