Spring, circa 1968, Chinquapin, North Carolina
I am cursed with too good a memory. The foods of my first years haunt me like ghosts. They remind me, make me. “Remember what it tasted like?” they taunt me. “Remember that taste?”
In those days, when tobacco was still king in eastern North Carolina, tobacco beds were planted in the early months of the year. Long, rectangular patches, sheltered by thick plastic tarp, propped up by mighty reeds bent into deceptively strong hoops, lancing up and over the dirt like a series of bell curves, creating a knee-high canopy above the bare and prepared earth. Each bed entire had the dimensions of an Olympic swimming pool, sometimes even longer. Tobacco seed was sowed there, covered by the plastic, with inches of air above, and within weeks the burgeoning seedlings were ready to be thinned out, gradually, till the time came, usually post-Easter, when the stronger seedlings were pulled from the gentle earth of the bed and replanted in the fields—these select survivors now destined to become the human-sized brightleaf of icon.
It was common practice to reserve a patch at the far edges of the beds for greens—mustard and collards and turnips, primarily. Green like tobacco, they sprouted, were cropped periodically. Unlike the tobacco which had many weeks of growth ahead till they were relocated and primed, these tender leaves were ready for consumption after a few short weeks.
The day I remember, particular and specific, had to have been before I was five, but after my great-uncle’s death when I was three. (I remember that day vividly as well, for he died on a multicolored quilt meant as my playground, on the porch of an old house used to grade cured tobacco leaves. This occurred right before my eyes in September of 1966.) My great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister, now a widow, kept me, raised me as her own. I called her Mama and she was.
The day of which I speak, this day of green and greens, Mama and I had gone with two cousins to the tobacco fields, and they had lifted up the plastic at the edges of the beds to reveal all that newness. The earth, dark and loamy, smelled not of fertilizer and chemical products, but of rainwater, dead leaves, earthworms and something like peace. The leaves of the mustard greens—and for some reason that year, at this time, there were only mustard greens, so vivid they almost glowed—vibrated in the sun. Plucked by fingers, so delicate they were—no knife was needed.
Mind you: We are speaking now not of salad greens to be eaten raw, with oil and vinegar dressing and the addition of chopped vegetables—tomatoes, onions, cucumbers—but rather the greens that love heat, not unlike tobacco, and need heat to find their greater essence. The liquid, the liquor.
Mama had not gotten a new washing machine yet, and she did our laundry in a 1950s Speed Queen with an external ringer (“THE MOST CLOTHES WASHED CLEAN, per HOUR, per DOLLAR”). The great-bellied tub (“one big, beautiful, double-wall, bowl-tub, agitator-type”) troubled the clothes in soapy water, then again in clear water, after which each garment, one at a time, was run through the hand-powered wringer, a laborious task that seemed to take hours, not to mention all the trips back and forth to the clothes line.
What I remember from age four: returning home from the tobacco beds and Mama carrying the freshly picked mess of mustard greens in a galvanized bucket, overflowing at the top. Watching her cleaning the baby leaves, rinsing them, putting them in a big pot on the stove to cook. The day not too hot for late March, mild, alive with the atmosphere of new growing things, azalea bushes and dogwoods making blooms. Watching Mama, having started the greens, haul on the laundry. Being warned over and over: “Don’t touch that wringer, boy!” Feeling more and more, by and by, such dread knowing it could crush my small fingers. Me so very wary of it! Me watching her, with great effort, sliding the clothing into the greedy maw of the thing, her spinning round the crank, by hand, round and round and round again, pressing the water from the underwear and shirts and pants and sundresses and socks, grunting some, sweating much. The clothes now clean and ready to be hung in the breeze.
Finally, all the clothes finished and swinging in the vernal air, me and Mama going into the kitchen. Her ladling out a great mound of the stuff with a great big spoon. For us: a bowl full of mustard greens. (Was there even salt?) Mama feeding me by her fingers one dripping, green leaf after another, like strands of spaghetti. Me opening my mouth like a bird to receive each bite. Gulp. I gobbled them down not with greed but with a sweet and clear delight, a wonder even. I don’t remember being at all hungry, but I remember being satisfied. She grinned at me with approval, continuing to feed me the slender emerald strands, salty, bitter, alive. Her amusement at my eagerness to eat. We both laughed and giggled. I remember the taste of mustard. Peppery. Not unlike a savory candy. A particular goodness. A satisfaction as rich as a cool drink of water, yet going toward the center of something much more rare and more nourishing.
Many decades later I would ask Mama if she remembered that day, and she cast at me a look as if to suggest that there was no way I could remember such a thing from four years of age (though I remember so very much more from even younger); as if to say this memory held such tiny, oblique, minor significance that it could not be of much worth at all; as if to question my sanity; as if to wonder if I were joking. I was quite serious indeed.
“Boy, what you talking bout?”
I myself have often wondered why this green memory, out of such a cornucopia of powerful, indelible, life-altering and formative remembrances, sticks with me so strongly. I suspect it was the very simplicity of the act—and the fact that it had no ulterior motive other than the sharing, the maternal gesture, and the witness of taste. This thing, this moment, was more than about eating, it was about experience, about sharing in a free and simple way we rarely achieve as we grow older. I give, and you receive.
Ain’t it good?
Ain’t it good?
Ain’t it good?
An initiation into the flavor of the world.