"Salad" in Rappahannock County is not what it is in Cleveland Park. When Virginia country people talkabout "salad" or "salitt," they do not mean those crisp, militant greens -- "in" one year, "out" the next -- like radicchio, arugula, ma che.
They are talking about a salad that does not fight back, one you can feel comfortable with -- cooked mustard. And that is only the beginning. There are also turnip greens, creasy (cress), peppergrass, wild turnip, wild lettuce, poke, chicory, fiddlehead fern, chickweed, lambs' quarters and others.
And the best is that you do not have to get in the car and drive to the store to get these greens. They are all out there growing in the fields, free of sulfite, free of irradiation, and free for the picking. All you have to do in Rappahannock County is step out your back door with a knife and a basket and start harvesting.
By the time land cress gives over in April, water cress iscoming on. When it tucks its head under water in early winter, cress in the fields takes over. Lizzie Jenkins says cress found under the snow has the best flavor of all.
Wild mustard now is blooming and going to seed while cultivated mustard is profuse and will continue to produce through the summer. With successive plantings it can last up to and improve after frost.
In Rappahannock County beginning in mid-May the country cooks on Road 621, a twisty, hilly road that runs between the F.T. Valley Road and No. 522, the road to Culpeper, are gathering their mustard greens. What they cannot use now, they can or freeze.
Jenkins, born at the old Hawlin place in the hollow off No. 621 and still living only a half-mile from there, is an accomplished cook who knows how her husband, Jerry, likes his food and that is the way she cooks it.
"See how I do my salad? I washed and cleaned it up good. I picked it yesterday evening evening in Rappahannock County is any time after noon . We sowed this. It's coming up out of our garden and I cut off all I could get . . . I just take the knife and go along and cut it off close to the ground and bring it on here to the house and sit down in one of these chairs -- like yesterday evening -- and picked it all nice and clean. Brought it in and washed it good and put it in a plastic bag and stuck it in the refrigerator till I got ready to cook it nice and fresh. The mustard will grow right back.
"I put it on the stove this morning and I put a lot of water to it. You see where I put it in with my side meat . . . It's side meat fatback , you know, from hogs. And I put it in and I watch it and when it gets good and done, I stick it good with a fork.
"Now . . . if you like a little taste of sugar to it . . . I did in the cress, but not in this because it's not strong. When it seems to be strong, you put a little sugar . . . I put a little pinch in. It helps it, but I don't put much . . . I just put a little salt in it and the grease. Cook it till it gets good and done. I put this on at 9.
"You gotta let your meat cook. You cook your meat till it's falling to pieces. I like for my meat to fall to pieces. Now you see here I cook it down till this water cooks out of it. Don't have too much water. It won't be as good.
"Now the cress. I used mine up till late last spring and summer because it was a change. But, in the summer, you had green beans, you had cabbage, you could go back to cress and you just had a change.
"But we are fond of the mustard and I mash my potatoes to go with it. Well lifting another lid , we have beans with it and I have radishes and green onions. These are colored beans. I put a little small piece of meat in these, not much, side meat. I like a little speck of sugar in. It really helps in the taste."
It is 10 a.m. Some in Cleveland Park have not yet eaten breakfast, but Jenkins' potatoes are mashed, the colored beans have cooked to a miracle of pink softness in a thick juice, the mustard greens are cooked and the meat will be "falling to pieces" by the time Jerry Jenkins comes into the house for lunch at noon.
Down the road a half-mile lives Lessie Fincham. An active, gregarious 90, she probably owes her vigor to having eaten salad all these years. She lives about a mile from where she was born.
Fincham talks about greens: "Now the mustards. I know about the mustard and kale. That's what we raise here.
"You pick it. Then wash it maybe two or three times according to what kind of soil it was on. If I see any little thing on the skin, I wash it three times to be sure I don't get any little insect on it or anything. And then I scald it. That makes it smaller so it won't be so bulky.
"I pour boiling water over it and maybe let it stand about five minutes. If it's old and tough, I let it stand maybe an hour. But, usually when I pick it out of the garden, I just scald it, let it stay about five minutes, drain it, and put it in whatever I'm going to cook it in.
"Now we here in the mountains, we like ours cooked in meat, pork meat, you know. But my daughter down in Tidewater where they live . . . she uses oil and cooks hers.
"But we put a piece of side meat in the pot and let that cook a little while while we're scalding. The way I do, scalding my greens, then get the water all out. Then I put it over in my meat and it's good!
"Now it's good to us because that's what we like back up here. But my daughter, well, she just doesn't eat much pork anyway . . . she cooks with oil and it's very good. The way of cooking like I'm tellin' you, that's the southern way of cooking. I've cooked that way all my life. And come right down to measurements, I can't do it. It's according to how they would like the strength of the pork.
"I don't like mine too greasy. I would put it according to how many greens you would have. I would say to two pounds of greens you would put a half-pound of pork, a streak of lean, a streak of fat. Of course, I never measure.
"When we got ready for dinner, I'd get a pot of greens and put me a piece of meat on them and cook it. I never had recipes for this. It's just old home cooking.
"We had wild salad. It didn't look like mustard, but it was curly-looking. And there was a lady lived down here on the farm. She knew all about what to get and I'd go with her. And narrow-leafed dock and plantain. You know what that is? Of course, you had to get it tender. You couldn't let it get big. We would go out early in the spring and get wild salad.
"Lambs' quarters? You know they spray fields and all now. They spray a lot around here. You know a lot of things we used to go out and get I don't find now because of spray. They spray a lot."
Fincham did not care to have her picture taken in the kitchen. "I've spent all my life cooking. I've cooked so much I don't want my picture taken at the stove."
Mid-way on No. 621, Lucy Martin is known for her poke salad. She lives in her grandparents Jenkinses' house about a quarter-mile from where she was born.
Martin says, "When you get that poke, you have got to be very careful and know what you're getting because, as you know, you can get poisoned."
"When it's early, that's the best time. If you catch it when it's just come up, it's more tender. Now, it's up to size, you've got to take only the top. Those two leaves sort of curled up on top of the plant.
"I look the poke over, of course. But then I take my meat and soak it in a little cold water for a while. If I'm in a rush and don't have time to soak it in cold water, I put it on in some water and let it come to a boil. Then I pour that water off, then just rinse that piece of meat off with a little cold water. Then I just drop it in some more water and start it off to cook while I clean my salad.
"It gets some of that salt out of the meat, all of it. I think it helps to soak it. If I think of it, it's a good idea to soak the side meat overnight. It kind of takes the 'old' taste out of it.
"Now the poke. I take that and I put it on in some water and let that come to a boil. And I take that and pour it over in the colander. And I rinse that off with some cold water and I put that back on with some water. And I generally put a little salt in that second water. And I let that cook until I think it's pretty tender and then I stick a fork in it.
"When it's good and tender I take it out of that then and drain it in the colander again and drain that water off of it. And then I take some butter and melt it in my skillet. And I take the colander and dump that poke over in that butter or oil or anything, but I use butter is what I do.
"Then I scramble eggs in that, but I use quite a few eggs to the poke." If she should run short, her henhouse is just out the kitchen door.
"Like if you're going to fix an average-size dish, I'd say I'd use at least a half-dozen eggs. That's the way I do mine. And then I put some pepper in it and a little salt.
"I don't measure too much. I taste more than I measure. And that's the way I do my poke now. I fix it mainly for other people to enjoy because I don't care for eggs and I don't eat much poke salad myself. I don't care for it much, but Ed loves it. Daddy always liked it, too."
Rappahannock County cooks share the belief that you should enjoy salad the year-round and they agree on the way to cook it: 1) pick it at its peak, 2) wash it a lot, 3) cook it with side meat (fatback) for a fair amount of time. And if there ever should be a shortage of cress or mustard or any of the other salads, there is always plenty in the freezer.
For those who don't live in Rappahannock County -- or anywhere that mustard, cress, peppergrass or fiddleheads grow right out back -- turnip and beet greens, kale and collards are generally available in markets. And, hamhocks or bacon can be used for the meat. The adventurous can buy the Peterson "Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America" (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95) and venture forth, although the amateur is advised to stay away from poke.
LIZZIE JENKINS'S MUSTARD SALAD (6 large servings) 2 gallons mustard greens, packed tight
1 pound side meat (fatback)
8 cups water
Pinch sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Look over, then wash the greens until water is clear. Drain them. Put them into a large pot with the meat and water and bring to a boil. Add sugar, salt and pepper. Cover, lower heat, and simmer till the meat is fork-tender -- 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
LIZZIE'S COLORED BEANS (6 large servings)
2 cups cranberry beans
1/4 pound side meat (fatback)
8 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the beans, sugar, meat, and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Cover pot, lower heat, and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding boiling water as needed. Add salt and pepper to taste after beans have become soft.
LESSIE FINCHAM'S MUSTARD GREENS (6 large servings)
1/2 pound fatback (a streak of lean, a streak of fat)
8 cups water
2 pounds mustard greens
Put the meat in a large pot with all the water and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover pot and simmer.
Look over mustard greens and wash in several waters until water is clear. Pour boiling water over greens and leave for 5 minutes. Drain greens and add them to the pot with the meat and water. Cover and simmer until meat is tender -- 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
LUCY MARTIN'S POKE SALAD WITH SCRAMBLED EGGS (4 servings)
1/4 pound side meat (fatback), cut in small pieces
1 gallon poke, packed tight
4 cups water
6 tablespoons butter
Soak the meat in cold water while you look over and wash the poke. Drain the meat, put it in a pot with 2 cups of the water, and bring to boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Drain the poke and put in a pot with the remaining 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Drain meat and poke.
Melt the butter in a skillet. Add the drained meat and fry over moderate heat for 3 minutes. Add the poke.
Beat the eggs with a wire whisk or fork and pour over the poke and meat. Stir gently with a wooden spoon till the eggs are almost firm. Serve.