Sorrel, sons and sugar cane

Sun., September 21, 2014

Savannah Morning News column

The common ginger root? There’s nothing better for seasoning meat dishes.  The large-leafed comfrey? Perfect to have on hand to treat bruises or insect bites. Fennel? It makes a great tea and helps the digestive system. Rosemary, tumeric, slippery elm? More roots, more leaves, more tea, more for what ails you. Sugar cane? Perfect for gnawing.

That’s how Esther Smith gardens. Not for smell although for my money nothing beats the aroma of a ginger plant in bloom (except maybe fennel, a close second). Not for rabbits, which love to eat comfrey (while the rest of us love their purplish bell-shaped flowers and curiously itchy leaves). Not for experimentation. This woman knows what to do with turmeric.  I grow turmeric, but like ginger I have yet to figure out how to go from the root of the fruit to the spice in the rice. Not yet.

Ah, but sorrel. That’s where we meet on common ground. Sorrel is what brought me to Esther’s eclectic, productive, medley of medicinal delights in the first place.

Isn’t it curious how once something pops up in conversation you’ll hear it mentioned again?

“What the heck is this plant?” a friend texts me with a picture the way people do these days, pictures rapidly replacing words. “I think it’s in the hibiscus family.”

Yup. I answer. It’s a hibiscus all right. It’s a sorrel plant, my all-time favorite of the hibiscus clan, a disparate and far-ranging family of mallow plants that include such distant cousins as okra, rose of Sharon and cotton.

Then, the next afternoon a friend told me about popping into that cool Jamaican restaurant on Waters Avenue for a snack of spinach and meat patties when she heard Esther’s son, Donovan Smith, the owner, talking about sorrel juice and how his mother likes to grow it.

That’s all I needed for a visit.

“The sorrel is kicking up right now,” Esther said in her beautiful Jamaican accent. So is the moringa. This one, new to me, I have to ask her to spell.

“In my country we drink a lot of herbs,” she said. “I believe in herbs. I like to eat things I know are coming from my garden. I just like to plant. I like to get my hands in dirt. From when I was a child I liked farming. We had breadfruit, mangos, avocados, plums.”

But for Jamaicans sorrel is essential.

“Christmas time, if you go to someone’s home in Jamaica and you don’t get sorrel, you don’t have anything,” she said.

When the fruit ripens,            Esther peels the sepals and places them in the freezer for Christmas or even Thanksgiving. She’ll steep them, like the rest of the herbs she prepares for tea, add a little ginger root and then, for the holidays, some white rum.

She used to plant the sorrel in front of her house but when she got too many questions about the plant she moved it to the back. Her modest backyard backs up to woods but since there might be snakes Esther only gardens so far.

“In my country we don’t have snakes, except for the zoo,” she said. If she does see a snake she has a machete at the ready.

Then she wrapped some sunflower seeds for me to plant and I promised to drop off some sugar cane at the restaurant hoping Donovan would bring them to her.

“My son, he didn’t tell you his mama taught him how to cook?” she asked.

“She said that?” Donovan, 43, asked. “For us growing up it was mandatory. She told me and my two brothers, ‘Don’t depend on a woman for everything.’ At 12, I could prepare dinner for the family. We grew up eating from the land. For us, obeying your parents wasn’t optional. I couldn’t pay for the moral values she and my father taught me.”

At 19, Donovan moved to New York City, “chasing the American dream.” Twenty years later after working in sales, “when I was still looking for the fruit on the trees,” he moved to Savannah, which he encountered during a stint in the Army. That’s when he started working at Island Breeze, a restaurant on Montgomery Street. Nine years later he opened his own restaurant.

“Welcome to Sweet Spice, where everything is nice,” Donovan says to everyone who comes into the shop.

Later I brought him the promised sugar cane to give to his mother despite her warning: “Don’t give them to him without calling me. He’ll eat them.”

That’s between mother and son.

The fall Savannah Plant Swap will be Sat., Oct. 4 from 8 to 11 a.m. at Jane Fishman’s West Boundary Street Garden next to Chatham Steel across from Garrison Elementary School. For more information call Jane at 912-484-3045.

Yes, we have bananas (again)

I know bananas and many fruits and vegetables are supposed to ripen on the tree before you cut them down but I got nervous about possible plunging temperatures in December and when someone got their hands of a beautiful hand of bananas last month I got nervous and cut this puppy down. What a beauty, eh?  Lovely to look at and once they ripen inside the house lovely to eat. Of course with our 80 degree weather (!) I would have done better leaving them on the tree. But now for anyone who graces our front porch, I have bragging rights.

My beautiful bananas from Boundary Street