Chilton County peaches, Moon and Stars watermelon, Hal Vaughn’s tomatoes. Figs from Sam and blueberries from Joe. These are the markers of summer for me: various Mississippi men bringing me five-gallon buckets of goodness through the front doors of the B.T.C., or pulling their invariably faded but pristine pickups parallel to the curb and calling me out to see the bounty, carefully arrayed in the bed of their trucks.
I’m crazy about farming men — not one of them fools with produce for the money. It’s a wonderful thing, when people don’t do things for money. It frees folks up to pursue art. That’s more what the shining buckets of berries and tomatoes and figs on a flat basket with a paper towel to blot the juice are. They are art, the gifts that these mostly old, often grizzled men can summon into being in this world.
And let me tell you, their art is delicious.
One of the joys of my life is that in the summer, I can stock my little grocery store with fresh everything, because people will buy it. Those last words are more limiting than you might imagine. I’d love to go nuts with Louisiana citrus in December, Virginia apples in October and locally grown mushrooms and pencil-thin spears of spring asparagus, but, for whatever reason, freshly grown food-stuffs don’t grow legs and leap out of the store like they do in the summer. I sell vegetables all day long in the summer without even trying. It’s a heady feeling, and I savor every second of it.
Mississippi summer can be a lot like the summer where I grew up — in Virginia. Until it’s not.
I was lucky the first year I lived here. It was warm, sure, but nothing nutty. Year two? Year two we had an August where every single day was over 100 degrees — with not a wisp of cloud and with not a single thunderstorm. All month. I’ve never felt so house-bound in all my life. I’d take the dogs and the baby out for a walk right before dark, in the balmy 80-something degree nights, with the day’s heat radiating off the asphalt and the large cockroaches out for their nocturnal wanderings.
Twenty-something minutes a night and every other minute spent inside the air conditioning or scuttling to and from the air conditioning. I thought I’d lose my mind, but really, I shouldn’t be complaining.
My buddy Eddie Ray told me that back before air conditioning, Water Valley could be a pretty grim place to be the morning after one of those endless, hot, sticky nights. Folks would set a fan on front of the slowly dripping end of a hose so that the water-cooled air would blow on them, but it wasn’t always enough to keep the heat away in the midnight hours. So, they’d wake up tired and sweaty and trudge into a new day, and every single adult in town would be grumpy.
Time has marched forward, and most Mississippians have progressed past interminable nights of discomfort. Progress, right? But some instincts are bred deep inside the bone and can’t be chilled out by any amount of a/c. When the days lengthen and the end of school nears, people stagger into the B.T.C. like salmon swimming upstream, intent on picking up a mess of squash to fry or a sack of red fat tomatoes for a sandwich or shelled peas to boil. Peaches for cobbler. Sweet corn to cut off and cook with cream. You get the picture. It’s over 80? Apparently, it’s time to fire up the stovetop.
What’s odd is my cooking and gardening impulses are never lower than in the summer. My husband tells me I am a contrary-minded creature, and I guess so, because just about when everyone else in the state has their section turned over and the stakes in the ground and the first flush of growth propelling the vines across the ground, I up and walk away from my garden. It’s on its own in the summer. I venture out in the dusk to clip herbs and cut zinnias, but that’s about it. I plant a fall garden, and I scheme like mad all winter. And, in the spring, I’m a whirling dervish with a spade in my hand, but in the summer, I’m content to drag the hose around to my juvenile shrubs and keep things hanging on until cooler weather rolls down the pike.
I suppose I’m too busy selling everyone else’s garden bounty to worry about my own.
Here’s hoping that this summer tastes like the heart of a watermelon straight out of an ice bath. So sweet and so cold, it’ll make your teeth ache.