The Little Tiny Market – On southern summer food and a way of life

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The lima beans made a sea of green against the bottom of the beat up white paint bucket. On a front porch in the heat of the South Carolina summer, beans were shelled, husks were tossed and a way of life was seeded into a family. It was mindless but noble work, laced with stories and gossip to pass the time. Monday, lima beans. Tuesday, string beans. Wednesday, shucked corn. Bushels becoming dinner. This was thirty years ago and yesterday.

My grandmother, Nanny, knew no different. Vegetables didn’t come in cans unless the cans were mason jars stored filled with last summer’s harvest. Everything she cooked, she grew from the ground herself or bought from people who did the same.

The big conglomerate farmer’s market was a short car ride from our house. There were, and still are, large produce companies with box trucks delivering thirty pound boxes of lemons and potatoes to all the local and chain restaurants. But closer to home stands the Cayce Farmer’s Market or what came to be known as “the little tiny market,” because in comparison, it was.

Nanny frequented the Little Tiny Market for anything she didn’t grow enough of in her own garden. A bushel of that. A peck of this. There were beans, tomatoes, peaches, watermelons, all local, all good. A rooster standing hip-high struts freely around the place and is as terrifying as he is novel. By the way, this is in Columbia, SC so let’s not act like we don’t pretend that rooster is a Gamecock.

Southern food has experienced a resurgence of such in recent days. It seems every one is experimenting with what we, who have grown up here, have lived. Chicken is better fried and cornbread is never baked with sugar though feel free to pour on the honey or sorghum. For some this is regional cuisine. For some of us this is simply life. Cakes are always layered. Collards have always been soaked in the sink and cooked with a big hunk of ham. Black eyed peas are stewed with fat back. Pork chops are only panfried. Pan or milk gravy is a personal choice, passed through the family line like a last name. The Caughmans prefer milk gravy while the Thompsons, those are pan gravy people.

There was a normal rhythm of summer garden bounties. Beans, carrots, onions and celery were chopped and became what Nanny called “soup starters,” frozen and stored away for when it wasn’t 100 degrees and people actually wanted to eat soup. Canning and fermenting weren’t urban-y and hipster, they were tools passed on for generations as a way to stretch the growing months of the summer, a way to be frugal like using sour cream containers for leftovers. We ate what we could and preserved the rest. If the garden or market was overrun with peaches, then we put on our best Forrest Gump face and ate peach cobbler, tarts, fresh off the tree, salads….The rest found a home in a mason jar.

In a day when farmer markets are black top, pop-up and Main Street-y, there is a old soul quality to places like the Little Tiny Market. The place everyone knows your name isn’t the Cheers-like bar down the street, it was the market. You are canning peppers today, aren’t you? We just got some in. You need some corn to throw on the grill for that birthday party, right? Your dad’s 40th? We’ll take care of you.

The Little Tiny Market supplied my family with no less than a ton of food over the years. And Christmas Trees. And hanging porch ferns. And boiled peanuts. And memories. In an age rife with terms like local, glocal, and farm raised, the Little Tiny Market seems to say, “Welcome! We’ve been here a while, still doing what we do best and we are glad you are here.”

A few days ago, I bought some lima beans from the market close to my home. I could see the farm where they were grown just behind the little shed. The lady at the market told me to pick up a few extra tomatoes on my way out. On the house. The crop is bumper this year and there was no way she could sell them all. I shelled the lima beans in my living room, peeling strings, like I was untying a Christmas present. I cooked them with butter and a little mint. I sliced the tomatoes and sprinkled salt and pepper.

It was all delicious, as always.

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