Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Homage to Frank's Peas

I've been dreading writing about this but can no longer put it off. Our longtime friend Frank Johnson, grower of pink-eyed purple hull peas par excellence, died suddenly in January. At the funeral (which had the largest attendance of any funeral I have ever attended, despite the cold blustery dark day), our neighbor Tim Sharp gave me a solid handshake and looked me dead in the eye before he delivered this warning: "We're gonna miss Frank."

I had already thought of that.

My husband and I are relative newcomers to County Road 2. We've only been there twenty years. No matter that my husband's ancestors who came here from Virginia before Alabama was even a state are buried less than ten miles away. For a couple of generations, the family had been back living in Virginia, so when we purchased the run-down river camp twenty years ago so our four-year-old twins could learn how to fish, swim, canoe, and just plain play outdoors, we were outsiders, unaccustomed to the code of conduct of the area. For example, back then when we drove down County Road 2, we did not perform the de rigeur raised-index-finger greeting. (When you're driving down Co. Rd. 2 and meet another vehicle, you don't smile and wave, you simply raise your index finger and maybe give a slight nod. It does not matter if you actually recognize the vehicle or the driver. To be on the safe side, you perform the raised-index-finger greeting to all pickup trucks and dirty SUVs you meet on County Road 2, thereby avoiding slighting anyone.)Twenty years ago, Frank Johnson immediately took us under his wing, our guardian angel on Co. Rd. 2. Frank not only showed us the lay of the land, he took care of our land.

Back then, Frank was still using his dad's old red tractor which he lovingly maintained like a museum piece. He never let our property grow up in tall weeds and saplings. For twenty years, without ever once having to be asked, Frank drove the mile of so from his farm down Co. Rd. 2 and bush-hogged five times a year: right before Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and then right before the first frost. If he happened to show up when we were actually there, we would have a cold Coke (Diet Coke after he developed diabetes)sitting on the front porch facing the river, and Frank would tell us all the news that was worth repeating. He knew who had bought what land, who was about to build a bigger lake camp, who was running for county office and whether or not they were likely to win. If he knew the kind of news some people like to share about other people's hardships and vices, he never repeated it. If a couple divorced, for instance, the divorce was an unavoidable fact, but the cause of a divorce never mentioned.

I don't remember the exact year of Frank's first phone call telling us the peas were ready, but at some time many years ago Frank started planting a large field or two--one of corn and one of field peas--to share with everyone he knew. EVERYONE. And Frank knew lots of folks. Rich or poor or in-between, black or white or old or young, all had the same invitation to come pick peas while the picking was good. I will be honest. Frank's corn was just so-so and its quality depended on what rain the skies had provided. But Frank's peas were simply the best. Just the right combination of soil, sun, and pink-eyed purple hull seeds I guess.

On Memorial Day, I pulled the last two packs of Frank's peas from the freezer and got out my own guest list. I used another Frank's recipe (Frank Stitt, THE SOUTHERN TABLE) and made Pink-Eyed Purple Hull Peas Salad. The broth, which was to be discarded, was so rich that I froze it to eat by myself at a later date with some cornbread. I'll say my own little prayer of Thanksgiving at that time for Frank, his generosity of spirit, his kindness, and his peas.

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