Photo: Hoover’s Farm Market, Lititz, PA July 2011
When I was growing up in Michigan, our family home was situated on five acres. By mid-May every year, Mr. Rathka from up the road pulled around back with his big farm tractor and plowed about half of our land for the garden. When Mr. Rathka arrived to turn the soil, it was a sure sign of spring.
Dad had been sick for a long time, but somehow, he and Mom worked together to plant Ferry Morse seeds by the hundreds. Straight lines of string marked the rows until the first shoots pushed through. Paper seed packets mounted to wooden stakes identified each section of the garden, assuring that no one confused the cukes with the green peppers. There was an order to it all.
Dad did most of the hoeing, when he could, and by July Mom took on the task of filling her collection of quart-size canning jars with homemade pickles, tomatoes, sweet corn, and an endless supply of green beans.
Even on the hottest days, beans had to be picked and broken into neat one-inch pieces for canning. Usually, Dad picked and carried bushel baskets of beans up to the house before noon. Our screened back porch took on the rich fragrance of warm earth and fresh snapped beans. If any of us kids didn’t look busy, Mom was quick to remind us that there was a mess of beans to deal with.
There was no escape. I was the youngest and grew restless with the repetitive task. I rushed through it, most days, so that I could be free to wander back to the solitude of my books or crayons or TV. But my rush job never escaped Mom’s watchful eye and she made sure that I picked through the plastic bowl and broke the largest ones in half again. My older sister Dee, on the other hand, sat contentedly on the porch glider, her petite hands snapping each green pod with precision. On the days my grandma was at our house, she and Dee sat with the bean bowl between them, snapping with a matched cadence and relaxed, satisfied smiles. The two of them somehow understood Mom’s counsel that small, evenly snapped beans would look prettier in the jars.
As for me, I vowed silently that I would buy my beans from the Jolly Green Giant at the A&P store downtown, like normal people did.
From July right through the beginning of school year, stringing and snapping beans was the melody line in the rhythm of our Michigan summer days. I woke up to the sputtering sound of the big pressure canner on top of the stove. Mom banished me from coming too close, warning that I could be scalded by boiling water as she sterilized jars, or by steam when the canning cycle was done. I sat on my stool near the back door, munching Cheerios and watching from a distance. Mom moved methodically, with precision. She didn’t need a cookbook; she knew exactly what to do.
By mid-afternoon, she had added to the rows of bright jars of vegetables that lined the kitchen counter. Soon enough they would all be stored on basement shelves, but for a few days at least, Mom enjoyed seeing the finished product on prominent display.
“There’s nothing like a home grown bean,” Mom said time and again, even as she sighed with fatigue after a day spent over the canner or out working the garden.
The other day, I stopped at a farm stand near my house in rural Pennsylvania. There, on the heavy laden wood tables, I spotted heaped baskets of green beans picked fresh that morning. The baskets were the size that Mom and Dad always called a “peck,” made of the same kind of woven wood strips as the baskets I remember, with wire handles on each side.
I moved in close and leaned forward just a little, then picked up a single fresh green bean. I held it to my nose and breathed in, but was disappointed when I couldn’t quite pull out the fragrance that I remembered. I glanced around and seeing no one nearby, snapped that bean in half with one hand.
Again, I inhaled, and this time felt a rush of satisfaction. There it was. The fresh, green aroma touched a place deep in my memory, and lingered on my fingertips. It was the smell of those long ago summers, of our little back porch, of ritual, of family.