Appalachian Food Gardening

Summer Vegetables

ears of shucked corn in a bowl

“Nothing is more enjoyable on a bright summer day than a serving of nicely cooked vegetables fresh off the vine. Such was the great eating delight of southern mountain people during the sweaty hard months of the year. Hill country gardens, brimming over with the season’s bounty and situated close to homesteads, enabled housewives to fill their aprons full of beans, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and such for sumptuous midday repasts.

Insistence on fresh vegetables  has been a time-honored tradition across the Appalachian hill country—indeed throughout the entire South. No less a nineteenth-century culinary personage than north Georgia’s Mrs. Annabella Hill wrote of this freshness fetish in her 1820 treatise, Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book:

Vegetables intended for dinner should be gathered early in the morning. Only a few can be kept twelve hours without detriment. When fresh-gathered they are plump and firm and have a fragrant freshness no art can give them again when they have lost it by long keeping, though it will refresh them a little to put them in cold water before cooking.

During the Depression years in the Carolina Piedmont, my father, Wade Vertell Dabney, carried out his freshness tradition in a grand manner. Every April, using one of his favorite mules, he would personally lay off his quarter-acre sweet corn patch strictly for home consumption. The site always was near our home—usually just beyond Mother’s garden. Beginning with his first planting of sweet corn (an ancestor of today’s Silver Queens and supersweets), he followed up every two weeks by planting another few rows. That meant that we were assured of fresh corn from mid-June right on through the summer months.”

Joseph E. Dabney—”Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine”


Last week a friend and I were talking about exactly the thing Dabney describes: the joy of being able to go out to the garden, get something to eat, and bring it back to the house and cook it.

When I was a girl I sometimes hated being sent to the garden for a mess of this or that, but I was always glad once I set down at Granny’s table to eat it.


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  • Reply
    June 3, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    I feel so fortunate and grateful when I can just step out to the gardens and gather up a meal. It will be quite a while, though! Haven’t even planted beans and corn yet, because it’s not been warm enough for the corn to germinate. Can you believe it may go below 40 here tonight? But no matter what, I’ll be planting this week, if it’s not raining. My sweet potato slips arrived today from Sow True Seed, and I have to figure out the best places to plant them. I’ve never tried because creating the conditions for “curing” them is kind of baffling, but I do enjoy eating them so I’m going to give it a try.

  • Reply
    June 3, 2019 at 2:37 pm

    There’s nothing better than fresh vegetables, especially homegrown. I shelled many a butterbean, snapped many snap bean, and shucked many an ear of corn as a child. My uncle(Mama’s sister’s husband) grew the best Silver Queen corn. It was so good roasted on the grill, but he thought roasting it ruined it. We had the best corn last summer from a local market near our camper on the Chesapeake Bay. My great uncle grew the best watermelons. Thanks for bringing back memories.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    June 3, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    Mama’s recipe for corn on the cob: Put on a big pot of water and bring it to a boil. Send the fastest little boy to the field to pick as many ears of corn as you need, have him shuck the ears as he is running back. Pop the ears into the boiling water. Boil about 3 minutes, then slather with butter and enjoy.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 3, 2019 at 11:57 am

    I don’t know if I like Silver Queen or Hickory Cane better. We used to call it “Roast Nears” before there was such a thing as “Sweet Corn”. I love Hickory Cane Corn, cut-off and with bacon greese and fresh biscuits, there’s nothing better. Back when I use to have a Garden, I grew several rows of Silver Queen and Hog Corn. The Hickory Cane Corn only has 8 rows, while Silver Queen has 12. Hickory Cane is big as horse teeth and it is Good, and each ear is about a foot long. It usually gets harvested in August, while the Silver Queen ripens much earlier. …Ken

  • Reply
    June 3, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Oh how I love the summer vegetables!! My dear husband has been in and out of the hospital since April 1 but finally he was stable enough to come home last Friday, thank the Lord, so I haven’t always had time to read or comment each day but I have tried to catch up when i could. I surely enjoy reading your blog and love to hear the family playing and singing together. I enjoyed “Oh What A Savior” Sunday morning before I left for church and reading about the summer vegetables made me remember so many times sitting on the porch with my grandmother breaking beans or shelling peas. I don’t know if any young people do that today but it was a peaceful way to accomplish a task and get to talk with your grandmother, mother, or aunts. I was always the listener because I loved the old stories.

    Our youngest son, bought me two large planter boxes that stand about 3 1/2 feet and sat them right by the patio. He planted tommy toe tomatoes, cabbage, okra, lettuce, spinach and cucumbers. He put two regular size tomatoes in two separate planters on the porch and they are all doing great so far. It will be nice just to step out on the patio and gather some delicious vegetables.

    I’m not always able to do this but I was told you should pick the corn about an hour before you are ready to eat it and we always boiled it and than smothered it in butter. Yum, Yum!!! I still boil corn but i have also put it in the microwave and cooked it fully dressed. Then when you shuck it, the silks come off really easy. You just can’t beat fresh corn.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    June 3, 2019 at 9:50 am

    We were really late getting a garden in this year but I can hardly wait for some fresh vegetables! I’ve got a lot of volunteer grape tomatoes in a flower bed right beside our back door. Hope they produce like last year so we can have handfuls to go!.

    I believe the sweet corn is my favorite both as a child and now Mama always said she knew an upset stomach was on the way for me from eating so much of the first batch of the season. I always use golden queen or peaches and cream but love anykind–even field corn.

  • Reply
    Melissa P. (Misplaced Southerner)
    June 3, 2019 at 9:02 am

    One of the things I miss most about home is all the fresh vegetables and fruit from the yard. Of course, here in Michigan, things are normally at least a month behind what I’m used to. Now that we live in the middle of the woods, we can’t grow anything that needs sun, so we rely on the Farmers’ Markets. This year, I feel so badly for all the farmers – commercial and home gardeners alike. We’ve had almost 4 inches more rain than normal for May and April and March were just as bad. May be a lean year for fresh, home-grown produce.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    June 3, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Oh yes, fresh homegrown reveals what a ghost of real flavor supermarket produce often is. For those who don’t know the difference and have no opportunity to grow their own it is OK. And I have no quarrel with folks making their living in that system. But as long as I have abit of earth and stay able me and the Good Lord will grow ours.

    Picked a dab of Rattlesnake beans last night. Anxious to try them.

  • Reply
    June 3, 2019 at 8:42 am

    Fred Wishe, a local gardening expert, said “you must wear running shoes when you pick corn.” We used to pick bushels of green beans in the evening and break them the following day while mom drew the water to wash them and built the outside fire for canning. They were delicious regardless of the time of day they were picked.

  • Reply
    Betty Hopkins
    June 3, 2019 at 8:39 am

    I had the opportunity to go to a lecture by Joe Dabney many years ago and, of course, being a mountain girl, I could relate. Of course, I had to have his wonderful book :”Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine,” and I have an autographed copy that has a prominent place on my kitchen counter. I haven’t tried any of the recipes but the history and stories he writes are simply delightful and well worth the read.

  • Reply
    June 3, 2019 at 8:33 am

    I must keep telling you I love your blog even though I have become repetitious. Today’s subject is near and dear to my heart. There is no sweeter memory than sitting at my Mom’s table with all the random garden fresh vegetables on display. One of my favorite was a big cast iron pan full of fried mustard greens with a slice of corn bread. We actually broke the corn bread off most of the time. I had that yesterday, and it was as if she was right there with me in spirit, as I savored those familiar flavors. I am really excited also after my grandson gave me a 9.5 on kilt or wilted lettuce with onions. I did not think he would like, so I just never fixed it for him. If I loved it, why wouldn’t he?

    In the Summer during canning season it was common to eat whatever was being canned. This saved time, and lunch was simply roseneers or green beans. We always had oodles of green beans, so I would almost get foundered. Never could get too many roseneers. I just remembered an expression my Dad used, “pite nIte” which was short for pretty near.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    June 3, 2019 at 7:52 am

    I always loved fresh corn on the cob but I sure did hate to pick it. I guess the worst part was the shucking. Mother had a cloth to use to get the hairs off. I wish I knew what it was made of because it sure did the job. It had a nubby texture.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 3, 2019 at 7:12 am

    Oh Yes, there is nothing like fresh vegetables! I await our local tailgate market all winter for the fresh greens. Gardening is beyond my doing but I still well know the difference between grocery store vegetables and fresh grown vegetables. Tipper, you and the Deer Hunter generously share the bounty of your garden with me. There is nothing in the world as good as your fresh homegrown heirloom tomatoes. I am very grateful to you all!
    I have always wondered why we call it a mess of corn or beans. It doesn’t seem like a mess to me it seems like bounty from heaven.

  • Reply
    Leon Pantenburg
    June 3, 2019 at 6:37 am

    My dad loved his sweet corn. An Iowa farmer, he would also stagger the plantings, so he could have corn every night for supper. The rest of us were OK with the idea, but after several weeks, were ready for a break! The corn had to be picked no more than an hour before cooking. It was boiled, then smothered in butter. Dad’s corn spoiled me for anything you can get at a grocery store!

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