Averyell A. Kessler
Brenda’s stand at the old Farmer’s Market is open now. I spoke with her last Saturday and she’s doing well. Can’t wait to slice a Smith County tomato and slather on the Duke’s for a summertime treat, dripping with juice and full of flavor. . I promised her that I’d to re-post my story about her father, Herman Cockrell, an authentic Mississippi farmer. Here it is.
I’ve always been a fan of the Farmer’s Market on Woodrow Wilson. At an earlier time, the one and only. For my first visit there, I rode in the backseat of my father’s black Chevy coupe. It was Saturday and we were on our way to buy a watermelon. As we pulled out of our driveway, a hot July wind whipped through the Chevy’s wide-open windows and transformed my ponytail into a frazzled mess. I didn’t care; I was on my way to see Old McDonald.
Daddy, a native of Ohio, had recently mastered the art of selecting a watermelon, a skill he learned from our neighbor, Gene. Today was his first solo voyage into the colorful world of summer abundance, Mississippi style. When we parked and stepped out of the car, I was surrounded by two long sheds, occupied, front to back, by vendors of all sorts and crowded with shoppers. Despite the heat, it was as busy as a half-price meat sale at the Jitney. Daddy led me to Shed No. 3, first stall of the left, always his favorite. Here, it was possible to have a talk with the proprietor, thump every watermelon in the pyramid pile, and taste a sample carved out of a red, ripe beauty. We left with a stripped melon as big as a submarine, also a sack of pink, gold peaches and a dozen baseball sized tomatoes. All in all, a good trip. We saw Miss Mississippi there one year, waving and strolling among the stalls, in a white sundress, crown and sash. Unfortunately, the poor woman was sweating like an overheated racehorse. I decided I’d avoid beauty pageants at all costs.
As the years passed, I’ve followed Daddy’s lead, always shopping at the first stall on the left. Most of the vendors have dribbled away now, leaving the massive sheds as alone and forlorn as an abandoned train station. Only one remains, my favorite, the first stall on the left. It still thrives. Until recently, it was a three-generation enterprise, always the best kind, passing from father to daughter, granddaughters too. Every customer is a best friend, just as every tomato is ripened to perfection, every watermelon drips with juice, and bushel baskets overflow with peppers, squash, onions, and crisp okra.
My favorite sign posted above the tomato display reads, “Daddy’s Tomatoes, Smith County.” Daddy was farmer Herman Cockrell of Smith County. He worked the stand for many years selling what he grew. I remember him well. Mr. Cockrell was the quintessential Mississippi farmer. Still standing ram rod straight during his last years, his skin was tanned and leathery from days in the sun, his hair a shock of white, his big hands thick and broad. He smiled when we talked about his tomatoes. He loved farming and told me so. Now, the stand is managed by an authentic farmer’s daughter, Brenda. It opens again which is a relief because I refuse to eat another flavorless ball of wax, masquerading as a tomato.
For me, this one remining stand is the last vestige of my childhood and used to be Jackson. It’s a stronghold of fresh ingredients from down the road and so necessary for southern cooking. Thankfully, celebrity chefs and folks attempting to starve themselves silly aren’t interested in a bubbling pot of just picked turnip greens, nor have they learned the art of preparing a bend over the sink tomato sandwich. Maybe it’s because they haven’t shelled crowder peas on somebody’s back porch, tasted buttery lady peas or sliced open a watermelon a few hours away from the field. I’m confident they’ve never boiled peanuts! Perhaps they’re too busy grilling a veggie dog, mixing up a kale and tofu stir fry or making biscuits with quinoa flour (think hockey puck). Maybe they don’t know the sugary sweetness of fried corn on a hot summer night or enjoyed the tang of okra and tomatoes with a bit of banana pepper tossed in. That’s too bad. I’m glad I know. “If more of us valued food and cheer and song, above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. – J.R.R. Tolkien.
Two years ago, I returned to the stand after it had just opened for the summer season and noticed that Mr. Cockrell wasn’t there. I asked about him and learned that he had died during the previous winter.
“I’m sorry,” I told one of his granddaughters. “I know you miss him.”
“We’re alright,” she replied. “Don’t worry about Daddy. He’s up in heaven teaching Jesus how to drive a tractor.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Without a doubt.”