The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.
“Y’all, Wilcox County is God’s country,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey always proclaims. Ivey proudly hails from Camden. People in this south-central part of the state have been saying that since at least 1819 when the county was established by the Legislature.
Wilcox County was the 29th of Alabama’s 67 counties to be officially established. In this Bicentennial series about PLANTS + PEOPLE coming together, I’m saluting each county from oldest to newest. In all the other stories, I’ve written more than I have shown, but this time I want you to see a garden party idea with a fresh, family-friendly, fun-to-create perspective.
Superb Alabama hostess and home cook extraordinaire Laurie Johnson (with full disclosure, also my sister-in-law) has been creating a delicious dish to salute each county in this series. For Wilcox County, home to both Ivey and the famous Gee’s Bend Quilters, Laurie enlisted the help of two of her three, Lego-obsessed grandsons, Russ and Will, and they recreated, piece-by-piece, one of the most well-known of the Gee’s Bend quilts using Alabama garden vegetables instead of cloth.
Years ago, I enjoyed a home-cooked meal with these Gee’s Bend Quilters before they became museum-world rock stars, and they showed me their artistry. I shared with them my very earliest childhood memory, which is being about 3 years old playing under an Alabama quilt frame as my mother and some of her friends created a multi-colored canopy above me.
According to the impressive website, Souls Grown Deep, multiple generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, African-American community in Wilcox County, have created hundreds of masterpiece quilts since the early 20th century. These quilts of bold geometry using repurposed fabrics are like modern, color-block, fine art paintings and are treasured collectibles.
Right away you’ll recognize the Gee’s Bend quilt Laurie selected to re-create. It is on permanent display in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (Alabama). And, this quilt was one of 10 in the United States postage stamp collection honoring the Wilcox County textile artisans. Now, I’m going to let these photographs with easy instructions and recipe tell the rest of the story. You can find many examples of the Gee’s Bend quilts to inspire your own version at www.soulsgrowndeep.org .
4 simple steps to a colorful and delicious “quilt pan” of roasted vegetables
- Choose your quilt pattern. While all the Gee’s Bend quilts are beautiful and unique, starting with a simple pattern with large blocks of color will turn out the best. The quilt pattern chosen for this recipe is a quite famous one made in 1970 by the Gee’s Bend quilter Minnie Sue Coleman, named “Pig in a Pen Medallion.” Its image was one of several Gee’s Bend quilts chosen for a 2006 United States 39-cent postage stamp series. The quilt is now on permanent display in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
- Shop for, or pick from a garden, colorful vegetables that represent the colors in your quilt (see full recipe for suggestions). Prepare the vegetables for the quilt pan following the instructions in the recipe. Children may need help with knife safety in this step.
- Arrange the vegetables on the sheet pan to make your quilt, using a printed copy of the quilt as your guide. Use a dark, non-stick sheet pan that has been sprayed lightly with cooking spray. Once arranged, lightly brush the tops with olive oil or spray with cooking spray. Season with salt and pepper. You will likely have some raw veggies left, so get a second pan ready and make your own art! According to an article on the Gee’s Bend quilters on the Souls Grown Deep Foundation website (soulsgrowndeep.org), the Gee’s Bend quilting style can be called improvisational, or “my way” quilting, so have fun making a “my way” quilt pan of vegetables.
- Roast for about 25 – 30 minutes in a 425F oven. Make sure to use oven mitts or heavy potholders to handle the hot pans and have a heat-proof surface nearby on which to place them when they come out of the oven.
Wilcox County – Gee’s Bend “Quilt Pan” Roasted Vegetables (6 – 8 servings per pan)
Most cooks know the simple technique of roasting vegetables on a “sheet pan,” but this recipe is a “quilt pan,” honoring the artistry of the Gee’s Bend quilters. Kids of all ages will love eating their veggies if they first get to play with them by arranging them into a colorful quilt pattern.
- Fresh, colorful vegetables, chosen by the colors in your favorite quilt, such as: carrot sticks, multi-colored bell peppers (green, red, yellow and orange), red onions, green onions, yellow squash, zucchini, purple small potatoes, cauliflower, asparagus spears, green beans and cherry tomatoes
- Cooking spray and/or olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
- Optional – minced fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, basil, oregano, etc.
- Preheat oven to 425 F.
- Prep vegetables – Slice carrots, multi-colored peppers, onions, squash and zucchini into thin strips. Cut potatoes in half or quarters depending on size, cut cauliflower into small florets and snap off the tough ends of the asparagus. Leave the green beans and cherry tomatoes whole. If any of the veggies are wet, blot them with a paper towel as moisture is an enemy to roasting.
- Make your quilt – Spray a non-stick sheet pan lightly with cooking spray. Arrange the vegetables, by colors, into the pattern of the quilt, blanketing the whole pan. Brush tops lightly with olive oil (or spray with cooking spray) and season with salt and black pepper. You will likely have raw vegetables left, so have fun creating your own quilt art with a second pan!
- Roast for about 25-3030 minutes or until vegetables are softening, maybe even browning a little, and tomatoes are just starting to pop open. Sprinkle with (optional) herbs and rotate the pans in the oven half way through.
While you’re in Wilcox County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour, you should take your Gee’s Bend Veggie Quilt and enjoy a picnic at beautiful Roland Cooper State Park. Here are two places to gather locally grown produce:
*CAMDEN FARMERS’ MARKET—2200 Highway 10 Bypass, Camden, AL 36726; Tuesdays and Saturdays, 7:30-10 a.m., June-August
*EAST WILCOX COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET—869 County Road 59, Pine Apple, AL 36726; Thursdays 7:30 a.m.-noon, July 12-Nov. 15
*PLANTING AN IDEA—In August, every other year in Brussels, Belgium, volunteers convene at a town square and create a carpet-like tapestry of various colored begonias. This hugely popular event for locals and thousands of tourists was started by a landscape designer in 1971. It could inspire a similar garden in Wilcox County replicating a different Gee’s Bend quilt each year. Begonias and/or other weather-tolerant flowers could be donated, planted by volunteers and then sold at the end of the season to support a local, perhaps plant-centric, cause like an “edible schoolyard.” An Alabama model for this sort of flowering fundraiser is the annual tulip festival in Montevallo (Shelby County). This big, living “floral quilt” could be a good project to explore with the gardening experts of the local office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
Many thanks to Laurie Johnson and her grandsons, Russ and Will Bryan, for the beautifully created and tasty salute to Alabama’s internationally-acclaimed Gee’s Bend Quilters.
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