Summer Evenings on the Porch
This time of year always makes me think of my Grandma Katy and sitting on the porch in the summer. Barring thunderstorms, if it was over 60 degrees outside, and you were sitting down, it made sense to do it on the porch out back. She took her coffee outside in the mornings, served summer meals and afternoon chip and salsa at the table out there, and had a cooler and music at the ready for long summer nights with friends and family.
The summer meals we shared on the porch were just about my favorites. Big, juicy, homegrown tomatoes, sliced thick and piled on a plate – heaven! Her husband, Bob, grew amazing tomatoes every year. I remember one year when they were sprouting up beside the flowers, bushes, trees, and other veggies. Turns out there was a large concentration of tomato seeds in the compost so everywhere it went, they grew! The only thing better than the tomatoes was the fried squash. Yellow squash, breaded and pan-fried to a crisp in the big cast iron skillet – I know she had to make twice as much as she put on the table, because we all stole bites as soon as they came out of the pan! The secret to this delectable treat was that Grandma fried it in mostly butter. It took a good chunk of time to make because the heat had to be low enough so the butter wouldn’t burn. Man those things were fantastic!
You can ask anyone in my family about Grandma’s food, and I’d bet it would be less than one minute before they mentioned her green beans. I don’t know exactly what made them perfect – the type of bean, the bacon in the pan, the fact that they were cooked really well, like southern green beans should be – could be any of these, or all. In the summer we had fresh beans, in the winter canned, and every time the plates were cleaned of every stray bean. I remember helping to string the beans when I was just a little thing. Grandma showed me how to pinch the ends just right so you could peel the string away from the length of the bean. Then you snapped it in half and put it in the bowl, and put the strings and ends on a piece of newspaper. When I got older I was allowed the use of a paring knife, just like Grandma, but I was never as quick as she was.
There was always music at Grandma’s house, and speakers out on the porch let us enjoy whatever was playing on the stereo. Sometimes we sang on the porch – Willie Nelson, classic country, oldies, and really oldies could all be heard at one time or another. When we were little there were repeated choruses of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” complete with the appropriate clapping, while we rocked back and forth on the glider. Even when the speakers weren’t on outside the cicadas, birds and the river made their own kind of music. Although Grandma technically lived in the small town of St. Albans, her house was right on the Coal River and a huge back lot, surrounded by trees on either side, made you feel like you were in the country. At any given moment you could see hummingbirds feasting on ruby colored sugar-water just on the other side of the screen, birds and squirrels fighting over the birdseed at the many feeders throughout the yard, ducks wandering through, contemplating the pool as an alternative to the river, or rabbits darting through the yard, playing chase with one another.
Grandma’s birthday was in July, mine in August, and my youngest cousin Katie (yes, Grandma’s namesake) in early September, so for me summer and birthdays are pretty much the same thing. I couldn’t tell you how many cakes, candles aflame, were carried out to the porch to be placed before the guest of honor. After singing “Happy Birthday” Grandma added “…and many more…” every time. the cakes were always fantastic. Homemade Texas sheet cake was almost everyone’s favorite, although some sweet-talking might get you an Italian cream cake. Store bought cakes came from Spring Hill Bakery, and were beautiful and super-tasty. The summer birthdays were almost a countdown to fall, and fewer days on the porch. There weren’t a lot of evenings spent outside as September got cooler and October arrived. But then again, the winter birthdays (October, November, December and January) counted up to Easter, when it might be warm enough to sit outside for a while and start a new season on the porch.