Sowing Gullah Tradition

My geechee grandma’s Crown Heights garden.

gullahIn my late 20s when I moved to New York City, I lived with my grandmother in Crown Heights. I’d intended to find my own place, but we got along so well I stayed. She was a kind, generous, practical woman from John’s Island, South Carolina—a Gullah, geechee, or “rice eater,” who, as part of the great northern migration, moved to New York in the 1940s.

She never lost the gentle lilt of the Carolina Sea Islands, but her kitchen and garden were the best expression of her Gullah roots: her fish cakes caused brawls at church, her lima bean soup and shrimp-and-grits are still mourned, and her pound cake and sweet corn bread were honored in her eulogy.

As children, my sister, cousins and I spent every summer with her in Brooklyn, where her garden was a portal to John’s Island: the shade of the peach tree, tomato plants heavy with fruit, okra bound for the skillet.

When I returned as an adult, I was busy with my new city life. I’d glimpse her from the bathroom window, inspecting beans or okra, and threaten next year I’ll help plant the garden. Then I’d dash to the subway. I don’t know how many springs passed before I was sitting next to her hospital bed as she recovered from chemotherapy. It occurred to me that she was too weak to turn her garden and that now was the time to make good on my promise.

So our garden adventure began. She sat on the garden wall while I turned the soil. Later we rode the bus to what I thought was the end of the earth, and arrived at the Brooklyn Terminal wholesale market. We walked between 18-wheelers comparing plants and filling our arms with seedlings: tomatoes, green peppers, Scotch bonnets, cayenne peppers, cucumbers, even strawberries, until she cried, “Mimi, how big do you think the garden is?” I shrugged and asked: “How about broccoli?” She laughed, “I planted it one year and the worms just about run me out of the garden.” I left the broccoli and we rode the bus home.

As I planted rows of tomatoes, peppers and lima beans, I noticed we had all the ingredients for her okra stew except corn. She shook her head. “I tried corn, something gobbled it up before it grew to my waist.”

But plant corn I did, certain we’d get enough for a pot of okra stew. I pulled weeds and staked tomato plants; Grandma watered at dawn. Mornings and evenings she’d conquer the day’s harvest, freezing tomatoes, pickling Scotch bonnets and chopping green pepper for fish cakes. I’d come home to a pot of lima beans with ham knuckle and perfect rice.

Our biggest garden adventure came when a cop chased a suspect through our garden. A massive tactical event ensued, complete with helicopters, police dogs, and what appeared to be a riot squad. Normally, Grandma would be watching The Price is Right this time of day, but instead she watched the show in our backyard. When an officer’s foot came too close to her okra, she called out “Excuse me!” in a stern grandmotherly tone that cut through the helicopter’s drone and the walkie-talkie chatter. Heads turned. “Could you please not step on my okra?” The cop with a big gut, big sunglasses and a big gun commanded us to step away from the window. As we did, Grandma called out, “and mind my tomatoes with those boots!”

We never learned why our garden was under siege, but the plants were spared. We put a lock on the gate and tended the garden in relative peace the rest of the summer.

That is until the corn grew waist high. One morning Grandma woke me and said “Mimi, something razed one of your corn stalks.” I ran outside and saw that one plant had vanished without a trace. Each morning my grandmother reported with a chuckle that I’d lost another cornstalk. She shook her head each time I returned from the hardware store with some plan to combat my night raider. There was corn in our okra stew that summer, but it wasn’t from our garden.

I planted two more gardens with her; last year was the first I planted without her. I endured the Brooklyn Terminal market only for her memory and the flowers. Now I hit the farmers market for seedlings of heirloom tomatoes and red velvet okra. The garden is still watered at dawn, but only because I bought a programmable sprinkler. When I have gardening questions I refer to books, consult Greenmarket farmers and harass my mom. She says I only call to crow since her garden in Virginia doesn’t do half as well as mine here in Brooklyn. When I visited last year, I brought some garden booty. A family friend, eyeing the beautiful tomatoes, okra and peppers, exclaimed, “Eunice, your garden did well this year!” My mother replied dryly, “Those are from the Brooklyn girl, I didn’t get anything from mine.” I beamed.

Our last time in the garden together, Grandma told me to remember to put ash around the peach tree, to water the plants low, and to pick the okra before it turned “woodish.” The next week, when the doctor announced there was nothing else to be done, she sighed, looked at my mother with a smile and said, “Well, I had a good life.” She was gone in a week. When my family came up for the first anniversary of her passing, my mom and I spent the morning weeding, harvesting and telling stories. Grandma always said not to waste flowers on her grave, so when we visited that day, I placed, okra, tomatoes, corn and peppers.

I miss the woman who saved the cake beaters for me, even left a little batter in the bowl, the woman who once clipped a clothespin to my tongue for sticking it out at my cousin. I remember her encouragement from the garden wall. I still see her chuckling as she gently pollinated the corn. I don’t have her gentle lilt. I burn my rice. I don’t put ham knuckle in my string beans and cook them until they melt. I forget to pick the okra before it turns “woodish.” My cake isn’t nearly as good as hers (I lick the beaters anyway). But in the garden I un’s geechee.

Just one pot of okra stew. I’ll try again this year.

While my grandmother recovered from chemotherapy, it occurred to me that she was too weak to garden and that now was the time to make good on my promise.

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