Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day, the Civil War and the Oyster Plant

I wanted to do a post about the Jack in the Pulpit plants now blooming in the woods. However, the plants can wait a day or two since it is Memorial Day, one of America's most important national holidays.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those military people who fought, served and died for this great country. Over the years, it has also become a time to remember everyone who has reached the “other side”, both family members and friends. Graves are decorated and there are quiet visits to cemeteries.
Originally, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day; a solemn day to remember those who were killed in the bloody and tragic American Civil War. Slavery was certainly one of the key issues in that tragic conflict.
It was an important day in many communities of northwestern Pennsylvania just after the formal hostilities ended. And it remains a solemn day today in many of those same communities; Meadville, Erie, Girard, Wattsburg, Union City, Phillipsville and so on.
Northwestern Pennsylvania is rich in Civil War history. The cemeteries, large and small, are filled with the graves of those who served, marked with GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) plaques and flapping American flags. Many were young men from farms in rural areas of northwestern Pennsylvania who have been long forgotten.
Northwestern Pennsylvania is also rich in Underground Railroad History, perhaps the largest civil disobedience movement in the nations history. Untold numbers of slaves were housed, fed and clothed in many rural farm houses and churches and then taken into Canada and freedom. It was a secretive movement because it was illegal to help a slave escape; persons caught were jailed and fined. It was a serious federal offense.
John Brown who led the ill fated raid on Harpers Ferry just prior to the Civil War spent nearly ten years in New Ricmond just north of Meadville. He was active in the Underground and other anti-slavery actions. For more information, click on the title.
Every rural community had a GAR post, an organization formed to help the veterans of that horrible period in American history. The GAR was the center of a town's cultural and social life for decades until the veterans slowly died off and the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Affairs organizations stepped forward as the advocates for veterans after World War 1.
I have read some of the minute books (1880-1910) from a GAR post from the Cranesville, PA area, the Colonel Lytle Post. Several times a year, usually in late winter or early spring, the post had an “oyster supper” for members and townsfolk. It is likely they didn't have real ocean oysters back in the late 1800's but more likely used salsify, a vegetable root crop which is also called the oyster plant.
Salsify is an old time vegetable favorite worth planting. It grows like a parsnip and can be harvested like a parsnip in late winter and early spring. Freezing weather makes this root crop much sweeter. Here is the recipe for oyster soup. So yes, Memorial Day is particularly important this year. We have elected Barak Obama as our president, something unthinkable even a decade ago; we need to support our troops who are fighting two separate wars; and vegetables gardens have taken on a new importance as we struggle through one of the worst recessions since 1929. Salsify is worth the try, it really is pretty darn good and healthy as well as historic.

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