Turnip Greens

Last Tuesday, I put up turnip greens, mainly to save Mom from doing it. Mom has been an expert canner and freezer in her time, but her time for that sort of homemaking is over. Unfortunately—no, wait—Fortunately, Dad’s time for gardening is not over. So from the end of May through the first part of November, he announces at cocktail hour: “I’m going to have a mess of green beans tomorrow” or “Did you see the sweet potatoes I dug?” or “Looks like there are more butternut squash”.
On Sunday, it was “I’m going to have a big load of turnip greens tomorrow.” And he did.

The station/assembly line.

I love me some turnip greens, but I don’t want turnip greens that have stems in them and I don’t want to grit my teeth on sand, ever, when I chomp down on their bitter goodness. Those picky preferences of mine make my turnip green preservation experience a bona fide chore and since the details of the event are so recent, I thought I would share my foolproof method with you. Don’t stop reading because you hate greens. You may have to take on this project some day; it’s amazing what we’ll do for our kids—or our parents.
My Aunt Ogile said you ought to cook your turnip greens with fatback before freezing but not to add salt because that will make them tough. I just wilt mine, plain, trusting the advice of several reliable websites. It makes me happy to offer you my easy, shortened process. Please read through the entire set of instructions prior to embarkation.

1. Set up your turnip green station. You will need a big mess of turnip greens, paring knife, clean sink with stopper, container for stems and other non-turnip green items, in-sink clean dish drain (forget the colander, you can’t get enough in one of those), and a pan for trimmed greens. Running water helps. Setting up for this official, assembly-line-type operation sort of cements your commitment to the project.

The work-in-process.

2. Dump your greens on the counter (maybe on a big paper bag); you’re going to work off the stack. Be sure to get out your largest kettle so that you can marvel appropriately at how that huge pile of greenery, when wilted down, barely covers the bottom of the big pan.

3. Cut out all the big stems. Since you’re going to be lifting leaf by leaf (oh, yes, you are), toss out all the grass and dogwood leaves you find nestled between these turnip tops. (Note: It is possible you won’t have any dogwood leaves. Our turnip patch is just a couple of feet away from an old white dogwood whose leaves turn brown and fall just about time for the first picking of greens.)

What I threw away.

After you have been trimming for, oh, twenty minutes, you’ll want music. I heartily recommend rotating twenty-minute shifts of classic country and R & B soul. You really don’t need anything too dance-worthy as that makes you get too frisky with the paring knife. I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t tell you to put the music on before you get started trimming. Well, I have found that I need a few minutes of quiet to get my routine, and my rhythm, established. It’s a bit like trying to find a driving destination while the radio is on. Got to turn that thing down!
4. As you strip the leaves, throw them in the sink. Go ahead and start the cold water. You’re going to need a lot of water. You can turn off the water when it gets about, um, four to six inches from the counter top. If you don’t have a ruler handy, four to six inches would be the approximate width of the very largest turnip plant leaf in your stack—if you have a good crop this year.

5. When the sink looks full enough of greens and water, stick your hands in and swish, swish, swish. Do not splash, splash, splash or you and the kitchen will look like you and your bathroom after a happy toddler’s bath.

6. In the middle of one of the latter swishes, lift a layer of greens out with two hands and lay them in the clean dish drain. Repeat until the sink is empty of greens.

7. Now—look in the sink! See all that dirt and sand? Amazing! So, pull the plug and wash the sink.

8. (a) Put the plug back in the sink and start the cold water. (b) Start layering all the just-washed greens into the sink (yes, again). [Somewhere in this step is a good time to rotate your music selection!]

9. Go to #3 and continue through #8. (Yes, we are going to wash these wretched pieces of greenery again.)

10. When you have washed the trimmed leaves—and the sink—three times, go to #8 and complete (a) but don’t do (b). Let the sink fill with water. Now, this is tricky because you don’t want to put too much in nor too little. Check out the next step so that you have some idea of how much you need. (Woman up! There are some decisions that I cannot make for you.)

11. Do not go to #9. NOTE-ALARM-ATTENTION: If you get lost here, you could be washing turnip greens until the Lord comes to take us Home.

12. Take the thrice-washed greens and gently layer them into the sink of water. Barely—barely, I say—move the greens around with your hands. You can’t call this a swish. It’s more like the wake of a toy aircraft carrier.

13. Dry your hands. You’re going to let the greens soak for twenty minutes. The idea here is to let whatever grit might still be present to drift to the bottom of the sink. [There is ample time to change from George Jones to Aretha here. I hope you can find “Pink Cadillac” because it would not hurt to get your dancing done at this point. Oh, wait, the real name of the song is “Freeway of Love”. I bet you could find it by “Pink Cadillac”, though.]

14. Look at your counter. Are there more unattended greens lying there? Okay, then don’t think you have time for a nap. You could, however, down three PBR’s or a half-magnum of Chardonnay. Only your own experience will tell you if you need refreshment and what kind.

15. After the twenty-minute respite, gently lift (but do not swish) the greens from the water and place them in your big old pot (hereinafter referred to as your “BOP”). Go ahead and set it on the stove. Do not turn on the flame. Just let the BOP rest there.

My BOP of greens.

16. Now, without whining, go to #2 and repeat through #6 for the remaining pile. You only have to do the repeat until all the greens are washed and in the BOP.

17. You may wonder what to do since the BOP is already full, even overflowing. Just keep stuffing. Push ‘em down, push ‘em down, wayyyyyyy down.

18. Add four or five inches of water to the pan. No, I do not know how you are expected to measure since the BOP is not see-through. Just put some water in, force the lid on, and put your project on the burner—on High.

19. When you hear the water boiling in those greens (“glug, blop, s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-b-b-b-b-b”), give it five minutes and take a big metal spoon and poke the greens down. They’re going to start getting smaller…

20. Repeat the poke-down into the boiling water until all the turnip greens are dark and limp. NOTE: If, at any time, you hear only a s-s-s-s-s-s-s, that means your BOP is out of water and your greens are s-s-s-s-sticking, as in “pre-burning”. Add some water! If you are so numb from your refreshing adult beverage (allowed and even encouraged in #13) that you fail to note the first signs of sticking and start to smell burning greens, you’re s-s-s-s-screwed. Throw out the whole thing. This prophetic warning should scare you into paying attention because you will feel poorly when your labor just to get to this point is declared vain.

Take your big spoon and root around in there to make sure they all got the message. Hopefully, there will be enough of the wilted turnip tops to cover the bottom of the pan and, unless you’re working with a non-stick pan, the bottom you do see will not be black. Yes, they really do shrink down that much. No, they’re not exactly dissolving before your very eyes. They’re just getting smaller.

21. Turn the stove off. Clean up the kitchen. You’ll have plenty of time because the greens have to be cool before you put them into bags. Don’t, however, leave this cleaning task until tomorrow. You need a week to appreciate the reminder of this achievement.

22. When the greens are cool, drain them. Oh yeah, this is where a colander comes in handy. You might even be able to use a large tea-strainer for what remains of that huge pile on the counter that you started with.

23. Stuff them into freezer bags, press the air out, and lay them flat to freeze.

I got two quarts out of that. Two quarts. Two meals. Two flat, frozen one-quart squares of turnip greens.

What I got.

Don’t think you’re being original if you started hunting Southern home-cooking restaurants after just reading the directions for freezing your greens, but don’t think you can compost the big pile of turnip greens on the counter and no one will know. You’ll know—and you’ll remember that I told you every homemaker wannabe needs this experience at least one time.
Now that I’m an expert, I’ve settled on Cracker Barrel and it’s possible there is a Cracker Barrel near you. I could drive 120 miles, eat country cooking for an hour, and come back home in the time it took me to put up two quarts of turnip greens and clean the kitchen. In fact, I’d still have twenty minutes to spare for a quick nap.
There’s just one little problem with abandoning home-freezing. I could never convince Dad not to grow those turnip greens—or squash—or eggplant—or peppers—or corn—or green beans…
Maybe I would never even try.

The Calico Cat

Things come and things go. I became acutely and personally connected to the nature of change when I attended a Titans game today with a good friend.  We enjoyed our time together, even though I can easily say it was the worst football game I’ve ever watched. I am not a real football fan. I like the game, but I’m just not devoted. Now, my friend is solid, but despite the differences in the level of our sports-groupiness, we were equally embarrassed by our team’s loss to the Texans, 41-7. There was much discussion of “what happened” and “how on earth did we beat Baltimore a few weeks ago.” There was an early exodus from the stadium. And after each subsequent score by those Houston guys, another lot left.

This down-in-the-bottom will not last forever. The Titans will crawl (probably not “bound”) back up to become a much-admired leader in the NFL. It’s just the way of the game. It’s up and down, ebb and flow, yin and yang, drafts and retirements. It’s change.

The ravine is in a state of constant change. We build a brick pathway through a lush garden that was only scattered with sad little perennials last year. We tear down an unsightly wooden compost bin and re-seat it further down the ravine, hidden from public view on the backside of the apartment. We plant vines here, chop down others there. The seasons afford us the demise of okra and the rising up of turnip greens—a whole bed of turnip greens, and we gather the green tomatoes and fry them in cornmeal.

Dad and I make plans for next year’s garden. He’ll plant more Blue Lake green beans. I’ll move a crape myrtle or two. Whatever plans we make, Old Mama Nature will trump with her own design, sometimes adding too much rain or heat, a late frost, or a sinkhole. Change.

Even the critters have a way of changing here on the ravine. The first month we lived here in November 2009, we saw red foxes—two young ones who ran and played and sunned, a large family of raccoons, a humongous groundhog, and a feral calico cat who had kittens down in the ravine according to the neighbors. There were squirrels—a gazillion squirrels.

For the first few months, the foxes dashed in and out. The raccoons became indignant and refused our company. The groundhog was quite comfortable even though we laughed at him and named him Mr. Lockwood after the previous owner of our property. We watched the small calico stand off one of the foxes and chase him up the driveway and across the road. The squirrels danced and played in the trees.

By the end of the first year, the foxes multiplied and inhabited the ravine. The raccoons discovered nummie-yummies in our garbage cans and declared us to be keepers. The groundhog was pleased with our plantings so much that he considered the cosmos his personal food crop. The calico licked clean the platters of warm milk we left for her. Squirrels? Still plenty, actually more.

But then we saw the calico cat no more. A black cat from across the street occasionally strolled through the back yard, but no calico mama cat. The foxes moved on. Some of them developed mange. We think maybe some died, and that some left to find healthier quarters. Two skinny ones remained. The raccoons frolicked every evening. They were partial to leftovers containing fish or chicken. Grandpa trapped Mr. Lockwood—live, of course—when the old groundhog determined to mow down hollyhocks, bush beans, and tomatoes. We delivered the old gent and his friend, Junior, to a new home over at the agricultural center. The squirrels? They dig in every flower box. We can count on it.

Now there are also moles. As it turns out, foxes eat moles, and when they left… And then, there were cicadas, a plague of the seventeen-year variety. Turns out moles love cicada meat so they are fat and they are as plentiful as the tunnels in our back yard. We also think the cicadas told the box elder bugs that the sugar maple out front makes a fine abode because we’ve had thousands of box elder bugs. Change. Things going, things coming.

When we moved to the compound here on the ravine two years ago, we left a home five miles away, one that we just now leased to a lovely family from Florida. The grounds and plantings have deteriorated over the two years so we called in the landscapers and nursery guys to clean it up.

Yesterday, we stopped by to check out their work-in-progress. The landscaping truck and a trailer mounded with brush and debris from the yard took up the street in front of the house, so we pulled in front of the neighbor’s house up the hill. Dave got out of the van ahead of me and went to the front door to hand over some extra keys. I headed across the lawn, calling out to my old gardening friend, Ritchie, who knows that property as well as I do. Ritchie was supervising the work.

Just as I stepped into the corner bed, the toe of my sandal caught on a flat rock I’d placed there years ago for a stepping stone, and I fell onto the lawn, face down, flattened out. Ritchie and Paco came running, Ritchie asking “Are you hurt?” and Paco summoning all his English to ask me if he could help me up. I heard the third man call to Dave through the front door of the house, “She fell down. She fell down.”

“No, no, I’m not hurt,” I said.

Paco had a bit of difficulty understanding me when I said, “I’ll get up, but it’s going to take a while” so I had to tell him, “Come back over here. Help me get up.”

He understood my beckoning and ran to hold out his hand. I could not reach his extended hand because I was lying face-down, on my stomach… As I climbed his leg, grabbed the other hand at his side, and pulled myself up, he kept saying, “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I feel certain he did not understand when I said, “It’s not your fault,” but he smiled when I said, “I’m okay.”

“Ritchie, this looks great,” I said, sweeping my arm around the front.

The third man said, “You need to take a look at the back yard. I think it needs a little more.”

The pine trees needed a little more trimming. The lilacs might not make it, in spite of the careful and severe pruning. The yucca plants are making great progress in their quest to take over the bank at the end of the drive.

Ritchie said, “It does not look like your place. You are gone. It looks like you are gone.”

“Yeah,” I said, checking out my sore left hand. “But it looks good, Ritchie. It looks good, all cleaned up. It’s just a change.”

Ritchie took my hand. “Is it hurt?” he asked.

“No, no, just a little sore.” I rubbed off some of the dirt and grass that had pressed into the heel of my hand.

Later I told Dave I was really surprised I didn’t break something. We both laughed when Dave said he didn’t know I’d fallen until he saw me sprawled out on the lawn and all the guys running to get me up.

I got up. I’m a bit bruised but okay. Same for the Titans. This current wretchedness will not undo the team. They’ll come back and fans will be saying, “Can you believe it? They’re better than ever.” The grounds at Beech Tree Lane will come back. Things are different there, but things are just fine. The critters on the ravine will come and go, and some plants will die, some new ones will spring up.

Three days ago, I noticed a brown, orange, and white ball sitting on the fox feeding station, almost blending in with the autumn trees behind it. It was the calico cat. We haven’t seen her in a year, but there she was, fatter than she was the last time we saw her, curled up in the morning sun, looking toward our windows. She was back every morning after that, same spot.

I was away from home this mid-morning. She may have come to visit earlier, I don’t know, but I do know that the sun’s rays are very bright–and I bet warm–on the fox-feeding station right now and she has plenty of time before sundown.


To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven…Ecclesiastes 3:1.

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