Bill Bouldin

Bill Bouldin

This is a bad time of year to be behind me on the highway. I slow to a crawl for every produce stand I pass on either side of the road, and no amount of honking can make me speed up.

Just flip me the bird, go around and leave me to my leisurely scan of the fruit and vegetables on display on the tailgate of a pickup, often under the shade of a makeshift tarp.

Blame it on my roots. I come from a time and place where men and women gauged their self-worth by the output of their backyard gardens. Each Spring an old Black man in bib overalls would lead his mule and plow around to the various neighborhoods, offering to turn over the winter-hardened sod to produce neat rectangles of dark soil, ready for planting.

Nearly every home had a plot under cultivation, putting out bushels and pecks of every imaginable vegetable – cucumbers, squash of all types and colors, radishes, okra,

string beans, snaps, peas, eggplant, cabbage, collard greens, potatoes and rutabagas.

The queen of the home garden was the tomato, of course, which I will return to in a minute.

The really ambitious gardeners grew a plot of sweet corn, a row or two of watermelons and maybe a scattering of pumpkins. You can just imagine what was on the dinner table of those households.

Speaking of dinner tables, I remember one summer the leader of our Boy Scout troop thought it would be instructive for his boys to tour the local lock-up, called the City Farm.

There, 30 or 40 of the least violent local offenders tended a multi-acre plot that produced the table fare for themselves and the jail inmates as well.

We toured the dormitory, infirmary, and guard house, and saw the barbed wire topped fences that enclosed the place.

We even saw the leg shackles, which were rarely used.

The high point of the trip was the mid-day meal with the prisoners. I don’t recall the meat that was served – probably pork of some kind from the farm’s hog pen – but what was unforgettable was the profusion of vegetables on offer. There must have been six or seven different dishes of peas, greens, beans, creamed corn, potatoes and squash, and that’s not including the slice of cold watermelon for dessert.

If the objective of the excursion to the City Farm was to dissuade us boys from pursuing a life of crime, it was a failure. Those prisoners ate like kings, and didn’t seem to be too terribly unhappy with their lot producing that bounty.

But back to the tomato. There is something about the soil of the southeastern United States that makes it particularly amenable to the cultivation of the tomato plant.

It’s not uncommon to see tomato plants six feet tall, tethered to their wooden stakes with strips of white cloth, each branch bulging with bright green balls ready to turn red.

Every home farmer takes inordinate pride is his tomato plants, but there are invariably one or two men or women who seem to produce the biggest and best tomatoes in the area.

Without fail, these tomato-whisperers produce way more than they could possibly eat, and give away 90 percent of their crop in the form of a poke sack full of nearly ripe tomatoes, left on the doorstep unannounced.

That’s why at this time of year, just about every house in the South has window sills lined with tomatoes, ripening in the sun.

And that’s also why some drivers think nothing of bringing traffic to a standstill while they slowly check out the pints and quarts of bright red orbs on the tailgate of a pickup, with the hand lettered sign – “Home Grown Tomatoes.” That driver would be me.

INTERESTING HOLIDAYS THIS WEEK. August 25 - Kiss and Make Up Day; 27th - Just Because Day; 31st- International Bacon Day. Enjoy.

Bill Bouldin, a Virginian by birth and a Son of Texas by nature, is a former Air Force pilot and veteran journalist who has spent many tale-weaving years on the Texas-Mexico border.

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