July 22, 2014

The New Beans

Kathy Kessler is a personal friend of mine and a reader of the blog. She has responded to the request I sent out to you all to write your stories and to share them with us here on the blog (THANK YOU KATHY). And I love the creative way she’s gone about it. I happen to know that gardening is a personal passion for her and an important part of her life. So she has chosen to tell us a bit about herself by sharing this particular gardening experience with us. I hope more of you will decide to write about your lives. I can’t wait to read them! But for now, here’s Kathy’s story:

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The New Beans

By Kathy Kessler

Last winter I received an unexpected holiday gift. My daughter gave me a large package of seeds, all heirloom varieties, including the usual cucumbers, snap peas, tomatoes, squash, beets, and kale. There was corn, too, which piqued our curiosity. This was something we had never tried to grow before. But what really got my attention were some beans I had never heard of: red lima beans, Hopi yellow lima beans, and Anasazi cave beans. In fact, I had never grown beans for drying before and hadn’t a clue as to how it is done. We have always had good luck with green beans, which have been prolific every year in our not-so-rich New England soil. As a vegetarian, I regularly eat bean dishes throughout the year. But other than a gardener’s passing daydream, I had never thought seriously about growing dried beans myself.  Perhaps my chance had come.

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One day in early June, my 11-year-old neighbor, Eammon, came over and helped me plant two very long rows of the new beans. I didn’t know what to expect, but I watered them religiously and watched over them carefully as they sprouted, their tendrils emerged, and they and began reaching for the sky.

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Fairly soon I realized the young plants needed a trellis of some sort, so I gathered some of the willow branches I had cut back in February and saved, not knowing what they might come in handy for but sure I’d find a use for them. Though it was too small to support more than one section of the fairly large bed, the trellis that I lashed together looked like it would do the job. During the busyness of the planting season, however, I had neglected to label the beans, and soon I was no longer sure which of the three types of beans we had planted in each section in the bed. The plants all looked the same, and I had begun to doubt what I thought I remembered about where Eammon and I had put the vining beans versus the so-called bush beans. By now they all seemed to be climbers.  What else had I missed?

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I just kept watering by hand through what became a severe summer drought and watched, still unsure about what would become of the new beans. I had also neglected to thin out some of the plants early on, so they were growing in more densely than they probably should have. I was worried about this but was also encouraged by the robustness of the plants, eventually staking those that were out of reach of the trellis and adding a makeshift frame—more willow—to support their upward trajectories.

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As the delicate flowers bloomed in pale yellow, delicate white, and an almost-but-not-quite-lavender, I just watered and waited. Bees visited and worked happily. Wrens and bluebirds returned to last year’s boxes and boldly defended them against challengers. I chased out a marauding neighborhood cat or two. The garden burgeoned. Miraculously, corn stalks shot up and spread red and yellow fronds high overhead that would, with the wind’s help, produce beautiful silk-topped ears of multicolored grain. Sharp spears of green beans appeared, which we enjoyed the way we were accustomed to eating young green beans. But we were careful to reserve most of this bounty for drying on the vine.

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The bean pods I left alone swelled but remained green for so long that I thought they might never get crisp, the stage at which, according to the package instructions, they should be picked. After the flowers were gone, I couldn’t see any discernible varietal differences from the outside and still wondered which beans were which and how they would develop.

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Finally, a few of the pods on the trellis began to fade to a pale brownish, their skins thinning and pulling tighter over the plumped-out beans inside. Obedient to the package instructions, I picked only the ones that seemed dry enough. The first to be revealed were fairly small and a translucent pink when first exposed to the air, but these quickly dried to a beautiful dark red, similar to the color of adzuki beans. I continued to pick as the pods gradually dried, and all were the same: red.

It wasn’t until the very end of September that I opened a dry pod one day and noticed something different: beans with oxblood and white markings, which worried me. I thought perhaps the beans had hybridized by being allowed to grow so close together, the bees cross pollinating all of the flowers. But I soon realized these piebald beans were the Anasazi caves, exquisitely marked, each presenting a different pattern, each perfect in its own way. I was dazzled. Completely smitten, my husband couldn’t pass one of several uncovered bowls of curing shelled beans without picking up a small handful and lovingly pouring them back in with a satisfying patter.

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Last of all and not until October, the yellow limas, identified only by process of elimination, began to dry out enough to be picked. Once shelled, these seemed the most recognizable, similar in size and shape to the ordinary commercially sold lima beans I had grown up with, larger and more flat than the beans that had been ripening so far. But these late bloomers held yet another surprise. The lovely opaque white of these beans when first opened quickly oxidized to a rich ochre when exposed to the air.  It seemed this harvesting was yielding a mosaic of discovery.

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The afternoon before the first killing frost was predicted for the overnight, I harvested all of what remained on the vines, concerned about the many pods that were still green, surprised that the vine drying process was so slow. Not sure what to do, I decided to allow the pods to dry indoors and just see what happened. Day by day, as pods lost their green luster, thinned, and dried, I peeled and sorted the beans they had protected. The shelled beans—at first so irresistibly cool and smooth to the touch—continued to cure, becoming dense, shrinking back and hardening.

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Little by little, our kitchen emptied of the bean-filled boxes, trays, and baskets that had been taking up space, and mason jars began to fill up with our shelled beauties. I marveled at the way their skins took on the deep colors that will remain intact until I am ready to soak these exquisite works of art in water and bring them back to life, as they sustain us through the long winter and remind me of the seasons that brought them forth, wondrous and perfect, in their own time.

Jeane here: Won’t more of you please send me whatever parts of your story you’re willing to share? I want the blog to resonate with your stories.

Love to you all,

Jeane

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