My neighbor Jimbo wanted to give me a taste of his home and of his granny’s good cooking. “Y’ever hear of creazes?”
Creases? Croesus? As is often the case with southern idiom, I was lost. “Uh. . .what?”
“Creazes. Creasy greens? Some folks call ‘em creazes. My granny in Tennessee puts ‘em up every year. They’re greens. You cook ‘em up with vinegar and black pepper.”
“Like collards. . . or more like spinach?” I hazarded.
“Well, no. . .not really,” He thought for a moment. “Can’t really say what they’re like. They’re different.”
It was late afternoon and still hot; we were engaged in that particularly rural pastime of drinking beer while leaning into a pickup truck bed, which always gives the appearance of a hastily-called but important meeting among farmers or civil engineers or hunters or other rugged outdoor types. But it never is. It’s just that the rail of a pickup truck bed is a naturally good place for your elbows, and the inside of the bed gives you stuff to look at. Guys are more comfortable looking at stuff while they’re talking than looking at each other.
Jimbo took a long pull off his beer and regarded his spare tire. “You’ll like ‘em. Next time I go home I’ll bring you some back. And pinto beans. Y’ever tasted homemade pinto beans? Like from a garden?”
I couldn’t say that I had.
“Well, bubba,” he said, looking up from under the scuffed brim of his ball cap, grinning “then you never have tasted beans.”
By the time Jimbo made his trip back to see his family in the mountains of western Tennessee, I’d essentially forgotten about the mysterious creasy greens and supposedly incomparable beans. But Jimbo, taking pity on me because I was raised in cities without ‘real’ food, had made it his mission to introduce me to proper country cooking. He’d brought me some fine things from his own kitchen, including a dish of stewed chicken and biscuits that was ‘slap your mama good’, so I trusted him. When he returned from his trip, I got a knock on my door before he’d even unlocked his own.
“Here.” He handed me two mason jars, looking deeply road-worn. “Heat up them greens with just some salt and pepper an’ put in a spoon of cider vinegar. Them beans, first you gotta cook up some green onions with some bacon grease before you put the beans in. I got more if you like ‘em. I’d cook ‘em up for you but I’m goin’ to bed.”
I called out a thank you as he plodded wearily across the yard to his back door. He waved without turning around.
“Y’see?” he said, “I didn’t forget you.”
Creasy greens (Barbarea verna), also known as Upland Cress and Early Winter Cress, are a rare treat. Don’t expect to find them at your supermarket anytime soon, but they are beginning to show up in farmers’ markets here and there and can be purchased as heirloom seeds. Like many of the mountain folk who eat them, Creasy greens are legendarily hardy and manage to thrive just about anywhere they put down roots. If you’re lucky enough to live where they grow wild, you could go out and gather these prolific and highly nutritious greens (three times the vitamin C of orange juice!) – but you might have to find a local guide first who can help you locate them.
They are certainly worth the effort. Creasy greens have long stems with a large rounded leaf at the top and up to ten pairs of smaller leaves below it, but they’re not at all stringy; they cook up tender but still a bit textured, with a unique flavor that’s a cross between watercress and mint, without the sharpness of the first or the over-assertiveness of the second. With just some coarse salt, a few turns of the peppermill, and a splash of apple cider vinegar, they were as delicious as promised.
The beans were indeed a revelation. I hate to admit to being a ‘dump-and-stir’ cook when it comes to beans, but it’s sadly true for the most part. I’d really only ever had canned pinto beans – and these were a different animal altogether. To begin with, they weren’t the uniform dull color that canned beans are. These were richly colored, in shades like Ashes of Roses and Desert Camouflage, and were almost sweet, with a warm creamy texture that lacked even the hint of starchy graininess. They tasted like some purely comforting form of nourishment that I’d been denied my whole life – which, in a way, was true.
Not to say that I didn’t eat well growing up, but there is something undeniably different about food that has never seen a machine or the inside of a factory. These greens had been hand chosen from the banks of a remote stream; the pinto beans carefully and lovingly tended in a garden. Both were prepared simply, in a way that brought out their best qualities, and then they were preserved – not by some gargantuan industrial packing device, but by a family, using recipes and methods passed on through generations.
This was the generous and sustaining alchemy of soil, sun, and rain captured – ‘put by’ – as a literal fortification against winter’s paucity and spring’s caprices, against floods and droughts and tempests. But these foodways, these recipes, these methods, I realized, were not only preserving food and life.
They were preserving memory.
My neighbor Jimbo wanted to give me a taste of his home, and he did. But it was more than that.
It was a taste of the past, of long hard winters ending in first warm days. Of nourishing greens gathered near the banks of mountain streams, the late spring runoff still icy cold and sweet. Of kitchen gardens, beanstalks new from the ground and warm from the sun.
Of history, traditions rarely written, passed from proficient older hands to younger, less certain ones – hands that would, with time, become practiced and sure. A long line of hands, stretching back, weaving threads of remembrance into these textures and flavors.
Stories of mothers and grandmothers long passed – their strength honed on the callused earth of dry seasons – living on in the words, in the knowledge they tilled and tended into wisdom; their hopes rediscovered in every furrow of newly-turned earth, their faith replenished with the soft benediction of rain on dusty green shoots.
And their love – like their recipes, like these jars – enduring, preserved.
(This piece by Doug DuCap previously appeared in Wandering Educators.)
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