Garden-fresh vegetables are the quintessential summer food. You can keep your barbecue, your ice cream, or your picnic fare. Where I come from, it's not summer without fresh green beans, corn and tomatoes.
Now, a few years back, a best-selling book was based on the premise that you shouldn't eat anything that your grandmother wouldn't recognize. The rest of the year, I can't get enough sushi or Indian food. I slavishly replicate the signature French dishes that made Julia and Ina famous, and I've developed a bit of a specialty in making Cajun dishes. But, in the summer, I find myself cooking the exact same simple country meals that my grandmother has always made, using the very same varietals that she's been growing for six decades or so. Fried chicken, white half runner green beans and silver queen corn, with a crudité plate of cucumbers, beefy red tomatoes and green onions. You don't question it. You just serve it.
Growing up in a small Eastern Kentucky town, I just assumed that everyone had access to garden vegetables all summer long. My grandparents had a huge, bountiful garden. We're talking "rent a mule to plow it" huge. My uncle now plants a similar garden every year, providing us all with more vegetables than we could possibly eat, can, or freeze. I guess I'll always be a country girl at heart; I take for granted that, no matter where I live, this summer harvest will be available. I laughingly refer to my family as my own personal CSA because it seems that, all summer long, somebody is always bringing me more veggies than I could ever use. A few years ago, I memorably asked my grandmother to send me a few tomatoes. The following weekend, she sent my parents to Lexington with seventy-six!
Food, summer, and small-town life will always be interconnected for me because of my family's commitment to gardening. My grandmother, the queen of the subtle nuances between varietals, has a network of friends from whom she purchases certain vegetables that we can't quite get to grow or which we need in mass quantities for preserving purposes. Growing up, I thought that everybody had a "corn man"; ours is named Maurice. (Our "raspberry lady", who recently passed away, was named Dottie.) It was a fascinating little microcosm to observe -- my granny and her friends had been trading for so long that they no longer even had to ask questions or call ahead, they just showed up when they had a crop to sell. It was a dramatic representation of the "grandmother foods" foodie manifesto, and a powerful lesson in community.
These days, I find that my hometown is starting to show signs of the foodie-fication that has swept America in recent years. A recent trip to the Prestonsburg Food City yielded Voss Water (in the coveted glass bottles, no less!) and organic quinoa. (Try to say that in a thick Appalachian accent. I dare you!) The same day, I even found Arencita Rossa at the Wal-Mart. Now, I'll never complain about this kind of diversity, since I never met a pretentious food I didn't like. I found it far odder, though, when I saw a sign for the Floyd County Farmers' Market. We've always had roadside produce stands, but never something this centralized. It's definitely more yuppie and "citified" than we could have imagined even a decade ago. You may see farmers' markets all over cities like Lexington or Louisville, but it seemed somehow out of step in a small rural town. While it's a far cry from the house calls that Maurice makes, it's simply a new way of keeping "grandmother foods" and the farming community alive.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter if you're serving your green beans with quinoa or cornbread. It's largely immaterial if you grow your crops yourself, buy them from your corn man, or visit your local farmers' market. Your tomatoes can be a straightforward red fruit or a pricey, multicolored heirloom, and your corn can be the even hue of Silver Queen or the mixed kernels of Peaches and Cream. Farm-fresh Kentucky vegetables will always be the taste of summer.