Meditation on green beans

Note: This is not about the cookbook, though it is about food. This column was originally published in a great little newspaper—Augusta Country. I was inspired to share it by my new crop of pole beans—and the fact that now Emma is going to be in second grade. Enjoy…

One of the most exciting things about being a parent to me is introducing Emma, my 19-month old daughter, to some of my favorite things. It was with her in mind that we planted two 20-foot long rows of green beans this year. We thought we would outsmart her, you see, up until this time, she would not eat any green vegetable. Surely, we thought, she would not be able to resist one of summer’s most heralded crops.

I, myself, have some warm and not so warm memories about green beans as a child. I loved eating them—especially raw, just picked from the bush.

What I hated most about beans was picking them. Our garden sat down at the bottom of a hill, quite afar away from the house and very close to a dense patch of woods in which there was a stream that would rise on occasion and make every piece of ground a bit soggy. I really did not mind the physical act of picking them, but I was afraid of snakes. I don’t know if I seen one near the garden or what, but I was terrified. I remember crying and picking beans.

My father was not one suffer those tears—he thought I just wanted to get out of doing the work! (Years later, while chatting with a colleague of mine, she told me that she had the same experience. I knew then that Yolonda and I would become friends—it was extremely hard to find anybody among my Washington, D.C. colleagues who had ever even had a garden, let alone picked green beans, while crying, afraid of snakes.)

It is with this mixture of memories and attachments that I approach green beans every year. No. I am not afraid of snakes anymore, but I am afraid of backaches and just thought of canning in the summer heat the way my Mom and Dad did makes me anxious.

This year, a new friend Carolyn told me, “Why don’t you just blanch them and freeze them, that’s what my Mom does now.” What an oasis in my muddled, hectic life.

It occurs to me how grateful I am to have people like Carolyn and Yolonda in my life. They, too, appreciate the utter perfection and joy of a good green bean fresh from the garden. They also share in the same kind of memories about gardening—the satisfaction that comes from putting your hands in the earth, planting a seed, and watching plants miraculously grow. I admit, every year, I am amazed at the process. It brings out the child in me.

The more I learn about gardening and the history and folklore surrounding it, the more mystical it becomes for me. Even when you understand the science aspect to it, there is still something magical about it. When you think about it, where did the bean even come from ? When did people begin to cultivate it?

Well, according to the Food Museum, which is in Ireland and is mostly focused on potatoes, the green bean we enjoy today is actually a “Haricot”, a word we associate with the French language, but when applied to beans means a plant originating in South America. In fact, Haricot is an Aztec word, originally, ayacotl. Haricot beans include limas, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, green beans, kidney beans, even black-eyed peas, which are, in fact, beans. All these variations stem from an ancestral plant that has been dated back 9000 years.

Both Northern and Southern Native Americans made extensive use of the bean, then, as now. The haricot is botanically Phaseolus vulgaris, and encompasses most of the beans we think of as beans.
According to “Eating in America,” the Native Americans of the eastern United States probably developed their own beans independently. They were already widespread when the first explorers reached the coast. String beans existed, also; Cherokee women wound them into long chains and hung them up to dry in the sum, producing what we’re later called “Leather britches beans.” Within a century after the discovery of America, several beans developed by the Indians were being exported to the Old World.
So, those of us that herald the coming of green beans from our gardens, and make its planting, cooking, and preserving a part of our yearly ritual are in essence taking part in an ancient earth practice.

For my family in Pennsylvania, part of the ritual was boiling green beans with potatoes and adding a slab of bacon or ham to it. Now that I am a vegetarian, I add something called liquid smoke, which adds the flavor without all the fat.

So, when Emma and I began picking beans one sunny Saturday, we were both participating in not only our family ritual, but also an age-old human family ritual. I could almost hear Native American drums beating, and voices rising in unison, singing while picking. Oh, I was feeling my Earth Mother roots and so at one with the universe as I watched my baby pick a bean. Well, Emma took a bite of one, set it aside, then took a bite out of another, set it aside, until she became bored and just walked away. Kind of anticlimactic.

Later, beans cooked and ready for the table, her father and I awaited in eager anticipation—our daughter’s first meal with green beans that we had planted and picked. It brought back memories for us both. Is there anything better than the first batch of green beans cooked just right? Well, according to Emma, who would not even take a bite, there’s plenty—starting with macaroni and cheese.

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