Truck Cropping, Huey Long, Southern Poverty, and a Recipe
I once took my dad to Pioneer Farms, a living history museum in Austin. We were touring a one room 19th century settlers cabin with a dirt floor and cedar log walls chinked with mud when he said, “I grew up on cabins a lot like this, you know.”
I looked around the cabin. We barely cleared the low ceilings. The only furnishings were a table, two split-log benches, and a bed smaller than my five year old’s. Near a wood stove, a few implements hung on the wall — a pot, an ax, some metal things I couldn’t identify.
My dad was born in rural Louisiana, in 1929, the fourth of six children. I tried to picture them all living in that one room.
“They weren’t this nice, of course,” he said.
Ba doom doom!
That was the thing about my dad. His childhood was so Faulkneresque, equal parts horror-show and hardscrabble Southern poverty, that his stories often sounded like parts of an old-fashioned stand-up routine. But though he was not self-pitying, he was not joking either. He liked to not that he was born at the official start of the Great Depression, but his family had been starving for years before that. His mother was from a family of stern Methodists and her father and brothers were ministers. She went to school with Huey Long. My dad didn’t talk about his father much, except to say that he hated farming, though it was his living. Dad’s early life was one of unremitting hunger punctuated by fits of violence from his raging, alcoholic father. He didn’t have electricity until he was fifteen. He never saw a dentist until he joined the Air Force. A rural nurse visited twice a year to give the children in his family deworming treatments.
Share cropping was common then, but his parents were truck-croppers.
“Share croppers got a better deal then we did,” he said.
Ba Da Boom!
Truck croppers were a form of migrant labor. They worked a farm in return for a place to live and a portion of the crop. After the crop was harvested, they loaded their share onto their trucks to sell at market and moved on. I once saw a list made by my dad’s sister of all the places they had lived — two or three in one year sometimes. It’s no wonder he worked so hard to hang on to out little dirt farm in the Texas Hill Country. After his childhood, he was determined to never move again.
In addition to working a farmer’s field, my grandmother planted a kitchen garden wherever they lived and usually just managed to harvest a single crop before they had to move on. Dad told me she always canned furiously, trying to preserve every single last thing before they had to leave a house. After she was finished canning the good stuff — whole figs in syrup, tomatoes, blackberry jam — she likes to pickle and make jellies of the leftover bits of this and that. Her specialties included corncob and peach peel jelly, and watermelon rind pickles. The family survived mostly on boiled greens and cornbread with dripping, so this monotonous diet was enlivened by my grandmother’s pickles and jellies.
Every once and a while, I like to make a batch of watermelon rind pickles and think of my grandmother, loading and unloading her few possessions un the family truck, along with herself and my grandfather and all six children. I don’t know what they owned. Maybe they had a bed, a table, a few chairs, a dresser, a box of mementos, some bundles of clothing and dishes. I imagine her packing her jars of preserves carefully, wedging then between the clothes, maybe. And I imagine her hoping that the jars arrive unbroken to the the next house where she will plant her next garden.
My recipe for watermelon pickles is pretty standard and comes from the 1972 Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Community Cookbook, that I got from my mom. I just do three things differently. First, I add peppercorns to the syrup. I also add a handful of pickling spices, a myrtle leaf, and a fresh jalapeño to each jar, to intensify the flavor and add a little heat.
Watermelon Rind Pickles
- 2 pounds watermelon rind
- 5 cups sugar
- 1 pint white vinegar
- 1/2 c pickling salt
- 1 pint water
- a stick of cinnamon
- about 20 whole cloves and 20 whole peppercorns
- myrtle leaves
- fresh jalapeños
To Salt the Rind
Cut rind into 3/4 inch pieces. Sprinkle with pickling salt, toss, and leave overnight in the refrigerator.
To Prepare the Pickles
Rinse the salted rinds twice. Bring water, vinegar, sugar, and 5 or 6 cloves and peppercorns to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add rinds and return the mixture to a boil. Reduce to low boil and cook until the rind is translucent. Add a handful of spices, a myrtle leaf, and a jalapeño to each canning jar. Fill canning jars with rinds and syrup. Process in hot water bath for five minutes, following standard canning proceedures.