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.

Wilcox County

“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.
Pig in a Pen Medallion
  • 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.
Prepping fresh, colorful vegetables for roasting
  1. 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.
10-year-old Russ Bryan having fun making quilt pan veggies
Quilt pan before roasting
  • 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.
Finished roasted vegetable quilt pan

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.

Ingredients:

  • 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.

Instructions:

  • 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.

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

Copyright 2019 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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Ben South

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