MOBILE, Alabama — Now that we can buy the world in a can, it’s no surprise to find Southern home cooking shrink-wrapped and brightly labeled on the grocery store shelf. Look for it next to the genuine freeze-dried Chinese Lo-Mein and the authentic Mexican nachos.
But those “fresh” cans of goopy collards and the frozen okra tots they microwave at Southern-themed restaurants have nothing in common with the food we grew up eating here along the Gulf Coast.
And you gotta believe there’s something a little fishy when restaurants that boast of serving local produce dish up “fresh” okra in the middle of an unusually long and cold winter.
Once upon a time, Southern cooking followed the seasons of the South. Here on the Gulf Coast, we didn’t eat okra in January or turnips and collards in July. Fresh tomatoes were our treat for May, June and early July, and fresh lettuce was for fall and spring. We couldn’t wait for fresh peas and limas and sweet potatoes in late summer and fall, or spring peas and beets and carrots in April and May.
Yes, you could eat vegetables out of season, dried or canned, if you absolutely had to. But it was the fresh taste of a new season of vegetables that we looked forward to.
We’ve forgotten that Southern cooking — just like Southern gardening — wasn’t just about recipes, or about cooking with certain vegetables. Real Southern cooking was about taking full advantage of the seasons of the South, from the four seasons of the mountains to the six seasons of the Gulf Coast. It was about using the kind of vegetables that grew best and tasted best in each of those seasons.
Because we’ve forgotten that, we’ve also lost the exceptional flavors of fresh seasonal vegetables. If this latest generation of Alabamians can’t understand or appreciate why their grandparents once raved about turnips or beets or lima beans or okra, it’s likely because they’ve never enjoyed any of these vegetables fresh from the garden.
So I’m planning out my menu for the year by planning out my garden. You should, too.
Over the years, I’ve tried to make that easier by preparing a chart that shows the seasons of vegetables for the garden and the table. We call it the Plain Gardening Wonderwheel, and its works like no other planting chart you’ve ever used, because it’s designed for us gardeners here on the Gulf Coast.
Those who follow the chart not only get to enjoy the freshest vegetables all year round, they also escape the troubles and trials that plague gardeners who forget the Gulf Coast seasons.
There’s too much information and detail to include here in print. But the Mobile Botanical Gardens offers this chart as part of their spring vegetable gardening class, from 9 until 11 on Feb. 22 at the gardens.
To participate in the class, which introduces you to the key ingredients of Gulf Coast gardening, be sure to reserve a space with the Botanical Gardens by Feb. 19. For more information about the class, call 251-342-0555, or go to www.mobilebotanicalgardens.org.
Bill Finch is chief science and horticultural adviser for Mobile Botanical Gardens, where he teaches his popular Gulf Coast Gardening classes. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Speak to him directly on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning radio show, from 9 until 11 on 106.5 FM. Watch him cutting up with weatherman John Nodar on the Plain Gardening segment on News 5 at Noon, every Friday on WKRG.