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Thursday, April 29, 2010 10:07 am

A past with a future

The growing history of Jefferies Orchard


Jefferies Orchard picks asparagus rather than cutting it so there is little waste to the consumer.

Our yard is achingly beautiful in spring – especially the mostly wooded west side. Delicate blooms of spring beauties, Dutchman’s britches, and dog-toothed violets form a carpet of white. Here and there are drifts of daffodils, patches of bluebells, stands of May apples and wild yellow violets. The sugar maple flowers form an overhead canopy of lacy chartreuse fringe. Just below are splashes of pink, white and purple/pink from dogwoods and redbuds. The air is fragrant with lilac in some places, viburnum in others. As spring progresses, those first flowers give way to Jack-in-the-pulpits, wild pink geraniums, purple trillium, and the periwinkle blue of sweet Williams. Birds of all sorts provide background music.

Taking time from our busy lives to enjoy it has become a spring ritual for my husband, Peter, and me. But each year I periodically tear myself away from that tradition and travel a few miles north on Illinois Rt. 29 for another – a visit to Jefferies Orchard for the first local asparagus of the season.

Jefferies Orchard is a Springfield area tradition that dates way back – way, way, way back – to 1822. That’s when the first Jefferies settled along the banks of the Sangamon River and began clearing the fertile soil. They’ve been there ever since.

It would be another nine years before Abraham Lincoln would move to New Salem in 1831. Doubtless Lincoln walked or rode past Jefferies Orchard as he traveled back and forth to Springfield. It’s not unlikely that he knew them, or at least knew of them.

None of the original Jefferies buildings remain these days, says the clan’s matriarch, Ruth Jefferies Anderson. “They were just little shacks – two or three rooms,” she told me. But the ivy-covered brick building and shed where Anderson sells the family’s crops have the unmistakable patina of age. The parade of produce begins with asparagus and rhubarb in spring, then moves on to strawberries, sour cherries, peaches and a host of different vegetables as the season progresses, finally finishing with pumpkins, apples and cider in fall.

“I’ve been working here seven days a week, 14 hours a day since I was three,” Anderson tells me as she trims the asparagus and weighs it, putting it into one- two- and four-pound bags. “They used to set me up out by the road with a table piled with stuff and a cigar box to make change. Of course, it was just a dirt road back then.” She’s certainly a fixture; in fact I’ve never gone to Jefferies when she wasn’t there. Sometimes she has a helper, but often Anderson is alone.

“What about winter?” I ask, half teasing. “Surely you don’t work that much then?”

“You’d be surprised,” she says. “There’s always something to do. And we have our own sawmill here. We make all our own boxes and tables and such, and cut firewood, too. This is new in here,” she says, gesturing to obviously freshly paneled walls. “We cut the wood for it last winter, and just finished putting it up.” Somehow it wouldn’t surprise me to see a hammer and nails or saw in her hand.

Anderson works slowly as we talk, at least more slowly than in her younger years. But she never stops moving, either. “My mother died when she was 96, and she didn’t stop working until the year she died,” she says. “My grandmother moved here when she was 18,” she says. “Her father was an important doctor in the Civil War – Dr. Benjamin Stephenson. There’s a monument to him in Petersburg.”

Have the Jefferies ever thought about having a stand at one of the local farmers markets? “I can’t be in two places at once!” Anderson exclaimed. “Besides, I’ve got my own farmers market right here.” She hands me a well-thumbed notebook that lists the different fruits and vegetables they grow. I start to write them down, but stop: there are dozens.

It’s heartening to know that my traditional spring treks to Jefferies Orchard will continue into the foreseeable future. Anderson’s daughter, Shann Elble, designed Jefferies informative, and colorful Web site, complete with historical pictures. Anderson’s nephew, Dale Jefferies, took over the farm/orchard operations from his father, Albert, who passed away last year. Dale is being assisted by his son, Jeff, and his nephew Ryan Ferguson. According to Anderson, Jeff Jefferies, who recently retired from the National Guard, is particularly enjoying the peacefulness of working his family’s land.

The Jefferies suggest calling or e-mailing them before you visit, to find out what’s in season at 217-487-7582, 217-487-7845 or jefferiesorchard@webtv.net. Directions and more information are available at www.jefferiesorchard.com.  

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

 RealCuisine Recipe
Asparagus and Green Garlic Soup

This soup just shouts spring. The addition of heavy or sour cream enriches it, but the soup is just as delicious using only water or chicken or vegetable stock.

  • 2 lb. asparagus
  • 1 T. butter
  • 1/2 - 3/4c. heavy cream or sour cream, optional
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 c. water, or chicken or vegetable stock, plus additional if needed
  • 1 large or 2 or more small green garlics (approximately ½ c. thinly sliced and loosely packed). (See note below.)

Break off the tough ends of the asparagus by holding the bottom of each stalk with one hand and gently but firmly bending the top over with the other hand until the bottom breaks off. Discard the bottoms.

Cut the asparagus tips off and reserve. Thinly slice the remaining stalks. If the asparagus has a wide variety of thicknesses, cut the thinner ones into larger pieces so that it all cooks more or less evenly. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt half of the butter over medium high heat. Add the asparagus tips, sprinkle lightly with salt and stir-fry until the tips are just crisp-tender, about 3-5 minutes, depending on their size. Immediately remove from the pan and put them on a plate to cool quickly. Set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium, and add the remaining butter and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is softened but not browned, about 3-5 minutes.

Add the sliced asparagus stalks to the pan and cover with the water. You may need to add a little additional water. The asparagus should just be covered. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the asparagus is completely tender, but still bright green. This should take no more than five minutes.

When the asparagus is tender, immediately put the pan in a large pan or sink of very cold water to which some ice cubes have been added. Stir frequently and add more ice to the sink as the water warms up.

When the mixture has cooled, purée it in a blender or food processor. It (and the reserved tips) can be refrigerated at this point for several days until ready to serve.

To serve, return the mixture to the saucepan and heat through. Thin with additional water or the heavy or sour cream if desired. If using sour cream, be sure to not let the soup boil after adding it. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Warm the reserved tips gently in a microwave or pan. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the tips. Serve immediately. Makes about 5 c., serving 4-6.

Note: Green garlics can range anywhere from the size of a slender scallion to ones where the bulb has start to form, but is not yet papery. They can be found at farm stands and farmers markets in spring and early summer. If unavailable, substitute 1-2 minced regular garlic cloves, or ½ c. thinly sliced onions, leeks, or scallions. 


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