My dalmatian's excited barking alerted me to a silver-green van that had stopped in the driveway. It was November, and our herb shop was closed for the winter. Occasionally, however, someone would ignore the signs and stop anyway, something that generally irritates me and may be the source of my nickname, “the Ozarks Curmudgeon”.
By the time I had put on a jacket and shoes, three women were on the front porch of the shop, pulling on the locked door. Dressed in red-and-white-striped pajamas and long red stocking caps, they looked like truants from a clown college. I walked outside on the porch and yelled, “We aren’t open until spring!”
Undaunted, they introduced themselves as the sisters-in-law of my new neighbor, Johnny Cash, and explained their odd outfits as traditional garb for their annual Christmas shopping spree. After I had shown them around the shop and the late fall garden, they invited me over to meet Cash.
Now I can’t claim to be a serious country music fan, but Johnny Cash is different. With him, I felt a connection. During my high school years in the 1960s, my best friend and I often used to drive to the top of the sandstone bluffs overlooking the Osage River. From that point, we could see for miles to the valley beyond, but more important, we could pick up the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville on the radio in my 1951 Chevy. While we sat talking about school, our dreams, and life in general, Johnny Cash would sing to us. His wife, June Carter Cash, also serenaded us on occasion.
I thought of these things as I walked along the curving road leading to the Cash house. Johnny and June were sitting in chairs on the patio that overlooks a clear blue lake. He held out his hand and, in that deep voice I had heard so many times over the radio, said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. I hope you don’t mind neighbors.”
As we sat there on the patio, he’d eat a few bites from a plate of food, talk a little, strum a chord or two on his guitar, then take another bite or two. He seemed quiet, perhaps a little shy. June didn’t seem much different from when she was “Little Junie Carter” on the Nashville show forty years ago: still telling funny stories, laughing, and cutting up with her sisters.
Johnny began stopping by the farm on his daily trips to town for coffee. He liked to buy our fresh eggs and look around the shop. He and I often walked the yard and pasture, looking at my goats, calves, geese, and other farm animals. He told me about the buffalo he had on his Tennessee farm and the ostrich that had kicked him, breaking three ribs and nearly killing him. He told me he enjoyed the peacefulness of my old farmstead and that it reminded him of where he’d grown up.
Little by little, I showed him the herbs I grow. Sometimes I picked a few bunches of culinary herbs for him to take home to his chef; sometimes I sent him home with flowers for June. Other times, I would talk about the medicinal aspects of the herbs in my garden.
One day, Johnny mentioned that he and June were going on a three-month European concert tour and that he was worried that the throat irritation he had developed from constant singing might cause him problems. “What kind of herbal thing do you have for a sore throat?” he asked.
I scanned the shelves, eager to find something to help this man who had given me music and memories. There wasn’t time to make horehound cough drops. I didn’t have a tincture or lozenge in the store for sore throats.
Suddenly, my eye lit on a display of raspberry-thyme vinegar. I remembered that I had been given vinegar and honey for sore throats as a child, and now I gargle with a strong thyme tea whenever I feel the first prickles of a sore throat. Picking up a bottle, I said, “Gargle about a tablespoonful of this before going on stage. I think it will help.”
The next day, the Cashes waved good-bye as they drove past the farm. I didn’t hear from them for months.
On the first day back from the tour, Johnny stopped by. “Have you got any more of that vinegar? I couldn’t have gotten through my tour without it.”
Here’s my recipe:
MAKES 6 CUPS
• 4 cups red raspberries, crushed slightly
• 6 cups cider vinegar
•8 four-inch sprigs of fresh thyme
1. Combine all the ingredients in a glass container with a nonmetallic lid. 2. Shake daily for 2 weeks. 3. Strain the liquid, discarding the thyme and raspberries. 4. Heat the vinegar and stir in 1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar. Pour the vinegar into bottles, seal with corks, and store in the refrigerator. It will keep its full flavor for 6 to 8 months.
Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.