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Every human being has a story that should be told. Speaking a deceased person’s name acknowledges that a life mattered. Gone from this earthly plane, but not forgotten.

On Veterans’ Memorial Drive in O’Fallon, Missouri – next to the VFW Hall and across from Ethyl’s Smokehouse — sits a small, unpretentious graveyard. You won’t find massive ornate monuments in Sage Chapel Cemetery. In fact, a large majority of the graves are unmarked. Therein lay the remains of slaves and their families.

Sage Chapel Cemetery

To appreciate the tales of the spirits of Sage Chapel Cemetery, it’s important to understand some of the area’s history. Two powerful and wealthy white families played central roles in this story: the kin of Samuel Keithley, Sr. and two Krekel brothers.

If not for Samuel Keithley migrating here from Kentucky in the early 1800s, Sage Chapel Cemetery would likely not exist. When he settled his large family here, he brought with him with him not only his slaves, but also those who were the property of other family members. By all accounts, he did not arrive here a wealthy man. He didn’t prosper right away, but within 40 years, the family owned hundreds of acres of land.

Samuel Keithley Sr

Known in the area as Uncle Sam, Keithley earned the respect of many of his neighbors through his generosity to the poor as well as his acts of kindness toward friends and strangers alike. But his charity extended only so far. During the Civil War a group of Union soldiers confiscated horses from some of his neighbors, telling them that “Uncle Sam” would pay for them. Imagine their disappointment and embarrassment when they went to Samuel Keithley requesting compensation and learned they had the wrong “Uncle Sam.”

When Congress granted Missouri statehood in 1820, slavery was already a topic of heated debate. The influx of German immigrants some ten to fifteen years later only served to intensify the tension. Along with them came the Krekel family. Arnold Krekel and his brother, Nicholas, became key players in founding O’Fallon. Like Keithley, it’s said that the Krekel family arrived in the area with few possessions and little wealth.

Arnold Krekel

Arnold Krekel

But Arnold Krekel studied and worked hard to establish himself in St. Charles as an attorney, surveyor, and politician – among other pursuits. In 1855, he invested in 320 acres adjacent to the Keithley plantation. He platted out a town, naming it after John O’Fallon, the president of the Northern Missouri Railroad. Then he granted right-of-way through his property to that concern. As part of the deal, he arranged for his brother, Nicholas to be named station master and postmaster. So the younger brother left the farm where he’d been working and built a log cabin facing the tracks – later expanding and improving it. The Krekel House still stands today, the large two-story structure on the corner of Main Street and Civic Park Drive.

Nicholas Krekel

Nicholas Krekel

 

Shortly after the formation of the Confederate States of America, Nicholas Krekel joined the Union cause as a private in Company H of Missouri’s Home Guard. His brother, Arnold, served as the Company’s lieutenant colonel. As one might imagine, this did not set well with the slaveholding Keithley clan – especially since the Union soldiers known as Krekel’s Deutsch patrolled what is now Main Street, regularly marching up and down right in front of the Keithleys’ home.

One morning a member of the Keithley household noticed from an upstairs window as Krekel’s Deutsch paraded past once again. In an impulsive moment of wickedness, she threw open the window and yelled, “Hooray for Jeff Davis!” As the soldiers scrambled to see who had the nerve to say such a thing, the matron of the family came running to hush the thoughtless girl for fear that the furious Yankees might invade their home.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. But does Krekel’s Deutsch continue patrolling? Some claim to hear the sound of boots echoing through the dark as the spectral squad marches along Main Street in the wee hours of the morning.

Krekel House

The Krekel House

 

As a border state, Missouri was exempt from President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which only decreed the freedom of slaves in the territory claimed by the Confederacy. Not until two years later did a state constitutional convention vote to abolish slavery here. Arnold Krekel served as president of that body and signed Missouri’s Emancipation decree. On the same day, Governor Thomas Fletcher issued a Proclamation of Freedom, effectively ending legal slavery in the state. The key word here being “legal.” True liberty would evade the former slaves for more than a century.

Sixteen years after Missouri slaves were emancipated and 11 years after Samuel Keithley Sr.   had passed away, his daughter, Mahala, and her husband, Jasper Costlio, transferred one acre of land, now Sage Chapel Cemetery, to the trustees of an African Methodist Episcopalian Church.  This ensured that former slaves of the Keithley family could continue being buried there. The deed also conveyed a building and one-half acre of land along a dirt road that is now known as Sonderen Street.  After selling ¼ acre of that land to a former slave, Liberty Abington, in order to settle their $150 Deed of Trust debt with the Costlios, the trustees established a church there – Sage Chapel. That church and two other black churches that eventually laid folks to rest in Sage Chapel Cemetery are long gone, as are their records.

It has been said that as long as a person’s name is spoken, their memory will live on. Sage Chapel Cemetery is the final resting place of slaves and their descendants, but it’s impossible to know all of their names because burials were taking place in that section of the Keithley Plantation long before the Civil War. There exists documentation of 117 interred there, but only 37 of the graves bear markers. At least 17 people buried there were both born into slavery and still living on Missouri’s Emancipation Day. Perhaps some haunt the area hoping their names will be spoken and their lives remembered.

Pricilla

Pricella Admire Ball’s headstone is so weathered that it is difficult to read. Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1811, her 89 years on this earth must have been difficult. Like many among the newly-emancipated, she and David Ball, who was born into slavery in Virginia, married in1866. Little more is known about her experiences, but the inscription on the monument makes clear that she bore at least one child. “Rest mother in quiet sleep…While friends sorrow….” The rest is illegible. Her only documented living relative at the time of her death was a grandson, David Clement, born in Kentucky many years after Samuel Keithley brought his slaves to Missouri. Whether Pricella was David’s maternal or paternal grandmother is unknown, but one thing is certain: Pricella’s child was sold at auction and left behind in Kentucky. It’s unknown if the two were ever reunited. Perhaps that sound we hear when we visit Pricella’s grave isn’t the wind in the trees after all. Could it be a mother whispering prayers for her long lost child?

Mishey Edwards.JPG

The grave of Mishey Edwards, stepdaughter of Daneil H. Frost

Sage Chapel Cemetery is the final resting place of Daniel H. Frost, born into slavery in 1839. No monument adorns the grave of this man who served during the Civil War with the 2nd Missouri Colored Infantry, later designated U.S. Colored Troop 65, Company B. Research has not yet revealed how Daniel came to escape slavery to fight for freedom. After the death of his first wife, Daniel married Frances Rafferty Dryden, a former Keithley slave, in 1901. Both are buried in Sage Chapel Cemetery, both in unmarked graves. As is often the case with those born into slavery, this family’s genealogy is difficult to trace. Husbands often left widows who subsequently remarried. Daniel passed away in 1913, Frances survived until 1938. Cemetery records show that she left behind a daughter named Mishey Lechter Edwards who was born prior to her marriage to Daniel. Some say that a tall man in Union blue can sometimes be seen standing at attention in the graveyard. Is Daniel Frost paying tribute to Frances? Maybe. Perhaps he simply chooses to bloom where he was planted.

Lucy Hughes White

Lucy Hughes White was born enslaved on the Keithley Plantation in 1864. Lucy outlived three husbands – all of whom were also born into slavery. She bore seven children and raised several stepchildren who had survived their father. Lucy worked as a laundress and took in boarders to support herself, her children, and her grandchildren. The large, loving family lived in a log house on Lincoln Street. Her eldest son served as pastor to several African Methodist Episcopal Churches in St. Charles County and in California. Like his mother, the Reverend Fred Hughes lies at rest in the graveyard. Among the spirits of Sage Chapel Cemetery are others who bear the surnames of her brood: Claiborne, White, Lewis, and St. Claire. Despite the hardships she must have endured, much joy and happiness filled Lucy’s life as she helped her children and grandchildren grow and prosper under nominally better circumstances than she had experienced. During her final years, she lived with a daughter in Kinloch, Missouri until she came home to rest in Sage Chapel Cemetery. The maternal instincts of a hard-working, devoted woman like Lucy might extend beyond death. One might imagine her fussing over the graves of her descendants, making sure that they are comfortable and at peace.

Sage Chapel Overview

Who else might be roaming that sacred ground?  Perhaps the nameless souls whose existence has not been documented along with the enslaved people whose names we now speak.

Eldora Logan Abington, Liberty Abington, Frank Brady, Maria Brady, Martha Williams Burrell, Lucy Whitehead Claiborne, Mary Claiborne, Winston Davis, Frances Rafferty Dierker, Mary Stone Edwards, Alena Burrell Rafferty, John Rafferty, George Sanders, Okay Thomas, Mary Tucker, and Rufus White

Born into slavery; truly emancipated in death. May their souls rest in peace.

 

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petals plant leaves flower

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My husband and I are nature lovers and gardeners. Our education in horticulture, botany, and ornithology was acquired entirely through trial and error and some of our lessons came quite by accident – or perhaps because of divine intervention.

One Saturday afternoon in early May, my husband had finished filling the birdbaths and feeders. For lack of more entertaining yard work to do, he offered to help weed the flower beds. Squatting beside me, he started pulling stray grasses pausing to ask, “Is this a weed?”

yellow petal flowers

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“No, that’s coreopsis,” I replied.  “The ones that get a million tiny yellow flowers and have to be deadheaded all summer.”

“I like those,” he grinned. “Don’t want to pull that. How about this one?”

“Sunflower,” I said. “Pull that. It doesn’t belong here.”

“But it’s a sunflower,” he insisted.

“It doesn’t belong here. It’s a weed.”

Tapping my shoulder he pointed to a nearby stepping stone. “See what it says?”

Annoyed, I read, “A weed is a misplaced wildflower.” I dropped my head, regretting the day I’d placed that piece in the garden.

My husband wrapped himself in smugness like a superhero donning his cape and announced, “The sunflower is a wildflower, not a weed. It gets to stay.”

“Pull it,” I directed through a clenched jaw. Recalling that the tree shading my vegetable plots started as a tiny sapling he’d insisted on saving, my patience was thinner than a crocus leaf.

“It’s a flower.”

“It’s a weed. Do you realize that if you leave it, it’s going to get six feet tall and stand in the middle of our view from the bay window?”

“So?”

“Pull it.”

“What harm will it do to leave it?”

Since he wasn’t going to budge, I made a mental note to pull the sunflower when he wasn’t around to argue. “Leave it if you insist.”

“Why did you plant it if you didn’t want it here?

“I didn’t plant it.”

“How did it get here?”

“I don’t know. Probably a bird dropped a seed here. Maybe a squirrel hid it last fall and forgot about it.”

“Then this is Mother Nature’s work, right?”

How was I to argue with that? “I surrender,” I said. “We have a sunflower in the front flower bed. I’ll leave it alone.”

Aside from the days when that particular bed came up in my weeding schedule, I didn’t think much about the errant sunflower. Each time I worked there, I weeded carefully around our volunteer and smiled as I remembered my husband’s convincing argument. It was a feisty intruder, growing a thick stem and broad leaves, shooting skyward faster than anything else in our gardens.

One Sunday morning, as I lazed over a cup of coffee and a book, my husband patted my leg to get my attention. “What kind of bird is that?”

Glancing out the window I answered, “Goldfinch.”

focal focus photography of perching yellow and blue short beak bird

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“Never saw him around here before,” he replied.

Laying aside my book, I looked again at the little yellow and black bird. “We have goldfinches in this area, but I don’t remember seeing one visit the birdbath.”

“Look,” he practically shouted, pointing at the bowed head of the sunflower. “There’s another one!”

He was right. The finch’s mate perched atop the sunflower picking at seeds. “That’s mama.”

animal avian beak bird

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“Why do you suppose the goldfinches decided to visit?”

“Word must have gotten out in bird world about your free and unlimited buffet.” I resumed reading while my husband continued watching the finches.

Soon he patted my thigh again asking, “What kind is that one?”

Annoyed by the interruption, I looked up. “Where?”

“In the mugho.”

Squinting to find a bird amongst the dark evergreen branches, I finally spotted it. “Oh, my goodness, that’s a purple finch! I’ve never seen one in our yard before.”

“It doesn’t look purple.”

“Well, its markings are sort of reddish, but it’s a purple finch.” I had to pull out the bird book and show him a picture before he believed me.

Over the next hour we watched a veritable mardi gras procession of birds parade pass our bay window. Some paused to shower under the fountain in the birdbath; others flitted to the ash tree and back. Cardinals, goldfinches, purple finches, a pair of blue jays, and flocks of chickadees and sparrows entertained us. An indigo bunting even made a rare appearance.

bird animal beak macro

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As the summer stretched on we continued to be amazed by the variety of birds coming up to our bay window. For days a red-tailed hawk lurked in the ash tree scouting the assemblage of smaller birds. Meanwhile, my husband diligently continued filling the feeders and changing the water in the birdbaths daily. While our avian visitors sometimes made hurried trips to the feeders they continued to congregate around the accidental sunflower. Eventually I realized I had to set something right.

I asked my husband, “Do you know why we have so many new birds this summer?”

“Why?”

“You were right and I was wrong. Remember when we were weeding and you insisted that I leave the sunflower?”

Chuckling, he replied, “I do. What does that have to do with the birds?”

“They like to eat the seeds right off of the sunflower.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

Early the following spring, as is my custom, I started planting impatiens in the shade garden and adding a few annuals in other beds. Remembering the joy we derived from watching birds the previous summer, I seeded the plot in front of the bay window with sunflowers. Oddly, they never sprouted.

Each spring since, I’ve pushed a few seeds into the spot where the accidental sunflower once grew. Every fall I blend some sunflower seeds in with the mixed nuts I put out for the squirrels, hoping they will bury a few in the front bed. Try as I might, I am unable to recreate the summer of the accidental sunflower.

Perhaps that is Mother Nature’s prerogative.

# # #

In a Pickle?

Mother Nature tricked us with a late spring that jumped right into summer so we Midwest gardeners are just now starting to reap the bounty of our labor. As often happens, we tend to get a little of this and a bit of that to begin with…and soon thereafter find ourselves inundated with a lot of one thing or another.

food vegetables cucumbers gherkins

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Cucumbers and a few other veggies don’t hold up well for extended storage. Yet they don’t arrive early in sufficient quantities to make it worth the home cook’s time and effort to can them.

Bread and Butter Pickles are a family favorite, so every summer I hope for a bumper crop of cucumbers so I can to replenish the pantry stock. Problem is that the first harvest usually nets only a few cukes: too many for hubby and me to use up before they go soft, but not enough to  justify pulling out the canning equipment to make pints of pickles.

Ah…but I’ve figured out a recipe solution for that problem.

With a few adjustments, I transformed my mother’s recipe for Ice Box Pickles into a no-canning version of Bread and Butter Pickles that can be made and consumed in small batches while I wait for the big cucumber harvest. (That will likely come when it’s hotter than Hades and any exertion whatsoever in the 99.9% Missouri humidity results in buckets of perspiration.)

In the meantime…

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Refrigerator Bread and Butter Pickles

Ingredients:

4 cups sliced cucumbers

1 cup sliced onions

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt

1 cup white sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

1 cup white vinegar

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon celery seeds

1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

Instructions:

Toss the cucumbers, onion, and salt together in a large bowl. Cover and chill in the fridge while for about an hour. Meanwhile, you can prepare the pickling solution.

For the pickling solution, combine sugar, brown sugar, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, and turmeric in a large sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugars are completely dissolved and incorporated. Continue simmering for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Drain the cucumbers and onions into a colander and rinse to remove any undissolved salt. Return to the bowl and pour the hot pickling solution over the cucumbers and onions. Let stand at room temperature for about an hour before storing in an airtight container.

This will make about 4 cups of pickles, so you could store them in a quart jar or 2 pint jars. You can use Tupperware-type containers, but glass is better for retaining the flavor.  These pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month, but they usually don’t last that long around here.

healthy vegetables hand gardening

Radishes tend to come all at once. If you happen to harvest more than you can consume raw in salads before they get pithy, you have a couple of options: cook them or pickle them. You can sauté them with bacon and radish greens or roast them with carrots, peppers, potatoes, and/or other vegetables. Cooked radishes have less of a “bite” than raw ones do.

Or you can turn them into a condiment!

Taking inspiration from Do Chua, the pickled daikon and carrot concoction that is prevalent in Vietnamese cuisine, I developed a recipe that combines garden-variety radishes with carrots in a versatile relish. Whether it is topping humble grilled hot dogs, spicing up a salad, or adding extra oomph to a slow-smoked brisket, it has become a summer staple in our household.

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Poor Girl’s Do Chua (Pickled Radishes and Carrots)

 Ingredients:

1 large carrot

½ pound (8 ounces) cherry belle or other rosy-skinned radishes

1 clove of garlic

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

Instructions:

Wash, peel, and dice carrot into small cubes. Wash and trim radishes and chop coarsely. (Do not peel radishes unless you use a less common variety like daikon or watermelon radishes. The red skin makes for a delightfully colorful relish.) Peel garlic clove and slice very thinly. The easiest and safest way to do this is to use a vegetable peeler to shave thin strips from the clove.

In a large, non-reactive bowl combine carrots, radishes, garlic slices, sugar and salt. Use your fingertips to toss the vegetables together and work the salt and sugar into them until dissolved.  In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the water and vinegars.

Pack the vegetables into a pint canning jar (see Note) and then pour the pickling liquid over them. Cap the jar tightly and refrigerate for a minimum of 10 minutes before use. While the relish can be served at this point, the flavor is better if it’s allowed to chill at least 24 hours.

Unused portions of relish can be safely stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, but it will  begin to lose some crunchiness after about a month – still edible, but not quite as yummy.

Yields about 1 pint.

Note: Storing the relish in a plastic container instead of glass will ultimately result in a less flavorful relish as the vinegar will gradually seep into the porous plastic.

pickled jalapenos preserve preserved

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Despite the adage’s negative connotation, being “in a pickle” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it?

Generations…Dads

Let me begin by wishing all the dads, step-dads, and dad-substitutes out there a relaxing, love-filled Fathers’ Day. You deserve it. After all, it isn’t easy being the anchor of a family. Your responsibilities are almost endless.

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We depend on you to teach us positive core values like honesty, integrity, and courage. You’re often called upon to be the disciplinarian. How many of us have heard our mothers warn us to “Just wait until your father gets home.”?  That sentence alone served as punishment – and not just because we dreaded whatever actions you might take to correct our behavior. Worse was the knowledge that we had disappointed you.

Although my Daddy wasn’t one to spare the rod, so to speak, if that’s what it took to avoid spoiling the child, he rarely needed to resort to physical punishment. When he pulled his glasses away from the bridge of his nose to glare over them, that withering look felt more crushing than any blow he might deliver.

Being the youngest of three girls, I often wondered if my parents had been disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be the son that would carry the family name into the following generations.  Sometimes my dad jokingly lamented his fate of being outnumbered in a house full of women; that even our dog was female. More often I heard him declare that he didn’t care how many children he and Mother had as long as they were all girls. He said he didn’t want any child of his to go through what he’d experienced during World War II – the details of which he chose never to elaborate upon.

I don’t know whether I served as his son-substitute or if he thought it the easiest way to keep me out of my mother’s hair, but Daddy often included me as his little helper when he worked around the house. There’s no telling how many nails I handed him when he undertook paneling our basement ratskeller. While he worked, Daddy patiently answered the hundreds of questions I threw at him, many of which began with “why” or “how.”

After his successful hunting trips, I often helped Daddy clean game. To this day I think of skinning a squirrel or a rabbit as “taking his pajamas off.” Thanks, Dad. And thanks for always bringing home the birds so I could have my favorite birthday dinner: fried quail.

That said, I haven’t forgotten the time you put a raccoon on the rotisserie and when I asked what you were barbecuing, you replied, “Have you seen your dog lately?”  Funny, not funny. Okay, maybe a little bit funny.

Most of the time Daddy called me Peewee Johnson, but sometimes my name was Half-Pint. Maybe that’s why I so identified with the Ingalls family when I got old enough to read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura’s daddy called her Half-Pint, too! In a way I guess I have my father to thank for my love of reading.

Oh, but when I became Janet Yvonne…look out!  I knew I’d done something awful to displease him. But I also knew it wouldn’t take long to get back into his good graces. He forgave easily.

I could list dozens of things my father taught me, but perhaps the most important is that girls can do anything boys can do. And, in his opinion anyway, they usually do it better.

In my teen years, while Mother discouraged me from creative pursuits, Daddy secretly informed me that I could choose any line of work that suited me. In a time when women’s career options were more limited than they are today, that seems revolutionary advice.

“Follow your heart, baby,” he would say. “Work isn’t work if it gives you joy.”

This is the man who left school after completing the eighth grade so he could help provide for his family. He thought it much more important for his sisters to have everything they needed so they could continue their schooling. Yet, with his limited formal education, my father mastered advanced mathematics by studying on his own. I recall a time when I shied away from enrolling in an algebra class. He shamed me into taking it saying, “If I can do trigonometry with my feeble brain, you can figure out algebra. Piece of cake!”

Sadly, my father passed away when he was only 56 years old. Neither of my children enjoyed growing up with the fantastic grandfather he was.  I still – and always will – miss him.

There are other dads I want to pay special tribute to today: my husband, my son, and my son-in-law. They each, in their own way, embody many of my father’s best attributes.

Dear hubby has helped me raise two remarkable adults. Even under the most trying circumstances we have supported each other through the challenges most parents face…and some that were extraordinarily difficult.

Our son’s fondest wish came true when he became father to a son of his own. The love between the two is palpably enormous. The patience this Dada exhibits with his child equals – and probably surpasses – that with which my father blessed me. It is a joy watching the two of them together.  Our grandson is fortunate to have a father so determined to be an integral part of the boy’s life.

3 Bettags

We could not have asked for a better father for our two beautiful, brilliant, and talented granddaughters than our wonderful son-in-law. Like my father, this man has taught his girls that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. He has partnered with our daughter to instill in their children positive core values and in conveying that anything less than one’s best effort is unacceptable.

According to data from the 2010 Census, 24.7 million children in the United States don’t live with their biological fathers. I pray that most of those kids have some kind of father figure in residence.

Yet a 2001 report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that 39% of students in grades 1 through 12 are “fatherless.”

That is sad. So, so sad.

What’s that saying?

Any Man

Eat Your Greens!

 

person holding a green plant

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Thanks to our typically atypical Missouri weather, we got a late start with our vegetable gardening this season. A cold, rainy April was followed by about thirty minutes of spring in early May before we jumped right into hot, humid summer days.  When it wasn’t too cold or rainy to till the veggie beds, some other pressing chore stood in the way of progress.

Some years are just like that.

I took advantage of that one spring-like day in May to hand-till my little four-square garden and plant kale, mesclun, turnips, and radishes. Two days later I discovered that some critter had chewed through the plastic fencing. Mr. ‘Possum (or possibly Miss Raccoon?) had a heyday digging and rolling in the newly seeded soil. Dear hubby and I replaced the fencing with metal chicken wire which, while less attractive, would certainly prove to be a better wildlife barrier. Of course, in the process more seeds were disturbed and trampled. That left nothing more to do than wait a week and see if anything sprouted.

The results proved quite interesting. A handful of kale survived along with three or four pathetic lettuce sprouts and a whole lot of weeds. The turnip section was absolutely covered with seedlings, but there was no telling at that point what might be growing among the root veggies. Only the radish bed seemed somewhat unscathed. A bit of thinning actually produced a nice little bunch of radishes. Eventually, the turnip bed yielded gallons of greens…and nothing else.

((Sigh.))

healthy vegetables hand gardening

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I completely reworked the four-square after the chaos caused by the critter invasion and fence renovation. Kale and lettuce are sprouting again and so are the radishes, beets, and turnips.

Ah, turnips.

Just to illustrate how failure can result in bounty, my clearing of the ill-fated four-square garden did not yield a single turnip embryo, but I harvested all the leaves – which proved to be more than I could fit in my slow cooker. After we feasted Saturday evening on turnip greens and a bacon-wrapped, moonshine-basted, and smoked pork loin, I had enough cooked greens left to freeze two quarts. Between the remaining turnip greens and the leaves I harvested from the radishes, I’ll be able to cook another mess for the freezer. And future harvests of beets, radishes, and turnips will provide even more.

It’s a good thing hubby and I like to eat our greens.

greens

Some people shun cooked greens. I suspect that’s because they were introduced to them as children. And no offense to Popeye, they were probably force-fed that yucky canned spinach that does not do justice to real soul-food greens.

I divide leafy green vegetables into two categories: Salad greens and cooking greens.

Spinach, arugula, and anything remotely resembling lettuce are salad greens. They should be eaten raw or “wilted” by sautéing them with oil, vinegar, sugar, and seasonings.

Cooking greens are the leaves (often tough or prickly) of most root vegetables as well as thick-leafed, heavy-stemmed vegetables like collards. Kale is a crossover because some varieties lend themselves more to salads and others are only suited to cooking.

And yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to prepare cooking greens. The right way is low, slow and long. The wrong way is, well…any other way.

Here’s how I do it in my 8-quart Crockpot.

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Real Southern-Style Greens

Ingredients:

About 10 to 12 cups of cooking greens that have been thoroughly washed and roughly sliced (Any combination will do…turnip, beet, radish, kale, or collards…even dandelion leaves!)

1 large red or sweet yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

6 slices of bacon cut crosswise into ½ inch strips

¼ pound diced salt pork or ham (or 1 whole smoked ham hock)

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste (about ½ teaspoon works for us)

5 or 6 healthy dashes of red pepper sauce

6 cups of water (more if needed to cover the greens)

Hard boiled eggs for garnish (optional)

Instructions:

Before you do anything else, wash the greens in several changes of water and remove any thick, tough stems. Don’t depend on “prewashed” greens being free of sand, dirt, insects, and other foreign objects.

Gather handfuls of greens on your chopping board and slice through them across the leaves in ½ inch strips. The idea is to shred them, not chop them.

Layer about half the shredded greens in the bottom of your slow cooker and top with chopped onion, bacon strips, and ham (or salt pork) cubes. Add the remaining shredded greens and 6 cups of water. Push down with the back or a spoon to make sure there’s just enough water to cover the greens. Pour in the apple cider vinegar, sprinkle with brown sugar, salt, pepper, and hot pepper sauce. Stir to dissolve the sugar and then toss and stir to thoroughly combine all the ingredients.

Cook on the low temperature setting of your slow cooker for a minimum of 6 hours. Taste the pot liquor and adjust seasonings if necessary. If desired, garnish each serving with chopped or sliced hard boiled eggs.

Yields about 3 quarts of cooked greens (with pot liquor).

For authentic Southern soul effect, serve up cornbread alongside for sopping up the pot liquor.

cornbread

And don’t pour the excess juiciness down own the drain! Stored in airtight containers, pot liquor can be refrigerated or frozen and used later as a nutrient-rich addition to soups, juices, and smoothies.

(By the way, the same holds true for the water in which peeled potatoes have been boiled. It can be used to make white sauces or as a base for creamed vegetables or soups.)

Freeze leftovers in quart or pint freezer containers for up to 12 months.

Be strong. Be brave. Be healthy.

Eat your greens!

Marcus and Me

two people shaking hands

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It all started with a knock on my door one sunny summer afternoon.

There on my front porch stood a young man…hardly more than a boy, really…who shyly stammered, “Can I m-m-m. Excuse me. Can I m-m-mow your yard for $20?”

“Sorry,” I replied. “My husband likes to do the mowing and trimming himself. Says it’s his summer exercise routine.”

The kid looked so crestfallen it almost broke my heart. “Do you do any other kinds of yard work?”

His demeanor brightened immediately. “F-f-f-for $20?”

“I was just thinking that my flower beds really need some attention. If you’ll help me pull weeds for an hour, I’ll pay you $20.”

“D-d-d-deal!” he exclaimed.

Since I didn’t know if he could tell the difference between a dandelion and a daisy, I put the boy to work on the brick mowing path. Everything growing there was a weed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“M-m-m. Excuse me. Marcus.”

“Marcus, my name is Janet. Do you live nearby?”

“Yes’m. Next to the f-f-f-firehouse.”

He pointed north, in the general direction of Main Street. I knew just where he meant. A string of tiny, low-rent, minimally-maintained apartments that were likely built in the 1940s or 50s lined that section of the road.

We spent the next hour chatting and weeding. Marcus impressed me with his willingness to do whatever it took to earn the money he seemed to desperately need. When I handed him two ten dollar bills and a cold bottle of water, he asked, “C-c-c-can I come back next week?”

“Sure.”

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As the summer wore on, I learned a lot about my new friend. Marcus had just turned 16 years old the week before he first knocked on my door. He shared that little apartment with his grandmother. Neither his father nor his mother had stuck around long enough to see baby Marcus take his first steps as a toddler. And Maw, as he called her, was getting pretty old. Marcus worried that she might not live long enough to see him graduate from high school. He said he liked to cook and that he dreamed that someday he could attend culinary school and learn how to be a real chef.

Marcus was like a sponge. He absorbed every bit of knowledge he could about the vegetables, herbs, and flowers I grew in my gardens. I learned that his favorite meal was fried chicken with a mess of slow-cooked greens and mashed potatoes. When he found out that I write, he declared that maybe he would be a writer someday himself.

One day I harvested more turnip greens, tomatoes, and zucchinis than I had the time or patience to deal with right away, so I offered them to Marcus. His smile and the hug he gave me in exchange for the vegetables more than adequately expressed his gratitude.

“Th-th-th-excuse me. Th-thank you. There’s not much f-f-f-food at our house right now.”

His response made me wish I had fried chicken to send home with him, too. How, I wondered, could there be people going hungry in our town?

After that, I made a point of regularly offering produce from our garden and sometimes a few slices of leftover meatloaf or pork roast. I always cooked more than hubby and I could eat. Why shouldn’t Marcus and Maw benefit from our abundance?

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Looking back, I realize I could have – no, SHOULD have – done more to help them.

By fall, Marcus could do most of the yard work unsupervised, but I had come to cherish the time we spent together so I often joined him at his labors just to enjoy his company. But the days were growing shorter. School and homework often kept him from having time to stop by looking for chores he could do to earn his $20.

When winter dropped several inches of heavy, wet snow during a particularly blustery day, I had suited up in layers of warm clothing and was trying to psych myself up to go out and shovel when Marcus knocked on the door.

“D-d-do you have a snow sh-sh-sh-shovel?”

“In the garage,” I answered. “But I’m short on cash, Marcus. I can’t pay you to shovel today.”

“M-m-m-my treat.” His grin shined whiter than the snow. “You-you-you. Excuse me. You too old to shovel.”

I would have felt insulted at the age comment had I not been so grateful for his help.

Winter turned to spring and spring into summer and Marcus came to help me with chores about once a week – sometimes more frequently. Early one bright summer Saturday, Marcus knocked on my door. When I answered, he pulled a red polo shirt from behind his back and held it in front of him. The logo of a nearby fast food restaurant punctuated his comment, “I-I-I g-g-got a j-j-j-job! A real j-j-j-job!”

“Congratulations, Marcus!” I hugged him. “And you’ll be working with food. That will be good experience when you go to culinary school.”

“C-c-c-costs a lot of money to go to school. C-c-can I still come and work on my days off?”

“Of course!”

Our friendship continued for several years. He invited me to his high school graduation. I couldn’t have been more pleased and honored than to watch him take that walk. Marcus proudly introduced me to his invalid grandmother.  I later learned that my young friend had pushed Maw over three miles in her wheelchair so she could attend the ceremony.

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A couple of weeks ago, as we approached the Memorial Day weekend and headed to Kansas City to celebrate a grand-niece’s graduation, it dawned on me that it’s been almost two years since Marcus last knocked on my door. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him walking up Main Street to get to his fast-food job in a very long time, either.

Of the hundreds of questions I’d asked Marcus during dozens of conversations, how is it that I never thought to ask his last name? Or his Maw’s last name? How could I have not paid attention at his graduation to pick up that tidbit of information as the principal called it out while he crossed the stage to collect his diploma?

Short of knocking on every door in the apartment complex looking for Marcus or Maw, I know of no way to check up on my friend. Did Maw pass away, leaving him homeless? Had he flipped enough burgers, mowed enough lawns, pulled enough weeds, and raked enough leaves to pay for his tuition to culinary school?

I may never know.

But I do know this: if I ever win the lottery, I will somehow find a way to locate my young friend and make sure that he has all the money he needs to make his dreams come true. I will pay for a speech therapist to help Marcus overcome his stuttering so he never has to be embarrassed by it again…or say “I-I-I…excuse me.”

Marcus, if you happen to read this, please come knock on my door. I have a ton of yardwork that needs to be done and you know I’m getting too old to do it by myself.

NOTE: This blog post is based on a true story, with some fictional elements added to protect my friend’s identity and privacy. Only stock photos were used and the real Marcus is not depicted in any image.

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My late mother’s birthday fell on July 7. Daddy’s sister, Aunt Celia Ann, also had a birthday around that time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall the exact date. In any case, these July birthdays prompted the creation of the original Army Green Birthday Cake.

I can’t remember who first had the idea, but my two older sisters and I decided to surprise Mother and Aunt Celia Ann with a memorable treat. Although I can’t recall my exact age at the time, I know I was young and eager to participate in any activity from which I wasn’t banned by my siblings. Happily, the army green birthday cake proved to be such an event.

Together, the three of us set about testing our baking, frosting, and cake decorating skills. The batter may have been chocolate…or maybe yellow…perhaps lemon? I’m not sure. The flavor seemed somewhat immaterial. The icing made this cake special.

I remember there being much discussion regarding how to tint the frosting. All we knew was that none of the options available in that little box of food coloring seemed special enough for our creation. I believe we thought lavender would be nice. Sadly, our version of that purplish hue too closely resembled grey and required adjustment. I don’t suppose any of us were well versed on how blue and red combine to make purple or, conversely, how green results when you mix yellow and blue.

Thus the experimentation began.

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I’m not sure how many combinations we tried before realizing that we’d better settle for that putrid olive drab before our frosting went from hideous to coyote ugly. (So nasty you would chew off your own paw to escape it.)

Certainly I was not the only sister who wanted to cry at that point, but we soldiered onward. We assembled the layers into a towering thing of beauty covered in army green icing. We hid the finished product in Mother’s aluminum cake cover, latched tight so there would be no peeking to ruin the surprise.

The next day, we loaded up the family station wagon and drove from Missouri to Colorado over the long Independence Day weekend to visit Aunt Celia Ann, Uncle Bill, Aunt Helen and all of my first cousins. Together we would celebrate those July birthdays in style. Mother packed a picnic basket and a cooler so we could drive straight through, saving time and money – both of which were no doubt in short supply.

With the whole family gathered, what a shock the unveiling of our masterpiece proved to be. I vaguely remember one of the cousins exclaiming, “It’s green!”

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And I’m pretty sure there was laughter…a lot of it.

But the only memory of the event really worth keeping is Mother’s reaction. Her voice conveyed sheer delight when she exclaimed, “Did you girls bake this cake for us all by yourselves? It looks wonderful!”

Thank you, Mother! In that moment you taught me an invaluable lesson. Even an army green birthday cake is beautiful when viewed through loving eyes.

Today is the 37th Mothers’ Day I’ve spent celebrating only the memory of my mom.  She passed away too young. Way too young.

Happy Mothers Day

Happy Heavenly Mothers’ Day 2018 to the amazing lady who, by her actions, taught me to be strong and independent; to love unconditionally; to be brave and unafraid to try new things…

And to appreciate all the army green birthday cakes life has to offer.

 

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