A Mess of Beans and Memories

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.

imageBut 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.”

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About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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34 Responses to A Mess of Beans and Memories

  1. I can barely type through the tears this brought to my eyes….and the comments…reading the back and forth between you and pammie is just so touching. Beautiful, beautiful post.

  2. What a wonderful memory – caterpillar and all! I made a quilt out of some of our old baby sheets from the boys. It was one of my favourite projects! (BTW, I would have voted with your Grandma and kept the beans.)

  3. Jessica Clevinger says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories. I’m the activities director at an adult daycare facility in East Tennessee and I will be sharing your story with our seniors here who I know will enjoy hearing it! Thanks again!

  4. I agree those country beans were cooked too long, but oh what good memories. The art of quilting is still done by some, but those antiques from the past are truly treasuries.

  5. pattisj says:

    I remember snapping and stringing beans, too. Mom canned a lot of them, but there was always a “mess” of them cooked fresh from the garden. I don’t remember what she put in hers, but salt pork comes to mind, whatever that is.

    • Coming East says:

      I love how so many of us have similar memories. Don’t think any of the northeast moms cooked beans the same way. At least I didn’t hear from anybody that said they did. Interesting.

  6. Patti Ross says:

    I’m with your Grandma–a little extra protein never hurt. Today, you’d probably be charged extra as a delicacy. Love the memory!

  7. I have similar childhood memories of snapping green beans on our front porch. My mom would have done the same thing with the caterpillar! :-O We usually have several nice ‘messes’ of green beans from our garden, but not this year! Big ol’ fat Mr. Groundhog ate every last bean plant that poked through the soil…until our neighbor shot him. But still, no fresh picked out of the garden green beans for us. This summer they came from the grocery store.

    • Coming East says:

      When we lived in Connecticut and had a garden, it was the rabbits that got our green beans, Mama. Then the local feed store told us to sprinkle dried blood (which they sold) around the perimeter, and it kept the rabbits out. It didn’t keep our little three-year-old out, though!

  8. dorannrule says:

    Isn’t it wonderful how we recall the family stories and revive memories of special people with food associations? Your mess of green beans and the caterpillar story is priceless.

  9. I would have scooped off the top layer of the beans that had been touched by the calipitter (as we call them at our house) but I most likely wouldn’t eat them because of said insect! sound delicious and I agree that this is a wonderful post. Loved the memories. DAF

  10. Pamela Johnson says:

    After writing the above comment, it occurred to me that some of Grandma’s kitchen ware may be at Cheryl’s. Her husband called me the other day asking me if I wanted some items that may have belonged to Grandma. I said not too enthusiasticly that I was already over-cluttered but I would think about it. I’m seriously considering selling this house and downsizing. Five years ago, I wanted to keep every nostalgic momento I could find. But now I realize that these things aren’t going to do me any good much longer–not that I’m dying tomorrow–but that I need to part with most of my possessions. There is also a small circular mirror framed in gold that is hanging in the living room. That may be hers. I could set these things aside if you want them. I’m going through a difficult time now and really am not up to shipping, but can put this on the list to do later. Let me know. Pammy

  11. Pamela Johnson says:

    Yes, I remember eating Grandma’s beans and developed a taste for them through part of my adulthood. But then I remembered the fat they were cooked in and stopped eating them. As far as Grandma’s things, Uncle Delmas (my dad) brought them back East when the family moved from California. Some of her things are here in Illinois in the basement. These are mostly serving dishes, plates, and cups. There are cut glass vases and other knick-knacks in the dining room ( I can’t think of the word for the display case!! ) There are some cut glass vases, juice glasses, and platters.) At least I think they are hers. I never asked my mother about who owned what.) As much as I like these things, at 69 I have been working on throwing out unused items. If I ever get ambitious I will mail them to you–or you can take a trip to Rockford. As far as the quilts go, I have never seen them here. It is possible that they became worn worn out and were thrown away. Your brother has that coveted oval portrait taken of her as a young woman. According to my dad, Mark has some other things of hers, but I don’t know what. Mark said once “The army could use grandma!”) She was quite efficient when there was a chore to be tackled. I have to say I miss those old Sunday dinners she used to cook. It is too bad she had to come to California in her later years, as it was too difficult of an adjustment for her. So the family too her back to Dayton. She used to say “I want things to be the way they used to be.” Sadly life goes down the toilet as we age and lose our loved ones. But maybe we will see her again; she’s probably up there in heaven giving God orders and running the place. Hope to see you again, Grandma!

    • Coming East says:

      Glad you remember those dinners of Grandma’s, Pammie, because I ate so many of them with you! I think Mark may have one of those old quilts, but he says it is in terrible shape. Things like that don’t last, unfortunately. I’m glad Mark has that portrait, and he has the portrait of Walter. They are both hanging on the living room wall.

  12. Huffygirl says:

    I have similar memories of my grandma’s cooking. Back then, in sharp contrast to today, there was a big emphasis on not wasting food. Today, as a nation, we throw away more food in one day than folks back then did in a year, I suspect.

    • Coming East says:

      And I am one of the guilty ones, HG. I try to be better, but I buy too much and then it goes bad before I use it. I have never learned to buy for two since the kids all moved away.

  13. My mom would have handled the caterpillar the same way, and so would I! We ate many messes of beans in our day and I, too, was instructed on how to snap beans correctly. I love this post. Only this year did I ever try another way of cooking fresh green beans/string beans…. and my husband promptly told me to go back to the old way… boil the heck out of them with some ham!

    • Coming East says:

      When we have company, I cook green beans the “proper” way, until they are crisp-tender and still bright green, but sometimes I’ve just got to have them Grandma’s way. I am in the camp of those who would have tossed those caterpillar-laden beans, as I’m sure you gathered.

  14. Dianna says:

    Oh, yes, the ONLY way to cook “snaps”. I never referred to them as green beans until I was grown. And as for mashed potatoes: they were always “creamed potatoes”. Lima beans were “butter beans”. I’m not sure how my mom would have handled a caterpillar in the pot….if it ever happened to her, I never knew about it!
    Don’t you just love memories??

  15. And recipes are easy to pass on unlike lots of possessions. Nice reflection, thanks.

  16. Robin says:

    I can’t remember the last time I heard the phrase “a mess of beans.” I learned it in southern Ohio. Our neighbor, who was like an adopted grandmother to my children, used to refer to vegetables that way. She would cook up a mess of kale or a mess of beans, etc. I enjoyed your story, and thank you for bringing back some good memories of Evelyn (the neighbor) and her husband, Melvin. 🙂

    • Coming East says:

      Though Grandma was from Kentucky, she and my grandfather moved to Dayton, Ohio, after WW II, so I’m not surprised you heard that term from your southern Ohio neighbor. I think it’s just a good oil’ country term.

  17. Robin says:

    Oh, I love this! Green Beans, with or without critters (we don’t mind the extra protein…), are my fave…I have never tried salt pork or bacon, but just slow cooking w/Olive Oil and chunky sea salt does the trick for me..thankfully that seems to be the most prolific veggie in my garden. My husband however, says he can’t stand them, and considering he eats every other green veggie, I have no idea why. Maybe I need to take a cue from your Grandma? thanks for sharing your memories!

    • Coming East says:

      Oh, I think your hubby would love Grandma’s beans. My mother made them the same way, so I am the third generation that makes them that way. Daughter didn’t follow in my footsteps, though. What’s with that?

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