If you've ever picked peas, you know that pea picking minutes are some of the longest in existence. I'm told only cotton picking minutes are longer, but I have no experience with cotton and pea picking minutes are plenty long enough.
These are pea picking minutes: The sleep is still in your eyes, and already the sun is mean, a magnifying glass in the hand of a nasty little boy; he wants to watch you sizzle and pop. The morning dew steams up from the ground like a sputtering iron, filling your lungs with moist heat. Sweat pours down your back soaking your underwear and the wetness seeps through to color your pants, as if you had a pee pee accident. The dampness will worry up a rash at your waist by dinner time. And the gnats. Oh the gnats! You've coated your face with Avon's Skin So Soft to keep them from flying up your nose and sipping from your tear ducts, but it doesn't work; the fragrant oil acts as flypaper and when they land they stick to your face and writhe grotesquely before sputtering out.
As you fill your bucket, the row ahead seems to telescope and the only gauge of time is your growing misery as you chant to yourself. One row. One row. One row. That's all the kids have to pick. One row. When you reach the end and stand upright for the first time all day, you feel the muscles elongate with an internal yelp that is pain and pleasure twisted together, and the walk back to the house down that same row is over in a flash. Minutes that go by very quickly should be called "back to the house" minutes.
After the horror of pea picking, pea shelling is a jubilee. Nannie's friends are there to help with the shelling, and the room is filled with happy chatter and clatter that's louder than the whir of the window air conditioner. Vergie is a big woman, with a bottom that makes chairs anxious. She plants herself directly in front of the cold air and still she waves a church fan and sighs, "Lawdie, lawdie." Doll is an Avon lady who carries a stack of catalogs with her everywhere. Nannie is her best customer and there's entire dresser in her room filled with Avon products – men's cologne in decanters shaped like cars, lipstick in more shades of frosty pink that you'd think existed, large containers of the scented powder Nannie uses to prime her girdle, and one drawer is just bottles of Skin So Soft. Louise has known Nannie the longest, and I move my chair next to hers and ask her to tell me olden days stories. She says, I've told them all, and I say, Tell them again.
Despite a full morning of labor and an afternoon of more to come, the younger women magically produce a hot dinner (which is lunchtime in the South). Dishes crowd the table and line the sideboard – squash and onions, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, fried okra, slabs of country ham and salmon patties, biscuits and a pan of the freshest field peas available anywhere.
At the dinner table there is talk of a "sang" over in Dothan, a group of siblings out of Memphis that are supposed to be as good as the Lewis Family. Nannie says that if she's going as far as Dothan it had better be to see some wrastlin', wrastlin' being her odd, guilty pleasure. We all get a kick out of her bloodthirsty yelling when she watches the matches on TV.
After dinner, the kids are allowed to stay home with the women who've aged out of field work, and everyone else heads back out to pick. They hobble in just as the sun lowers his magnifying glass. It's quieter in the kitchen this time, as dishes are reheated for supper.
There is one last chore before rest, before a few rounds of crazy eights, baths and then bed. The unshelled peas, bushels in wooden baskets, are delivered to Mrs. Ray's house so that her large, pitiful brood can earn money. Their house is a leaning, unpainted shanty with a rusty roof, brokedown sofas on the front porch. Looking through the screen door, I see a line of lumpy, stained mattresses, most without sheets. Grinding poverty -- limited access to refrigeration, electricity, water and soap -- has a particular smell, stagnant and overripe, sharp at the initial whiff and then unpleasantly sweet, like peaches left to rot. I know better than to say anything or even wrinkle my nose. Nannie has never taken a switch to me, but I'm certain if I ever acknowledged the smell I'd feel the sting of a thin Crape Myrtle branch on my behind. That scent sets up house in your nose, and back home I make a beeline for the Avon dresser, the Sweet Honesty solid perfume housed in a goldtone locket.
The next morning, it starts all over again. Unless it's Sunday. Sunday is fried chicken cooked before service and left to cool, church fans with a picture of blue-eyed Jesus on the back, a bleating organ, off-key singing, and packs of Juicy Fruit gum stirred from the depths of Nannie's big black pocketbook.
I haven't picked peas in over twenty-five years and I vividly remember the heat, the gnats, the backache and my mother telling me "you're too young to have a back" when I complained, but surely now, it wasn't that bad? It can't have been, because come summertime I find myself longing to pick up a bucket and head out to the fields with my family for just a few more pea picking minutes.
I found these unshelled pink-eye peas at our produce market. It took me over an hour to shell five pounds. I'm definitely out of practice!
Fresh Field Peas
Fresh field peas don't need the fancy treatment. They're delicious simply simmered in water and a little bit of olive oil, with plenty of kosher salt and black pepper, until the snaps are tender (about 20-25 minutes), but I like to make a topping of onions, peppers, lemon juice, vinegar and oil. I like the vibrant flavor and the color it adds to an otherwise rather subdued bowl. You can also drizzle a spoonful on top of soups, fish or chicken, or a bowl of shrimp and grits.
1/3 cup very finely minced white onion
1/3 cup very finely minced poblano peppr
1/3 cup very finely minced red bell pepper
Juice of ½ lemon
1 Tbsp champagne or other mild white vinegar
3 Tbsp very good olive oil
A pinch of salt
Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate.
I also found some beautiful squash and couldn't resist adding them to my basket. During the summer, yellow squash is as abundant in the South as zucchini appears to be in other parts of the country. I was an adult before I ever ate zucchini! For this preparation, where the squash is rendered soft and creamy – almost like risotto – a large cast iron skillet is a must. (This is my and my daughter's favorite vegetable dish.)
Creamy Yellow Squash and Onions
2 lbs young yellow squash (the little ones), chopped to about 1 inch in size
1 large Vidalia onion, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (optional, don't use the pre-grated)
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 large shallot, sliced and fried until crispy (optional)
In a large cast iron skillet, heat the olive oil and the butter over medium high heat. Add the squash and onions and a heavy pinch of salt to get the squash to start releasing liquid. Stir every few minutes until the liquid begins to evaporate and the mixture is broken down and getting a little sticky (about 10 minutes). At that point, stay on top of it. Using a large metal spatula keep scraping the bottom of the pan and turning the squash over to prevent it from becoming overly brown. You want it to caramelize a bit but not burn. Cook until the squash is very tender and a uniform pale, golden/caramel color. Add the cream and the nutmeg and heat through. Taste for salt and pepper. Top with fried shallots. Or shredded sharp cheddar cheese if you're trying to convince a kid that squash is delicious!
(I'm thinking this post needs some British hillbilly music.)