Last of the Mirlitons
My father worked for City Park so it was only natural that he would have an interest in gardening. He even belonged to a group called the Men’s Camellia Club. (My mom also belonged to a garden club, so we had the whole floral activist scene covered.) For most of my growing up years I regarded a garden as a strip of land from which weeds had to be pulled, often under duress, frequently on a Saturday afternoon. To me the only positive about gardens were sightings of doddle bugs and worms, neither of which would ever make me worthy of the Camellia Club.
In this issue, with its emphasis on gardens and homes, I recall that my father, during his retirement years, did some gardening around the house, but there was one project that literally towered overall: his mirliton trellis.
Mirlitons (known in other places as chayotes) once grew wildly in semi-tropical New Orleans. Stuffed mirlitons, packed with shrimp or ground meat, were local delicacies. Now the vegetable is practically an endangered species. There are no records on this, but my father’s backyard may have produced the last great domestic mirliton trellis. With pipe he assembled the trellis, which he found necessary to paint green. He mastered the tricky positioning of the vines, which involved strategically locating male and female ends.
As the vines spread, enveloping the trellis, they produced a crop of a few hundred mirlitons every year, Raw mirlitons in such numbers are not easy to give away. Fortunately my father’s operations also included manufacturing and canning. In the nearby garage was an old stove, and on the stove sat an old pot. My father sliced the mirlitons into slivers to make the universe’s best mirliton pickles. They were crunchy and sweet. The bounty was stored in Mason jars.
One year his crop had been especially big. “Guess what I bought at the grocery today?” he asked me via phone. He laughed as he answered his own question: “Mirlitons.” On canning his last batch he fell a few mirlitons short of a jar full. With his vines depleted he had to get more.
My father was gone by the time of Katrina. He had boasted that the house had been built with double lumber to withstand hurricane winds. That it did, but not the water, which turned the inside into mush and destroyed the backyard. The levee broke along Bellaire Drive just three blocks way from the house. The site of his mirliton industry is now an empty green yard needing to be sold. Maybe one day it can inspire its own pickled creations and be colored with the hue of camellias.