It’s early morning and I’m bent over strong green plants, their bounty hanging from the underside of deep, green leaves. I’m proud of my green beans.
It’s my second picking and I am getting more than from my first. Despite the early hour, perspiration…nay sweat is trickling down my nose. It’s not hard work, pickin’ beans, but my back is creaking and sweat is running into my underwear when I straighten it.
I’ll pick, wash and then snap before washing again. I don’t know what I’ll do with these. I’m still eating on my first pickin’…my first mess…from archaic French, messe, a portion of food.
It is a word I learned from my grandmother…and a process. Nothing wasted, not even the pot liquor. Beans are to be eaten until they are gone…or go rancid, the pot liquor sopped up with cornbread. Just for clarification, these are not served al dente, they are cooked to death, the Southern way.
Mine are not likely to go rancid soon. The biological process is aided by meat products and mine have none. I’ve had to adjust my tastes since a heart attack a decade and a half ago. No flavorful bacon grease or fried fatback will be added. Just potatoes, onions, and a touch of salt and pepper. They are not as flavorful as I remember my grandmother’s but my wife’s cornbread that is served with it is much better. Sorry Nanny, your cornbread was too dry.
There was always a “mess” of beans on my grandmother’s stove. Green beans early in the summer, butter beans later, and finally crowder peas in the early fall. Whatever was canned found its way to the stovetop during the winter and spring.
I’ve tried to keep her schedule along with squash and tomatoes. I wish I could figure out how to get my tomatoes to mature at the same time my beans do. It would appear I’m still a few weeks away from my first tomato sandwich. My garden is late this year due to April rains.
As I pick, I step back in time. It is Monday as I write this. A lifetime ago Mondays were days to finish gathering and prepping for Tuesdays which was, along with Thursdays, canning days at my countrified local school. A cannery subsidized I’m sure by that Yankee ‘gubment’ in Washington or the nearby state one in Columbia. It was cheap, a penny a can, it had to be subsidized by someone.
It was a hot and humid place in the middle of hot and humid summers. People came from all around to avail themselves. It was a cheap way to preserve their summer bounty for the cold winter days ahead. There was so much activity I am reminded of the story of the ant and the grasshopper. No lazy grasshoppers here, just hard-working ants.
At my grandmothers there would be a flurry of activity on Mondays that would run well into the evening. It would end with family from the hill above and the ‘holler’ below joining us. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins sitting on the front porch snapping or shelling the last of the beans or prepping soup mix. There was a good dose of gossip to go with the shelling.
A hushed voice asks, “Did you hear about so and so?”
Another query, “Didn’t she run off with….?”
A third with shaking head, “Oh my, you don’t say? I know her momma is besides herself with worry.”
A fourth would ask, “Y’all want some sweet tea?”
The menfolk in fedoras and overalls sitting on one side of the L shaped porch, the women in feed sack dresses on the other. I don’t really know what the menfolk discussed, what juicy details were talked about but their conversation probably revolved around work or what malady their car might be suffering. Seemed everything revolved around scratching out a living or driving.
I remember falling asleep on the metal glider surrounded by the aromas of Prince Albert pipe tobacco and Camel or Lucky Strike unfiltered. It was a different time and somehow, I always woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there.
The cannery was operated by the Leapharts, my school’s home economics, and agriculture teachers and their offsprings. They operated it but everyone shared in the responsibilities. Communal effort is always a farming community’s way.
Sterilized cans were filled with bounty before salt and water added. Cans ran through some sort of magical machine that steamed and sealed the cans before tops were added and another magical machine sealed them.
The finished product placed in a water bath and allowed to cool until Thursday when we picked them up. I remember being responsible for adding the water, a steamy job in the steamy, humidity filled days of summer but one suited for a boy my age.
I’ve tried canning with varying degrees of success…the glass Ball jars and rings. I freeze a lot but for some reason, it does not quite taste the same. I guess it could be the absence of bacon grease or fatback, but I don’t think so. It might have been the people and the process.
I remember phone calls to my grandmother when I left for college and later for the real world. Summertime calls were always accompanied by a canning tally and the weather forecast, “Well I did twenty-five cans of green beans, eighteen butter beans, and a dozen of soup mix. It has sure been hot and dry. I can’t remember the last time it rained.” If she’d been fishing I got that report too.
When I came home to visit from the real world, I always returned with cans of love from her pantry. A mess of green beans and potatoes with some raw onion and a wedge of cornbread. Good eats…good memories.
My senses are a funny thing. Smells trigger many memories…or sweat running down my nose or a song on my playlist. There is something about the smell of tomatoes or green beans boiling in a pot. I go back to those days when the humidity didn’t seem so bad when there was always a pot of beans on my grandmother’s stovetop and cornbread or biscuits close by.
Don Miller writes on various subjects and in various genres. His author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3ISpnFiIcskj6u17soo9sN1uvFBdpA59noucO8m0LdgN9k0rhPlAxRa2g
The image is from Simple Home Preparedness at https://simplefamilypreparedness.com/home-canned-green-beans-in-3-easy-steps/