Summertime. That word conjures up thoughts of lakeside campouts, marathon games of kickball, bike rides with friends and school free days.
Growing up in a “holler” in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, my summer days were filled with imaginative play, storytelling and family. Neighbors, whether related by blood or not, were family. I tell people all the time we were poor, but I never felt poor.
For me, there is nothing that compares to the earthy smell of a fresh-from-the-garden tomato pulled from the vine. An aroma I learned to appreciate by following my uncles, Frank, Jerry and Warren, up and down garden rows every summer.
Days were filled with swinging from grape vines, crawdad hunting in creeks and exploring the hills of Appalachia. I knew, though, when the sun started setting, to get my backside home, and if I heard my mama holler from the front porch, I was running late. If she said first, middle and last name, I was in a world of hurt.
Those mountain evenings were spent stringing and breaking gallon buckets of green beans with my mom, mamaw, aunts and cousins. When we got a little older we learned how to string up the beans for shuck beans. We would talk about nothing in particular or sing while we worked. Sometimes, my Uncle Warren would tell scary stories, and I would thank God I was already home. I couldn’t imagine having to make the trek out in the dark to walk home.
Those broken beans were later canned and stored on shelves in our basement root cellar, the advantage of the house being built on a mountain. The back half of the basement was dirt and perfect for storing canning. If it grew in the garden the Maynards canned it. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, beans, pears, apples, peaches and the like. If it grows, I can guarantee you it has been in a mason jar in my childhood basement.
Creating a new family tradition
The art of canning is something I have not preserved from my childhood. Luckily, my uncles still can, and when my family makes a trip back to visit, or when my mom comes to visit us, there is always a box of Kentucky canning creations to restock my shelves.
Something I have kept up with is making jams and jellies, and thanks to Ridgeway Volunteer Fire Department and their peach sale each July, I can share a new annual tradition with my children.
Once I see the announcement that the Peach Sale is scheduled, I make a plan. What recipes will we try this year? We always make peach cobbler, of course. I always pull out the cast iron skillet to bake peach halves in sugar and butter, perfect topped with vanilla ice cream.
This year the plan was to freeze bags of peach slices for making peach cobbler and tarts during the winter and make a few jars of peach/orange marmalade.
This process was all-hands-on-deck for the Miller family to peel, slice, measure and stir. Televisions were off, phones put down and the mayhem began.
First the peaches were cleaned and separated into three groups, use during the week, freeze or marmalade. As the boys prepped the jars for the jam, my daughter and I sliced peach after peach after peach and put them in freezer bags labeled with the date. Once the jars were ready, peaches were dunked in boiling water to remove the skins easily, then sliced. The peaches were put in a bowl with orange zest and orange slices. Then came the fun part, the mashing. For this, you have to get your hands dirty! Clean hands are dunked in the peach and orange combination and mashed until you can’t tell peach from orange. A little lemon juice and sugar were added to the mix.
My husband was in charge of the next step, stirring with a wooden spoon until the mix coated the spoon just right. Once the peach/orange concoction was just right, we sat it aside until cool and cleaned up the mess we made. We spent the time talking about recipes to make with the remaining peaches and listening to our kids debate who would do the dishes.
It may sound simple, but I feel like in these small moments when we disconnect from media and connect with each other, we are strengthening the roots of our family. I can pass along to my daughter a long cherished history of mountain cooking handed down to me from my mom, and to her from her mom.
In these fast passed days it can’t hurt to slow down and smell the roses (in my case, the tomatoes or peaches) and remember a more simple time. A time when movie night meant racing to the video store with hopes that the DVD case still had a rental behind it, or standing in line with friends for hours just to be the first to see the new “Star Wars” movie. When get-togethers meant just showing up at someone’s house, sharing food and good times, not a single selfie or Snapchat post in sight.
We literally have the world at our fingertips, but do we appreciate the world we see right in front of us? When was the last time you took a walk for no particular reason, invited your neighbor for dinner, or called someone just to say hi?