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Monday, September 12, 2011

Spilling the Beans About Beans…

lean green beans

I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted.

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What shall I learn of beans, or beans of me?

H.D. Thoreau, Walden

The morning mist seeped through the vegetable fields just south of the Lower Loop Bridge. Hooded, ghostly figures backlit by the morning sun, moved purposely along the rows of beans, field workers harvesting the pods.

I noticed string beans dangling in quite a few places in the Valley: Tony Broers has a dozen poles; the Ed Broers a hundred foot row; there’s a raised bed of bush beans at the Jim Werkhovens. So if you don’t mind, string along with me a bit in this bean season.

My dad’s boss used to say around planting time “If everyone planted two rows of beans, there’d be no starvation in this world.” He’s right, you know—and I think the same logic would apply if one planted just one row of pole beans. I don’t think there’s a single garden vegetable—apologies to zucchini-- that explodes with such bounty as a bean plant, be it bush or pole. A bean plant is indeed a “Giving Bush.”

Literature’s great celebration of beans occurs in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In his record of the grand experiment in economy and simplicity on the shores of Walden Pond Thoreau devotes an entire chapter (“The Bean-field”) to the cultivation of beans. (Allowing schoolchildren studying Walden to combine in playful crudity Thoreau, his beans and their amazing gastrointestinal effects, with that famous line from Emerson’s “The Concord Hymn”: “The shot heard round the world,”by replacing the word “shot” by a more vulgar schoolyard four letter word.)

H.D. prepared two and a half acres for cultivation and planted most of the ground in beans (“I was determined to know beans,” Henry said.) of the “small common white bush variety,” his crop, therefore, dry, shelling beans. He laid out his beans in rows fifteen rods long (approximately 250 foot rows), three feet eighteen inches between each, by his estimation seven miles of beans. Now that’s one long row to hoe. And hoe he did, from five a.m. until noon daily, attacking weedy intruders in this way: “…have at him, chop him up, turn his roots upward to the sun, don’t let him have one fibre in the shade, if you do he’ll turn himself t’other side up and be as green as a leek in two days.”

In the same meticulous way he lived his life, Thoreau recorded every aspect of his bean experiment. His harvest: twelve bushels of beans (48 pecks: 8 quarts per peck) which translates into 384 quarts—that’s a lot of beans; his capital outlay for seed $3.12 1/2; his profit from the sale of 9 bushels, 12 quarts (after losing about a quarter acre of crop to woodchucks), $16.94. H.D. then admits he exchanged his beans for rice and continued to say the intent of  the entire bean business was “…for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day.”Seven hours a day hoeing seven miles of beans and then shelling out 384 quarts of common white beans seems like an excessive amount of work just to yield a metaphor, analogy or parable, but far be it from me to say the world’s most famous transcendentalist was full of beans….

As is my own garden these days. To date I have canned thirty-three and a half pints of beans. I have taken two five gallon buckets to the Sky Valley Foodbank (not much of a farmer if you can’t grow extra to share), yet the vines continue to produce a prodigious amount of beans. Beans to shareOddly enough, blue jays are in part to blame for this year’s bean bounty. Not wanting to feed those blue rascals newly sprouted corn all summer, I gave up my corn fritters for a row of bush beans in their stead. When my pole lima beans failed to germinate because of the cool, damp spring, I planted Blue Lake pole beans around their bean poles. One row of bush beans plus nine hills of pole beans makes me wonder about the phrase “Doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” If that idiom were around in Thoreau’s time, I’m sure he’d scratch his transcendental head over that one, too. One hill of beans (like one zucchini bush) would feed a family of four just fine during garden season.

So aside from hauling buckets to the food bank, how does one deal with such a copious amount of beans? Remember Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba and his multitude uses of shrimp? Here’s the bean rendition: snapped beans, French-cut beans, steamed beans, grilled beans, broiled beans, fried beans and baked beans;  canned beans, frozen beans, dried beans and shelled beans.beans by the pint And when the pods swell their bellies, shell out the fat beans, cut a slab of good bacon into chunks, mix together a couple jars of homemade tomato sauce, some molasses or brown sugar, a bit of liquid smoke, boil the works for an hour, bake it for three more and you have barbecued baked beans and the satisfaction that very little produce went to waste.French style beans

The nice thing about bush beans is they yield an early crop and give you a head start on fall garden cleanup. Pole beans come on later but produce until they’re nipped by frost. As if I didn’t have beans enough this year, I planted a row of shell beans called “Yin and Yang,” so named because their black and white markings are similar to the black and white teardrop symbol from Taoism: most beans have a dot of black in the white and a dot of white in the black. yin and yang beansCan’t wait to see how these little orientals taste simmered for a couple hours with a good, old western hambone.

The variety of ways to “lay by” beans helps utilize their vast yield: canned beans on the shelf; beans blanched and frozen in the freezer. A gallon of fresh green string beans snapped and dehydrated will fill a half-pint zip-loc bag. Throw a pinch or two from your bean pouch into a pot of vegetable soup and when the shriveled splinters reconstitute, you have the equivalent of a pint of canned beans swimming around among the other vegetables. Leather beansAnd string beans can be strung and dried that way, too. The Mother Earth News years ago featured “leather britches,” green beans strung on strings necklace-like, then hung up and dried. Though hardly high fashion, I suppose folks could hang the britches around their necks and have food wherever they went, a necklace against starvation.

That’s what I’ve learned about beans. What the beans learned about me, excepting I’m their weed control advocate, I have no idea. A transcendentalist I’m not. Just one more thing about beans. If you have an aversion to visiting relatives around holiday time, prepare that green bean, cream of mushroom soup, Chinese noodle casserole for your contribution to the holiday feast. You won’t be invited back.Scarlet runner beans

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