Summer Bounty in the Gillette Family Garden

September 28, 2012 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

If you’ve been keeping up with the Gillette Family Garden, you can read the latest post here.  To get an overview of the outdoor exhibit’s groundbreaking and spring planting, please reference our first blog post.

In January 2012 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, opened the exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.  The exhibition is on view in the NMAAHC gallery at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center (NMAH) through Oct. 14, 2012.

To celebrate the exhibition, Smithsonian Gardens, in collaboration with NMAAHC and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, has created a garden to spotlight the Gillette family, one of the six families featured in the exhibition. The garden is a scaled-down recreation of the plot cultivated by the Gillette family to grow vegetables for their personal use and to sell to the Jefferson family. 

Spring Crop Harvest

On June 8, 2012, Smithsonian Gardens staff harvested beets, cabbage and turnips to be displayed as part of The Jefferson Table and Gillette Family Garden public program presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the USDA Farmer’s Market. The program featured culinary historian Dr. Leni Sorensen, Ph.D., who captivated audiences with a cooking demonstration. The harvest was replaced with summer plants started in the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse and seeds from Monticello.

Planting Summer Crops

In the summer planting of the Gillette Family Garden, the okra itself served as the initial support for the beans; after which a tripod support made with cut branches was added. Hops twined around the wattle fence under the exhibit banner. The resulting summer growth has created an exuberant garden featuring the following varieties:

Maturing Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum


  • Okra: Cow’s Horn Okra, Hibiscus esculentus
  • Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum
  • Strawberry: Alpine strawberry, Fragaria vesca            
  • Chile pepper: Fish PepperCapsicum annuum ‘Fish’
  • Tomato: Lycopersicon var. Lycopersicon
  • Hops: Humulus lupulus ‘Cascade’

    Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’


  • Squash: Cymling or Pattypan squash, Cucurbita pepo variety                                     
  • Gherkin: West Indian Gherkin, Cucumis anguria
  • Legumes: Whippoorwill Cowpea or Crowder Pea, Vigna unguiculata ‘Whippoorwill’
  • Potato Pumpkin: Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata

Discovering, Growing and Tasting History

The histories behind the various summer crops are significant.  In the account book of Jefferson’s granddaughter, young Anne Cary Randolph, cymlings, or “simelines” were recorded as one of the top vegetable purchases from the enslaved community, along with cabbages, cucumbers and melons.

Sweet potato pumpkins were popular among African American families and were adopted in local cuisine.  A cookbook of the era, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, suggests pureeing them or baking them whole with meat stuffing.  Okra and sesame are crops that come from the African tradition while the West Indian gherkin was used for pickling. The tomatoes, peppers and hops are varieties developed more recently, but approximate what may have been available when the Gillettes planted their garden.

Whippoorwill Cowpea or Crowder Pea, Vigna unguiculata ‘Whippoorwill’

Smithsonian Gardens provided a display of summer produce, including peppers, crowder peas and okra, for the second iteration of The Jefferson Table and Gillette Family Garden program at the USDA Farmer’s Market on September 21.  In this program, Dr. Sorensen returned to teach audiences how to make a vegetable stew. The crowder peas mentioned in her recipe were harvested as dry beans; they can easily be saved for future plantings.  One of the most impressive crops to display was the sesame, which produced dozens of pods of tightly arranged seeds per stem. The event successfully connected audiences with the families of Monticello and the food they grew.

We encourage visitors to come and see the Gillette Family Garden at the southwest corner of the Heirloom Garden terrace at the National Museum of American History through October 14, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to view the ongoing progress on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We have enjoyed a bountiful season and invite visitors to grow these heirloom plants and share the stories behind them.

Joe Brunetti and Erin Clark
Smithsonian Gardens


A Vegetable Stew from the Late Summer Bounty

Recipe by Leni Sorensen, PhD              

The ingredients for this stew are based on what is known about the bounty of the gardens of the slave community at Monticello.  All across the south thousands of ‘the small plots allowed them,’ as one 18th century observer called the slave gardens he saw, would have been tucked in beside cabins or hidden in woodland openings.  Each region would have had its particular varieties of potatoes, squashes, and leafy crops.

However the 19th century cook would have always used rendered fat and cracklins from salt pork to begin the stew.  Salt pork was the ubiquitous meat and fat source available to enslaved communities and throughout the south.  It added rich flavor and salt and a modest bit of protein.  If you want you could brown up and crumble some nice bacon instead.  

I’m going to assume you have access to fresh vegetables grown without pesticides so I don’t call for peeling the potatoes.  Notice that I don’t give quantities; this style of cookery does not come from a book instead it relied on the eye of the cook to judge how many mouths she needed to feed and how much her harvest basket held on any given day.  You can’t go far wrong.

Vegetable oil
Onion – chopped medium fine
Garlic – chopped
Crowder or pigeon peas (often called field peas) soaked overnight and simmered till tender
White potato (wash well and leave the skins on when you cut them up)
Sweet potato squash (peeled and cubed – save the seeds for someone’s backyard hens)
Tomato (you could blanch and peel but it is not necessary.  Just cut in thick slices and cut the slices in chunks with their juices)
Greens (collards or kale, washed well and after cutting out the thick stems, cut the leaves in ribbons)
Water, vegetable broth, or chicken stock

In a cast iron or other heavy bottomed pot with a lid; sauté the onion and garlic in the oil till soft, add all the remaining ingredients except the patty pan squash.  Just barely cover with water (or the broth or stock); cover and simmer on medium for 30 min or so. Add the Patty Pan squash (cymlin), sliced and cubed, when the potatoes are tender. Continue to simmer for another 15 min or so.  Check for salt, add pepper if you like. Serve with fresh cornbread.

Entry filed under: Education, Garden History. Tags: , , , , , .

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