Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mirlitons, Maypops, and Mustard Greens

I am still writing about memories, not about Attala County this time, however, but about Hinds County, where I spent most of my years growing up. We lived on the north side of Jackson, Mississippi, in a small subdivision of houses built during the early 1950's. Mine was a typical 1950's neighborhood, with an elementary school, a Methodist church with a parsonage across the street, and a nicely wooded area that was a city park with the usual playground equipment. Unlike larger cities today, there were no strip shopping centers nearby with "big box stores," pizza shops, nail salons, or dry cleaners. Neighborhood children could play safely outside, even at the park, without parents' eyes watching them. Burleson's Grocery Store was the nearest "convenience" store, and as we grew old enough to venture outside of our immediate neighborhood, my brothers and I would either walk or ride bicycles there to buy soft drinks or candy, occasionally without our mother's permission. We were typical kids growing up, having fun, and not worrying about anything. In fact, there really wasn't much to worry about at that time and in that place.

My life growing up was very different from my own children's lives and the lives of other children growing up in larger cities in recent years. Corporate relocations have been and still are a way of life for many modern American families, and sometimes teenagers have already lived in several states (and maybe a foreign country) before they even graduate from high school. I can only remember living in three houses, and the second house was only temporary until we moved into the third and final place that I would live as a non-adult.

My parents loved gardening, especially my mother. I have always said she has a handful of green thumbs, because she can grow anything. Because of my parents' love for gardening, we always had the prettiest yard on the street, with the most lush St. Augustine grass around. Our front yard had lovely green pine trees, and the needles were used to mulch the azaleas and gardenias that bloomed so beautifully. The fence around our front yard was covered with climbing roses that bloomed profusely every May, and their scent filled the night time air that came in through windows left open day and night. Like so many other 1950's families, we had no air conditioning, and an attic fan was used to cool the house in the summer.

We had a deep backyard that went slightly downhill near the rear. In that part of the backyard, my parents had planted real fruit-bearing peach and plum trees that had lovely, scented blossoms each spring. My mother used the peaches from the peach trees to make wonderful cobblers and fried pies, and she made homemade plum jelly with the juice of the juicy ripe plums. As children, we were warned that green plums were not to be eaten, or the green plum eater would suffer a severe stomach ache. I was never willing to break the rule, but my brothers and their friends tested my parents' advice and swore that nothing happened. I think my parents probably wanted to ensure that enough plums remained on the trees to ripen and make some jelly.

One of the things I remember most about the back yard were some vines, with large white blooms that, that grew on our backyard fence. After each bloom dropped off, a small "fruit" remained that resembled a bell pepper, but it was a yellowish-green instead of the rich bright green of the bell pepper. My mother referred to the "fruit" as a "maypop." Sometimes, my brothers and their friends used the fruits for weapons, throwing them at each other as they chased one another around the yard. I haven't seen a "maypop" since I moved from my childhood home many years ago. I didn't actually know if a "maypop" was a wild vine that had grown on its own, or something that my parents planted. We never ate the fruit, and knew of no use for the vine except that its flowers were quite pretty. When the vine started turning brown, my parents stripped it off the fence, along with honeysuckle vines and any other unwanted vegetation. And it reappeared the following year on its own.

So I looked up the word "maypop" in the dictionary. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, published in 1996, the word "maypop" didn't exist. My first thought was that I must need to "update" my dictionary, since I hadn't bothered to replace it in over ten years. But I didn't give up searching just yet, and my efforts paid off when I found the word "May apple" on the same page where "maypop" didn't exist. The word "May apple" is a "North American herb of the barberry family with a poisonous root stock, one or two-lobed peltate leaves, and a single large white flower, followed by a yellow egged-shaped edible fruit."

Another type of vine that grew on our fence did not grow there by accident. My parents planted it from seed that came out of the fruits that we had picked and had eaten the year before. The name of the plant was "mirliton." My mother also called the fruit of this plant a "vegetable pear," and she used the cooked "pear" to make a dish that contained onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, and ground beef. The dish certainly didn't taste as if it contained a "pear." Instead, it tasted something like an eggplant casserole, only better. When I later lived for a time in Louisiana, I saw mirlitons for sale in the produce sections of most grocery stores, and I had neighbors, friends, and co-workers, usually native Louisianans, who bought the vegetable pear regularly when it was in season.

When I looked up "mirliton" in the dictionary, I was cross-referred to the word "chayote", pronounced just like the animal "coyote," where I found the following definition:
" a fruit of a West Indian annual vine of the gourd family that is widely cultivated as a vegetable." Apparently, this plant, like many others that are more well-known, had been imported into the south from the West Indies. I had no idea that I had ever eaten a "gourd," or I probably would never have tasted the casserole my mother had made. I had seen gourds growing at my relatives' houses in rural areas, but they were grown for making Thanksgiving table arrangements, birdhouses, and other decorative uses.....but never food.

Along with growing mirlitons and maypops, we had a rather strange plant situation that occurred in our backyard a few years after we moved there. My parents were still trying to get grass growing in the downhill portion of the backyard, and erosion control was an issue. My dad decided to take things "in his own hands," literally, when he stopped by the "seed" store one afternoon on the way home from work and bought red clover seed to plant in the lower part of the yard. He carefully scattered the seed and watered it religiously over the next few days, and eventually the seed sprouted and grew. He was so proud of his handiwork! Over the next few weeks, the new plants grew on their own. But instead of producing red "flowers," the plants began blooming "white flowers." My mother was concerned and carefully scrutinized the plants and the blooms and came to a "gardener's conclusion." We did not have red clover growing in our backyard.....we had "mustard greens!" She delivered the revelation to my dad when he came home from work that day, and he was both stunned and surprised. My parents turned the "mustard green" situation into a success story, as anyone from the south who likes fresh vegetables would do....we ate mustard greens and turnips, along with my mother's delicious cornbread and sweetened ice tea!

Years later, I wonder how I would have reacted if I had found that my own backyard had been seeded with mustard seed. Instead, the builder sodded our yard last fall with a combination of fescue, perennial rye, and bermuda grass. Little did we know the sod had "scatterings" of Johnson grass, and it has plagued us since early spring.

At least my dad's mistake was edible.

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