The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge


By Edward J. Regis, Jr. © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

The smell of greens cooking is a familiar one come spring of the year. Anyone who was raised in the hills knows the smell of land cress, or dandelion, or pokeweed.

Smells evoke memories. And every time I experience that slightly sulphurous odor of greens boiling on the stove, I think of Jacob Rinehart.

Jake lived almost ten miles from town. His place was a two room shanty where he lived alone, if you don't count his mule and three redbone hounds. Jake had never married. He said there wasn't a woman who could stand him. Of course, it may have been the other way around.

He was a real mountain man and had made his own whiskey when he was younger. Some said he made the best. Jake trapped and hunted and sometimes came to town for the essentials.

He called "essentials" those things he couldn't raise in the garden or find in the woods. Jake rarely needed essentials. He made do with what he had. It didn't take much for one old mountain man, a mule and three dogs.

The preacher went to see Jake once and became somewhat famous for such daring. Jake always had an air of mystery about him and that mysterious aura caused all the boys to admire the old man. I mean, who wouldn't admire a man who didn't need anybody at all? Especially a genuine mountain man like Jake.

Well, there came this one winter that was really harsh. The snow amounted to three feet deep in the middle of February and it stayed. Such a snow is dangerous for a person living alone. Dangerous to Jake because he didn't have a woman to put things from his garden away for winter. He depended on just what he could find at the moment. With those faithful dogs, his straight shooting rifle, and all the skills of nearly a half century in the hills, who cared about a little snow. Certainly not Jake. Snow just meant good results for his trapline.

No one noticed that old Jake didn't come to town during that big snow except for a boy at the mill where the old man took his pelts for cash. This boy, 12 years old, finally gathered up nerve and went off to see what had happened to old Jake.

You see, Jake had made a profound impression on the boy during his business at the mill. When they had been talking "man to man" he told the boy many wonderful things about herbs and wild plants you could eat from the land itself. The way Jake had said it was "God put things here for all of us but we need to learn from each other how to use them if they're ever to do us any good." The boy was eager to learn.

It took the boy all day through the snow to get to old Jake's cabin. When he opened the shanty door he would never have expected to find what he saw. There was the old man in the bed and no doubt about it, Jake was real sick.

Knowing he could never get help in time and believing that Jake had to be fed, the boy took apart the old cabin looking for something to eat. He found nothing. The boy finally understood that Jake had put away some turnips under the shanty just before the first killing freeze. He had covered them with straw too.

Jake always grew turnips in his garden and as most mountain people know, a turnip will keep through most of the winter. Well, that boy dug down through the snow and straw to pull out those turnips, five months old. The roots had wilted and weren't fit to eat, but the tops still had a slight trace of green to them. For the most part, however, they were a feeble yellow.

It wasn't long until they were cooked up and fed to a mighty sick man. Again and again the boy fed his friend. It was a sight to see, saying grace over a heaping plate of yellowed turnip tops and then eating them like they were the best greens they ever tasted.

There must have been a remnant of vitamins left in the old wilted tops because something wonderful was happening. Every day Jake was getting stronger. So was the odor of greens cooking in that little shanty.

It took a spell for Jake to get over the embarrassment of being down and in need of help. After all, he had not ever in his life required such care. On about the second day, he started talking again. Such marvelous things he taught the boy. Like how to doctor wild creatures, dowse water, read the stars, whittle a whistle, tap a sugar tree, make hominy, trap a fish, and other fascinating facts very important to a 12 year old boy. Jake absolutely had a deep love for life and the land.

Old Jake lived to spend many more years in his hills and valleys, still alone. In time, the boy grew into a man and left his birthplace to make his way in the world. And after many years the memory of those life saving turnip tops is just as plain as yesterday. Every time I smell cooking greens I think of Jake. I was the boy and Jake was my hero.

As I said at the start, smells evoke memories. Spring is a time of smells. I sure hope the greens are good again this spring.