The roadside stand: A Southern tradition still stands

Tom Poland

Two words say it all. “Delicious simplicity.”
No register. Cash and carry.
Paper bags to hold jewels polished by the farmer’s hands. A friendly face. Produce that glitters like some pirate’s chest overrun with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, citrine, and gold. From Mother Earth, as all gems are.
The roadside stand. May it never make its last stand.
It might be two-by-fours cobbled together with a tin roof. It might be the tailgate of a pickup truck. It might be the overhang of an old store. Whatever its form, nothing warms my heart like a roadside stand.
The steering wheel wakes up and takes control. In I pull. I buy tomatoes. Peaches. A watermelon sounds good. Crooked neck squash? I’ll grill ’em with onions. Cukes? They’ll go with the maters and onions in my salad.
My off-the-grid wanderings cross paths with roadside stands throughout the year. What freshness they hold, but to deliver the goods they must be patient. In winter, they stand empty and stark.
Wood frames pale like bleached bones. Abandoned and alone. Early spring, you’ll see folks sprucing up things, getting ready for business. Summer transforms stands blanched by winter and suddenly they radiate color, energy, and the wood seems renewed as if peach, watermelon, and tomato juice soaked in by some supernatural osmosis. Fall brings scuppernongs, pumpkins, and jars of honey, which hold liquefied sun.
Now I know plenty of people are content to get their produce at the big stores, but they miss a treat. When you walk up to a roadside stand you see produce bathed in the very sunlight that nurtured it. In a big store you see it laid out in rows beneath fluorescent light. Plasticized. What a drag.
Progress changed things for some unlucky souls. As many became more citified, as more kids grew up far from farms, voila, fruit and vegetables magically appear. Yep, a lot of people lost touch with what it takes to grow things. What’s behind split-oak baskets of peaches? Hard work, but how the work delights us.
Now don’t be surprised, maybe shocked is the word, if you come across an untended roadside stand. What? Relax. The honor system is alive and well in farm country. Heroes of the soil trust you. Just bag your tomatoes and drop your money in the jar.
Roadside stands grow beautiful memories too. On U.S. 1 in Lexington County, a tractor sits next to a stand chock full of Mother Earth’s jewels. My mind transforms that tractor into the mule that dragged a plow across granddad’s field that grew light green watermelons run over with dark green, zigzagged stripes. Hey, put one in the cooler … OK it’s icy now.
Plunge a butcher knife in. Slice. Here the rift crackle like lightning as you split the melon. The red meat glows, and up drifts a sweet fragrance. Salt please. We eat it on the spot, and saccharine juice dribbles everywhere. Summertime and the living is easy.
Farm to table is a lovely thing, and to me a roadside stand is an extension of fertile fields somewhere over the horizon. Unless you grow your own maters and such, it’s as close to farming as you’ll get. At a roadside stand you won’t warm your hands in sun-baked dirt, and you won’t lean over to pluck some jewel from a furrow nor stretch for a limb. You will, however, satisfy that desire to grow things that’s hardwired into our DNA.
I was telling a woman about the roadside stand you see here. She described an old screen-wire produce stand she had seen of late and then she paused so long I just knew the call had dropped. Then, “I never met a roadside stand I didn’t like.”
Neither have I.

Author: Stephan Drew

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