Southerners love their vegetables.
Now before you scoff at the idea that green beans cooked for hours with pork demonstrates vegetable love, consider the vegetable plate.
At meat-and-three restaurants throughout the South, you can order a plate loaded with sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, squash casserole, broccoli salad and turnip greens.
That restaurant order comes directly from Southern home cooking. In the summer, weekday meals were devoted to the abundance of the garden: fried okra or fried green tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, peas or greens with "pot likker" and often cornbread.
For previous generations, kitchen gardens were a given.
"We always had a family garden," says Lorene Guy, 88, who lives in Four Oaks, a small town 30 miles south of Raleigh. Guy has spent many summer days shucking beans, corn and butter beans.
Guy has stopped gardening, but her daughter and friends bring plenty of produce to put up, including last week's arrival of three bucketfuls of green peas that took her and two friends two hours to shuck.
Whatever Southerners couldn't can or freeze was turned into dinner, says Sheri Castle, a Chapel Hill cooking instructor with a cookbook coming out next spring called "The New Southern Garden Cookbook." This tradition coincided, Castle says, with an era when meat didn't dominate weekday dinner plates, instead being saved for weekend meals. However, side meat - bits of ham and salt pork - were used for flavoring.
Hence, Guy's key ingredient for sublime field peas: bacon grease. "That's what makes 'em good," she says.
In hot, humid weather, a vegetable-centered plate seems a better fit than fried chicken.
"I think it's an appealing way to eat in summer. It just feels right. It feels refreshing," says food writer Ted Lee, who with his brother, Matt, wrote, "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook."
Restaurant customers gravitate to the vegetable plate as the air becomes more humid. "Sometimes we sell more vegetable plates than we do meat plates," says Keith Falls, owner of Linwood Produce and Restaurant in Kings Mountain, 30 miles west of Charlotte.
Again, you may scoff at what these restaurants consider "vegetables" - jell and macaroni and cheese. At Breadmen's in Chapel Hill, owner Roy Piscitello says, "We consider banana pudding to be a vegetable."
Because tomatoes are technically a fruit, banana pudding as a vegetable seems a sweet compromise.
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