I borrowed a cookbook from a friend in Memphis last week, marvelous recipes culled from dozens of Louisiana cookbooks. Blackfish and jambalaya. Couche-couche and bouillabaisse. It told me what to do to an alligator or a squirrel. To turtles and crayfish.
But the one that snared me was taken from a cookbook called Turnip Greens in the Bathtub.
I sat there grinning, reminded of my mother, a woman so eccentric youd think shed been born in Louisiana.
Mama used to clean her greens in her Sears Deluxe washing machine on the rinse and spin cycle. Unfortunately, the residues killed the washer. But she sure got her turnip greens clean.
Im a lot more lackadaisical. A good swish in a sink of warm water is just fine with me, and youll almost never taste a bit of grit in a bite of my greens. Nor has a single spider floated to the surface of any pot Ive ever made.
I do know folks who are much more thorough.
Vergie Butler, for instance, rinses her greens three times. Then she adds fatback and turnips and lets them simmer for an hour.
Vergie is my neighbor who lives just down the road from our McNairy County farm, and I have an open invitation all winter long to stop by any time Id like to raid the patch of greens behind her house. Every autumn she not only plants the ubiquitous turnip, but mustard and -- my favorite -- winter salad.
In fact, when the temperatures dropping hard into the twenties, shell give me a call.
Come on over and get yourself a mess o greens before they go to waste!
She always insists on helping, so there we go, Vergie dragging on her sweater over her housedress as we pick our way down the slope to the garden.
We have more than once been out there in the dark, bent over the squat plants, working our way down those long rows, our ears and noses burning in the cold, our fingers steadily stiffening as the jet stream moves in.
She fills one grocery sack to overflowing and I another, pulled on by the lure of just-one-more. Youd think we were kids in a blueberry woods.
A day or so after my most recent foray into Vergies backyard, I drove on down to Corinth, Mississippi -- hardly a stones throw south of our farm. Dashed off a few errands, then stopped by Mennas for a cup of coffee and mentioned Vergies generosity. The two of us got to reminiscing about great turnip greens we have known.
Like many a Mississippian, shes been trekking to Memphis for decades. Back in the Seventies, Menna and a carload of friends used to make a run into town about once a month, spend all day shopping at Goldsmiths (downtown) and at Seessels, Helen of Memphis, and the Green Stamps store. Sometime about noon, theyd pick a place to eat, their hot spots including The Cupboard on Union, where you could buy pot likker -- straight -- with cornbread.
And then there was the Knickerbocker out on Poplar Avenue.
Oh, yes, Menna remembered their turnip greens. Yummed and nodded. Yes, they were fine.
I didnt know Menna way back then, but in my early twenties my mother and I were big Knickerbocker fans. The linen tablecloths. The coffee in heavy white cups. The cellophane packets of Melba toast. Wed spread those thin dry toasts with the pats they served on bread and butter plates. Sip coffee and nibble. Pretty soon, one of their middle-aged waitresses would have plunked down our turnip greens along with baskets of corn sticks that crunched.
Wed keep telling each other how good those victuals were -- that is, when our mouths werent too full to speak.
The question is, what you do with the turnips dangling like heavy ornaments from the ends of their stalks, bone white with bands of purist purple swirled around their bald heads.
Vergie always insists on uprooting several large specimens and laying them--bouquetlike -- on top of my sack as if they were an offering to the gods.
Mama, Vergie, Menna--they all likem peeled and sliced and set in the bottom of a pot with the greens piled on.
Once cooked, they look like melted flesh, as though Dali had drawn them. Ive never told Miss Vergie, but Im not wild about those limp, gray wedges.
Not that I really mind them in a pot of greens; I just think theyre wasted.
Id rather make carrots n turnips.
On the Yankee branch of my family, this dish carries a mythical weight. No Thanksgiving, for instance, would be Thanksgiving without it.
And its easy.
Boil a half pot of carrots and another of turnips, drain them and mash. Add a chunk of butter, salt and pepper--generously--and theyre just right. I promise.
But save the water you boiled them in for the next time you make soup.
Mama used to live next door to a guy with seven children, vice president of Muzak as a matter of fact, whod shoo his wife out of the kitchen now and then so he could cook up a vat of vegetable soup.
He told me once that he always added a turnip. Claimed it was The Secret.
Ive done it ever since. Amazing how that no-count, funky root gives a broth such resonance, a certain je ne sais quoi.
So its evening and Im running warm water over a sinkful of greens, trimming the leafy parts off the stalks, dropping them into the pressure cooker along with chopped onion, dried jalapenos, and chicken bouillon. My grandmothers cast-iron skillet bakes cornbread with a crispy crust, and in half an hour my husband and I will be savoring the pot likker, fragrant and hot.
Yes, you may have your ambrosias and souffles.
Your gumbos and pates.
Nothing hits the spot on a cold winters night like a mess of first-rate greens.
[This story originally appeared in Memphis Magazine.]