We pulled into our driveway around 10 p.m. after having been in Louisiana for ten days and leaving friendly instructions with our next door neighbor, Judy, to water our little furlough garden. When we got out of the car, we soon noticed that one of my tomato plants was close to six feet tall and was leaning to one side, heavy with green fruit. On the other side of the garden was a mass of tangled watermelon vines that had crept their way out of the box and were headed toward my neighbor Tariq’s yard. I walked into the house overwhelmed and overjoyed at the scene, leaving the killer tomatoes and watermelon for closer inspection later. Early the next morning, I strolled out back and assessed the overgrowth in astonishment. I’d never had a tomato plant do so well as to need such pruning and hadn’t even grown watermelon before. In fact, I’d expected the watermelon to perish and had only purchased the weepy little plant weeks earlier to appease my husband, Isaac.
My love of gardening started early on. Some of my most treasured memories of my Great-Grandma Boudreaux are of picking mint in her front yard so that she could make mint-iced tea or scaling her fence as best I could to pick string beans. I also have pictures from my childhood standing in my Maw-Maw Jewel’s yard surrounded by cucuzza squash, taller than I was, hanging from large vines on either side of my head. That’s how I remember summers with my grands and great-grands. Everyone down-home had a garden and they always shared the crop. In many ways, I plant a garden every year in honor of my grandparents and share my crop as best I can because I thrive on that sense of community.
Cajuns pride themselves on a strong sense of community, but also on being innovative by living off the land and making the best of what they have. I didn’t know and understand how important these elements of my culture were to me until I left home and moved to the East Coast. I plant these gardens every year to keep myself grounded. Life in D.C. can be chaotic and sometimes, as a Southern transplant, I feel like a buoy caught in a rough current. I plant in the hopes that I can nurture a little piece of home for the summer and pass Cajun values on to my kids. Yet, until recently, I had only planted flowers, which could in no way compare to the lush and extravagant gardens of my childhood. Every year since having my own place in college, I’ve planted a garden and always hear my Paw-Paw Dewey in my head saying, “Eh, Cher, if you can’t eat it, why plant it?”
Since owning a home, I’ve tried to honor my paw-paw’s advice by planting more fruits and veggies each year. Four summer ago, I started off small with a pepper garden and some herbs. Now, I have more plants than we can cook with including thyme, lemon thyme, rosemary, Greek basil, boxwood basil, sweet mint and orange mint, four varieties of hot peppers, three tomato plants, one eggplant, sweet peppers, cucumbers, string beans and a watermelon plant! I’m living less than two miles from downtown D.C. with a watermelon plant that is slowly, but surely, overgrowing my very small cityscape backyard. It’s phenomenal. I’ve had to extend the box garden twice in the last three weeks and have pots of herbs planted in just about every sunny little niche around our house.
Mom says I get my green thumb from Grandma Elsie and that may be true. Planting these gardens each year relaxes me and takes me back to a time when life was slower and more carefree. I like to watch the plants grow, as my three year old says, and watch the plants grow we do. When the literal fruits of our labor are ready to harvest, my son Dexter and I rush to the garden and pick as much as possible with gusto. While the comforting memories are my initial motivation, my love of cooking motivates me to grow different vegetables and then explore new recipes for all the stuff I’ve been growing.
With each new crop, I learn (or in many cases, make up) a new recipe. As a result, I’ve created some rather creative uses for the things we’re growing. A few of my favorite recipes that have come from the garden this summer are fresh salsa and guacamole with the tomatoes; jalapeños and Mexican belles; jambalaya with hot banana peppers; fried green tomatoes; and basil and thyme-grilled veggies. My family’s most recent favorite is mint chocolate chip ice cream with fresh mint — no mint extract needed. For these last few weeks of summer, I’ll be watching the plants grow and eagerly anticipate harvesting my first watermelon. The Internet says it could grow as big as 25 to 40 pounds. Phenomenal!
I like to serve these with a Pineapple-Habanero Relish that I’ve only found at Costco or fresh red tomato salsa from the garden. You can also make a simple remoulade with mayo, ketchup, Slap Ya Mama and herbs to taste.
Tip: If you’re preparing these for a party, you can batter the tomatoes about an hour ahead of time and place them on a large dish or baking pan in a single layer, to make frying go more quickly.
We usually scoop some right out after the machine stops and then freeze the rest. It will keep in the freezer for about a week in an airtight, plastic container.
The crème de menthe will slow the freezing process. So, your ice cream maker may not slow or stop as usual. We check ours after about 50 minutes and then continue if need be.