The vast majority of Burke families produced some, if not most, of their food from their gardens. The staples in a garden were greens, peas, beans, onions, and tomatos.
Greens were one of the real treats from the garden. Both turnip and mustard greens were grown for consumption in the summer. Collard greens, which were resistant to frost, were grown for consumption in the fall. Turnip greens and mustard greens have a strong distinctive taste which was moderated by boiling them with a piece of bacon fat. The webmaster always enjoyed them with pepper sauce. The even stronger taste of collard greens and their effect upon the digestive system have produced punch lines in many rural jokes.
Turnip greens also produce turnips, of course, but the webmaster's family hardly every consumed those. The distinction between the turnips and greens led to an amusing incident that illustrated regional differences in eating. The webmaster's father Elroy Murrah worked for many years at the Natural Gas Pipelne Company compressor station on FM 58. Many of the employees were originally from Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and other northern states, and they lived in a housing camp on the station grounds. One time Elroy took a bunch of turnip greens with turnips still attached to Leonard Johnson, a work colleague from Illinois. Leonard broke the greens off and threw them in the trash can. Elroy was a bit upset that Leonard had thrown the perfectly good greens away and asked why he had done so. Leonard replied that in Ilinois they eat the turnips and throw the greens away. Elroy replied that in Texas we eat the greens and throw the turnips away.
Peas were a staple on Burke tables. In the South "peas" means cowpeas, not green peas, which we called English peas. English peas did not grow well in the Texas heat and are rare. Cowpeas, however, thrive, and many varieties were grown -- blackeyes, purplehulls, crowders, creams, whipoorwhills. Cooked with a piece of bacon fat, peas are delicious. Snap beans, which were grown on string runners supported by posts at the end of the rwo, were also common. The most prevalent type of beans were butterbeans, again cooked with a piece of bacon fat. Pinto beans and Navy beans were consumed, but they were bought dried from the store.
The most sublime vegetable in the garden was the tomato, which technically is a fruit. Tomatos grow on a small bush and are picked when they just start to turn pink. Left on the kitchen window sill for a day or two, they turn bright red. They are then ready to be sliced and eaten as a salad. They are best with a sprinkling of salt. They are also good in combination with cornbread and brown gravy make with canned tomatos. Another treat is to picke the tomatos while still green, slice and batter them with corn meal, and fry them. These are the legendary "fried green tomatos", and they are delicious. Many grew large patches of tomatos and canned them in jars for use in the fall and winter.
We cannot forget one of the more unusual vegetables grown in Burke gardens. Okra, a native of Africa, grows on tall woody stalks with an irritating surface that requires the use of gloves to pick. Okra can be prepared in several ways. The simplest is to toss a few pods in a pot of peas, but many do not like the slimy result. Okra is delicious battered with corn meal and fried. It can also be mixed with tomatos, peppers, and onions to prepare okra gumbo.
Corn was grown mainly for consumption by cattle, but early in the year the tender "ros-n-ears" (roasting ears) were picked an either boiled for corn on the cob or cut off the cob for cream style corn. While "sweet corn" was grown, most preferred "field corn". The ears were picked when you could press on a kernel and the milky contents would pop out. Cutting corn off the cob was a messy affair, and the cook usually wound up with pieces of corn and corn milk in her hair.
Potatoes were enjoyed at two stages. When the potatoes were still small, they would be dug from the ground and cooked in a white sauce as "new potatos". Later, mature potatoes were plowed up, collected, and stored in a dark, dry, cool place. The sandy soil under houses built on blocks was a perfect location. Potatos stored under the house would be preserved for most of the year. The webmaster was sent under the house for potatos man times.
Other items such as onions and peppers were also grown. Some of the onions were picked young, and both the tops and bottoms were eaten. The rest of the onions were allowed to mature and were dug and preserved under the house much like potatos. Pepers were especially valued in the Murrah family. We grew several varieties, including longhorn and later jalapenos. We would eat some of them as a condiment with peas as they matured. The remainder we pickled with vinegar in jars. After several weeks the vinegar would absorb the hot flavor from the peppers, and we would pour it on hard fried eggs and turnip greens. When the jar was empty of sauce, all you had to do was fill it with vinegar again and in a few weeks you had another batch. To this day the webmaster has difficulty eating fried eggs or greens without some sort of hot sauce. Since pepper sauce if hard to find outside the South, the webmaster improvises by mixing Tabasco sauce and apple cider vinegar.
An essential follow-on to gardening was canning. Farm families preserved beans, peas, tomatos, and other vegetables for winter use. Some were put up in glass jars and some in metal cans.
Two treats from the garden were watermelons and sugar cane. Watermelons are thumped with the middle finger and make a distictive deep sound when ripe. Watermelons are best served cold, and in the days before refrigerators they were placed in a bag and immersed in the cistern for several hours before eaten. Sugar cane was cut off at the joints, peeled, and chewed. The majority of the cane was taken to a mill where the juice was squeezed out and cooked into syrup. The most popular cane variety was "ribbon cane", which produced the delicious ribbon cane syrup. It can still be purchased from roadside vendors in East Texas.
Both watermelons and sugar cane were often filched by rowdy boys. More than one teenager has found himself dodging buckshot from an angry farmer's shotgun. The webmaster's parents told a story about several boys being caught stealing watermelons. The shotgun wielding owner of the patch said, 'Boys, since you like watermelons so much, start eating." He made the boys eat watermelon until the were miserable.
The webmaster's mother, unlike his father, had a penchant for hot foods. She grew plenty of onions
In late spring and early summer nature provided its own garden produce in the form of dewberries and a bit later blackberries. The vines with sharp spines grew along fence rows, along railroad tracks, and other uncultivated areas. It was always a bit daunting to wade through the weeds and berry vines risking sticks, scratches,and occasional snakes to pick the luscious berries.
A dish pan full of berries was enough to make a batch of berry jelly by boiling the berries in sugar and water on the stove and mixing the resulting juice with Sure Jell. The jelly was poured into glass jars and capped with a lid and sealing ring, ready to opened and spread on a hot buttered biscuit. A few of the berries were set aside to make berry cobbler, an incredibly delicious dessert.