A couple of days ago I brought home some green beans from the market. They were local, fresh, and were a great price, 99 cents a pound, so I bagged up a ton of them, nearly five pounds. I like to cook vegetables briefly so they retain their crispness. Asparagus gets two to three minutes on the stove before it is drained and ready for the table, and spinach has hardly touched the pan before it’s whisked away and squirted with a bit of lemon juice.
But green beans? That’s another story, thanks to my Grandma Mattie, a Kentucky woman who was the best country cook I ever knew. When she made a “mess of beans,” as she called it, she put a big hunk of salt pork or country bacon in a big pot with the beans and cooked them forever, several hours, at least. When the beans were ready, they melted in your mouth, and the pot liquor they simmered in was a treat all by itself. If there ever were any beans left over, they were even better the next day.
But getting to the point of actually eating those beans was a bit tricky because it was my chore to help my grandfather snap the beans, and he was mighty particular about how that was done. He watched me with eagle eyes, and if he caught me pinching off a piece that included more than just the stem itself to discard, he would fuss at me, telling me I was wasteful. Daddy Bill was quite an affable man, and I loved spending time with him—except when it came to snapping those beans! But once that chore was done and the beans were simmering away on the stovetop, the aroma of them mixed with the smoky scent of the salted meat, it was all worth it.
I remember one time, after a pot of Grandma’s beans had bean cooking for awhile, my Uncle Delmas and I wandered into the kitchen and lifted the lid on the pot to take a peek. There, sitting right on the top, was a huge caterpillar. We told my grandmother who said we were just seeing the salt pork. “With legs?” my uncle asked. When she took a look and acknowledged we were right, she tossed the critter out and put the lid back on the pot.
“Mom, aren’t you going to toss those beans out? We can’t eat them now.” She looked at my uncle like he was talking nonsense.
“Of course we’re going to eat them. I’m not throwing away a good mess of beans just because of a little caterpillar. A little extra protein never hurt anybody. And,” she added after looking at our shocked faces, “if you know what’s good for you, you won’t say a word about this to anyone else at the table.”
At supper later that day (fried chicken, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, tomatoes from Daddy Bill’s garden, and thick slices of raw onion to go along with Grandma’s beans), Uncle Delmas and I kept looking at each other, trying not to giggle, when family member after family member took a heap of those beans and put them on his or her plate. When both my uncle and I declined when the beans were passed to us, one family member asked why we weren’t eating any. After seeing the death threat on my grandmother’s face, my uncle simply said, “I don’t believe I’m in the mood for beans today.”
My grandparents have been gone for many, many years now, and I wish I had some of their things as keepsakes. I particularly wanted one of my grandmother’s patchwork quilts because she made them using pieces of the clothes she sewed for my mother once my mother had outgrown them. I remember one summer when my family drove to Ohio to visit my grandparents, my mother pointed out each fabric piece in one of the quilts and told me what article of clothing it had come from and how old she was when Grandma had made that skirt or that dress or that blouse.
I don’t know whatever became of my grandmother’s things because we lived far away when she died, and I don’t know how my uncle disposed of her possessions. Though it would have been nice to have one of those quilts laying across my bed, the even better memory lies in my head and in my heart whenever I make a “mess of beans.”