Granny's Fruit Cellar

My granny, Ollie McCoy Smith

“Now, ya’ll stay out of my fruit cellar,” Granny warned my sisters and me each summer vacation. She needn’t worry. We would never turn the doorknob to that dark, spooky place with a small window facing the alley side of the house.
Once, when she opened the door to store her canned tomatoes on shelves, I caught a glimpse of that window, appalled by spiders feeding on bugs.
           Built under the stairs descending the kitchen to the basement, Granny’s fruit cellar also served as a root cellar. But I couldn’t see the “root” side; a mysterious cave hewn into the earth.
           Granny held her root vegetables and cabbages captive in that pit black as night until her dimpled hands rescued them for a meal. But I never witnessed her wide hips enter that formidable den.
           Furthermore, I didn’t understand what Granny meant when she said “root vegetables,” because she harvested onions, potatoes, and carrots after I left Kentucky and returned to school in Michigan. There, Mom only had a fruit cellar.
           Passage into my grandmother’s fruit and root cellar came after her death in March 1997, not a year after I buried my firstborn. A holy moment, I followed Mom down the narrow and spiraling steps to the basement.
           The furnace and Poppy Roy’s miner shower and toilet stood to the left, just as I remembered. And there was the root cellar door on the right.
My mother whispered, “It’s been so long since Mom put up a garden, I have no idea what we’ll find in there.”
I’d slept in my grandparents’ basement bedroom until I married. Then, upon our first visit to Granny and Poppy Roy, she appointed my husband and me to her guest room where she kept her quilts in the closet.
As infants, our three daughters slept in that room with us. How is it possible for a grown granddaughter to understand such love and wealth within one place, from one person, and speak honor and praise due them?
My third grade school picture

I held my breath when Mom opened the door to the scent of dust and fumes of withered potatoes, onions, and cabbages. Sooty cobwebs hung on the window like tattered curtains. Several jars of canned food stood abandoned on the shelves.
“It’s not as bad as I thought,” Mom said.        
We emptied jars worth salvaging and washed them in the kitchen sink. I carried a few keepsakes home.
Several summers ago, anticipating our garden’s harvest, I consulted our farm’s handyman about digging a root cellar along the outside west wall of our house. Although possible, the cost was prohibitive and the location impractical for winter access.
“Why do you want a root cellar?” our handyman asked. “There’s just you and Mel to feed.”
It took some thought to search my heart. “Because my granny had one, and her house burned to the ground a few years ago.”
Dear Reader, sometimes, a granddaughter needs to smell her grandmother’s root vegetables. She needs her granny back.

Soup Season

Homegrown soup and garlic baguette

No one cooked and baked from scratch like my mother—except Granny, who assigned her first child to the wood stove when she was eleven.
           There, Mom mastered biscuits, cornbread, pies, roasts, gravies, stringed beans in pork fat, fried chicken and pork chops, and oxtail soup for her family of eight.
Praise God, I’m one of Mom’s five daughters whom she also fed Southern home cooking. And when I bore her three granddaughters, every summer vacation their Nana invited us to her table to partake in her Kentucky garden.
She stocked her root cellar, freezer, and pantry with the homegrown—poised to consider culinary trends the trade winds blew in.
My children loved their Nana’s pizza crust smothered with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, red and green peppers, and onions. Yet, Mom couldn’t countenance tacos in any form in her kitchen. And we’d never find garlic bread on the table with her spaghetti.
But who could think about tacos and garlic when my mother served a dish of warm apple pie with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on the side?
With this in mind, I called Mom mid December 1981 and informed her of my diagnosis of advanced endometriosis. “Can you come and stay with Mel and the girls while I’m in the hospital for surgery and a few days after?”
To my family’s relief, Nana smoothed our rough spot with delicious meals and portions twice the size I plated them.
My mother managed to clean out my freezer and refrigerator stuffed with meat, milk, and fresh vegetables, plus a pantry stocked with baking supplies, pasta, rice, and canned goods.
My husband gained ten pounds in seven days. If you doubt, ask him yourself.
Thirty-eight years later, Mom’s hamburger soup still holds legendary status from that December she cooked in my kitchen. She used two pounds ground sirloin to my one for the largest stockpot in the house.
Before she returned to Kentucky, Mom and I enjoyed a cup of tea alone. “Mel and the girls said they loved your hamburger soup. What spices and ingredients did you use?”
“Well, I can’t remember. That was a week ago.”
You see, my mother cooked instinctively from old knowledge and imagination. She also guarded her culinary secrets with great pride and care. I was on my own to perform the impossible.
I’ve since made hamburger soup countless times, and have yet to match the flavor my husband remembers. In the process, I’ve developed an adventuresome spirit with whatever I have in the house. After all, Mom would say that’s one key ingredient to a good soup.
Use what you have.
Onions, garlic, butter, olive oil, two small purple and one medium plain cabbage heads, sliced. Three carrots, sliced. A bag of frozen corn. Chicken broth and homegrown canned tomatoes. Chopped celeriac and parsley. Salt and pepper.
Dear Reader, this is the soup season. And in my house, it’s served with garlic bread.
Yes, Mom. Garlic. Occasionally, apple pie a la mode.

The Life of Farm and Letters

(Photo: Yule Love It Lavender Farm 2009)
My heart sank when trucks from American Tree lined up before our house at 8:30 a.m. It wasn’t easy letting go my last two lavender fields, about 500 shrubs in a lovely flurry of mid-October bloom.

“The landscapers are here!” I hollered from my study to the coffee hound in the kitchen. “Why don’t you offer them a cup?”

“Sure! I’ll make a pot.”

Mel measured Gevalia kaffe with a huge smile on his face. He’d had enough lavender labor a long time ago.

“You don’t have to be so happy about it,” I said.

He slid me a sideways grin.

Months prior, I’d consulted with John from American Tree about the project, and now the equipment stood ready to roll onto the property. I wiped my eyes and walked out the door into autumn’s chill.

“Would ya’ll like some coffee?” I asked the men.

The foreman threw up his hands. “Hallelujah! Si!” He pointed to the west plot. “We’ll begin over there.”

Mel Underwood (gray hair and blue fleece)
and American Tree Crew, Oct. 2019
Five minutes later, Mel served fresh brew to the boss in the Bobcat and his men ready with shovels.

“This is a sad and momentous day for me,” I said and focused my camera on the crew.

They obliged.

With the greatest of ease and speed, the Bobcat removed the weed cloth and my beauties, mere plugs when my staff and I planted them in 2007 and 2010.

Pile of old lavender field and weed cloth,
October 2019
All morning long, I left my desk for minutes to witness the end of a vision, to marvel at the piles of lavender bushes and recall the cost invested in each plant—the harvest each Violet Intrigue, Miss Catherine, and Royal Velvet provided.

For scones, ice cream, brownies, lemonade, tea, soap, spritzers, candles. And beautiful bouquets.

I remembered women burying their faces in bundles they clipped with scissors. Oh, what harmony of fragrance and song in the fields! The soft laughter of friendship.

Yule Love It Lavender Farm, Oct. 2019
As the machinery left the property, I envisioned native wildflowers growing on one bare plot, and a new lavender field on the other.

That night after dinner, I informed my reluctant farmer of my plan to plant 100 Grosso babies next spring.

“I thought we were finished growing lavender,” he protested.

I appealed to his stomach. “Remember, I use it for scones and brownies. And your lavender lemon ice cream. Besides, I need to grow a patch for my bees. Even you don’t mind harvesting Grosso’s long stems.”

Foremost, growing lavandula angustifolia induces dreams and visions. In expectation of 2020, I walk our land and see it is more than Yule Love it Lavender Farm.

It is a little homestead including two humans, four hens, two cats, numerous redbud trees and beautybushes, and one Magnolia tree that wants more of its kind for company.

Dear Reader, the life of farm and letters is often a solitary endeavor, albeit entirely fulfilling, particularly when in bloom.

Come this winter, I’ll read, write, cook, and walk, listen to the voices of a new season—the soft laughter of friendship.