Dried Bean Philosophy

What follows: A rambling discourse written over several days about dried beans, home gardens, and the creative impulse. I was honored when this essay received a Silver Award for electronic writing from GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators.

purple beans in shell
Cherokee Trail of Tears beans

The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans I planted this summer tasted great green, but also can be used as a dried bean. I’ve never grown dried beans before so I left a few pods on the vines late this summer to get a harvest of dried beans. These are exceptionally handsome beans. I loved the bright purple of the beans in their pods before they dried out, and the shiny black pearl look of the beans after the pod has dried.

My harvest was small — only about 4 cups of dried beans once I’d taken the pods off, but they will make a delicious black bean soup some cold winter day. As I was cracking open the pods and collecting the beans a couple of weeks ago — one of those repetitive, contemplative tasks we don’t get enough of anymore — I couldn’t help thinking how important a harvest like this would have been 100 or more years ago. Dried beans were an accessible, cheap form of protein then — the kind of food people depended on in difficult times. To grow enough beans for a family, how many rows would I need — and how many hours would it take to shell and clean and store all of those beans?

There are many books out now about growing your own food, both of the how-to and we-did-it variety. And, I love both kinds, though I know that I’m unlikely to ever adopt anything remotely close to a “back to the land” lifestyle. So, what is the lure of the idea of growing your own?

Some of it may stem from the natural anxiety people feel about the world today. It seems a scarier place than it has been in the past, and that’s understandable, what with superbugs, global warming, food contamination, wars, terrorism, and the endless stream of gore and violence against women and children that passes for entertainment in our culture. Being self-sufficient — or at least reading about it — may give us a sense of protection against those anxieties; something along the lines of, “If it all falls apart, I can grow my own food.”

But I also think the desire to be self-sufficient and capable, through gardening, is a desire for a more creative, hands-on, day-to-day life than many of us have. Recently, I re-read a book of essays by the late Paul Gruchow called Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed, 1995).

One of the extraordinary privileges of my youth was that I worked for a few months at the Worthington Daily Globe in southwestern Minnesota, where the late Paul Gruchow was then managing editor. Though the Globe covered the same kinds of mundane and exciting issues other small papers did, Paul’s tough editorial eye and gentle prodding ensured we wrote with as much grace and empathy as each of us young, green writers could muster. Working at the Globe was like attending an MFA program in writing, and I got paid $200 a week besides.

In Grass Roots, Paul has an essay that is both about preserving tomatoes and about his mother, a rural housewife. Here’s the paragraph that got me thinking:

Until I sat thinking about her in my own kitchen that Saturday, I would have said that my mother was a plain country woman with few ambitions, but I realize now how wrong that perception was. When she was not canning, she baked her wonderful bread, or wove rugs from scraps of discarded clothing, or made crazywork quilts, or brewed wines….or sewed elaborate wedding and christening gowns and prom formals on consignment, or made clothes that we ourselves wore. Scarcely a day of her life passed in which she did not create something intended to be beautiful or delectable as well as practical.

I don’t want to romanticize what was a very hard existence, but the ability to create something people need that is also lovely or tasty or amusing or inspiring — this is a source of satisfaction I think most people want and need. Happily, it is a satisfaction available in things as simple as shelling dried beans or planting a few tomatoes.

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