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Joni Woolf: Longing for summer in January

Looking out my window as I write, I see bare limbs, pine cones scattered across the brown grass, and the weeping limbs of — what else? a weeping yaupon. It longs for summer, too. January may have 31 days, but I maintain it is the longest month in the year. All the excitement happened around the 25th of the previous month, so the days stretch long and dark, and more recently, cold and wet. It’s enough to depress the heartiest soul.
Being an eternal optimist, I look for bright spots where I can find them. While I was bemoaning the state of January’s dismal weather, I recalled a quote from the past that I had committed to memory: “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” I find it difficult to believe that this quote came from the French existentialist Albert Camus. But it did. So perhaps even he — in the midst of winter — could imagine summer days.
I began to think of summer and its wonderful treasures, here in the South, of fresh vegetables on every farm stand and market, of Perry Brothers’ tomatoes, of Chase Corn, where you can stand and wait for the trailer to bring it fresh from the field. And then I began to think of all the things you could cook when you combine those two vegetables with others; and I remembered a recipe in My Mother’s Southern Kitchen that, even in memory, warms my heart.  It is the old Southern staple called succotash, and was probably created as a way to use up leftovers. There was a time in our culture when nothing was thrown away: at the end of a meal, leftovers were stored in an ice box or pie safe, or immediately tossed into a pot on the back of the stove (a wood stove, no doubt), where other ingredients were added, and it became supper. (After all, “dinner” was eaten at noon!)
To lighten my mood and help me dream of warmer, sunnier days, I went to my stash of cookbooks and pulled My Mother’s Southern Kitchen (created by the renowned long-time Food and Wine Editor of Town & Country magazine, James Villas and his mother, Martha Pearl Villas, who helps him remember where he came from). There it was: her recipe for this classic Southern dish. There are many variations in dozens of cookbooks, but I like hers best. So save this. Summer will come again. And not only in our hearts.

SUCCOTASH
2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans
5 slices bacon
2 medium-size onions, finely chopped
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes
Salt and black pepper to taste
Tabasco sauce to taste
Place the beans in a saucepan and add enough salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to moderate, cover, cook 15 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, fry bacon in a large skillet over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels and crumble. Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat, add the onions to the skillet, reduce the heat slightly, and cook, stirring, till softened, 3 minutes. Add the corn and tomatoes and continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring. Add the beans, salt, pepper and Tabasco and cook the mixture, stirring, till it has thickened but is not dry. Transfer the succotash to an earthenware tureen or deep serving dish, sprinkle the crumbled bacon on top, and toss lightly. Serves 8.

I would add that this could be a vegetarian dish by omitting the bacon, and browning the onion in 3 tablespoons of butter or olive oil and proceeding with the remaining directions. Also, Martha Pearl’s son notes that this could be a satisfactory dish, even in winter, by using frozen vegetables. But I’m with Martha Pearl: wait till summer for the real thing. Perhaps it will teach us a thing or two about delayed gratification! Some things are simply worth waiting for.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net