Published on 07/15/96

Southern-Style Gardens Still Taste the Best

Growing up and living all my life in the South, I know what fresh vegetables taste like. Our family ate what we grew. We also ate what was in season.

In the early spring we anticipated fresh lettuce and other greens. It was a real tragedy when wilted lettuce salads went out of style because of fears about fat. You don't know what good eating is until you sit down to the table and pour the hot vinegar and bacon grease mixture, with fresh green onions, over your salad greens.

I remember the green peas and new potatoes grubbed out from under the growing potato vines. Sometimes we served them in a cream sauce with plenty of freshly ground pepper.

Later on came the king of the garden: fresh tomatoes.

My family was big on the Creole tomato. I've eaten many kinds, colors and shapes over the years, but the Creole is still my favorite. We ate it fresh off the vine while it was still warm. We ate it on BLTs, in salads, stewed, stuffed with crab meat and just about any other way possible. But it's best still warm in the field.

We canned many jars of tomatoes and used them in the winter for stewed tomatoes over biscuits for supper. That always brought back the essence of summer, even in the dead of winter.

We loved another favorite, too: peppers, both sweet and hot. We served hot cayennes with all meals.

Eggplants were the first "hamburger helper," used to extend the meat course for six hungry kids. When you cubed and added eggplant to oyster stew, you could save on the oysters.

During August, when other vegetables had played out in the dead of summer, it was time for brown crowder or Mississippi Silver peas and okra, cooked together in my favorite black iron pot. Mama stewed it long and slow with potlikker and served it with stone-ground cornbread and sweet iced tea.

Now we go out to "country restaurants," which try to duplicate these dishes with frozen or canned products. Once you've had the original, it just isn't the same.

The real key to Southern vegetables is picking them at the right time. But you don't have to grow up Southern to figure out perfect timing. Just stop by your county Extension Service office and pick up any of the gardening publications.

Harvesting too early or too late can change the flavor of vegetables. The way you handle them after harvest can also affect the flavor.

If the part eaten is a leaf or root, the harvesting is not as critical as it is with fruits. Leaves and roots can grow a little larger without greatly changing flavor. The main factor in leaves is that the midrib may be more fibrous, and you can remove it.

On the other hand, some fruits can go over-the- hill quickly. Others can be left on the vine to grow a little larger.

Tomatoes, everyone's favorite, must be picked at the proper time. They reach maturity (full size) and then start ripening.

The ripening process depends on cultivar and environment. Usually the hotter the weather, the quicker the ripening. If there is excess water during ripening, it will dilute the sugars and acids which give the tomato its characteristic flavor.

After you pick them, NEVER put tomatoes in the refrigerator. Serve them at room temperature. If they're very ripe, you can refrigerate them, although they will lose a little flavor. Just be sure to take them out several hours before serving them so they can warm up to room temperature.

You can enjoy Southern vegetables as they should be. Just grow them properly, harvest at the proper time and handle with care. You'll have a summer feast like Mama used to make.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.