Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt has lived on his great grandparents’ farm in North Pulaski County for 40 years. This is the first in a series of columns about day-to-day life on the land where he raises heirloom tomatoes and other crops for local restaurants and the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market.
Should my family ever have a coat of arms, it will be two long, flat Kentucky Wonder pole beans crossed like sabers above a Carbon tomato, surrounded by a victory wreath of muscadine vines. Beneath will be the family motto, tardus wisi. That’s “slow simmer,” if you don’t speak Latin.
When Mama Grace, my grandmother, died in the 1980s the only thing I asked for was her large black Dutch oven because it was there that I first encountered Kentucky Wonder pole beans.
These are not some kind of French filet beans that go limp at the mere sight of boiling water. These are tough, leathery green beans that you cook slowly for a couple of hours with water and salt meat. Leave the lid half off so that at the end, you have nothing but savory potlikker and beans with the texture of tender meat.
I live on my great grandparents’ farm in North Pulaski County. They grew Kentucky Wonders, my grandmother grew Kentucky Wonders, my parents grew them and I have been growing them on our farm now for 40 years. Some people have a family profession that goes back generations. We have a family vegetable.
When my grandmother married my grandfather Lonzo in 1918, they sharecropped for a time off Republican Road near our farm where she was raised. Their house was covered in faux asphalt brown brick and it leaned. In Mama Grace’s telling, they were pretty much starving, but then grandpa was able to get on with the Missouri Pacific Railroad with a union job. That instantly qualified them for the middle class in Arkansas of that day. Mama Grace’s mantra was “Thank God for the railroad, thank God for the union.”
The railroad moved them to McGehee, where Mama Grace kept a “canning closet” in the little frame duplex they built. The canning closet had a door like any other closet but it was only two feet deep, with shelves stacked with quart Mason jars of canned Kentucky Wonders and Bradley County tomatoes. The beans were dark green, the color of my dad’s old Army uniform, and the Bradleys were bright red with yellow specks of seeds. We would use the vegetables all winter and when you opened the Bradleys, the whole room smelled like summer.
For many years now I have canned about 30 quarts of Kentucky Wonders each summer, along with heirloom tomatoes and sauces. I don’t keep them in a canning closest but instead array them on shelves all around the kitchen. Freezing is easier and faster than canning but I love looking at them all winter, the dark green of the beans, the almost burgundy color of the Carbon tomatoes and the brilliant, bright gold of the Goldie tomatoes. Think edible décor.
But this year and last, my crop of Kentucky Wonders failed. They are not hard to raise, but I was late planting them in 2021 because I was covered up getting 700 tomato vines in. A late planting means hot nights at flowering time and the tiny white flowers fall off instead of making beans. Same is true of tomatoes. This year the heat and drought eventually killed most of my tomato vines, along with the Kentucky Wonders. By August I was down to two quarts of Kentucky Wonders from 2020, and I was resigned to a barren winter.
I’m reading the great Southern food writer John T. Edge’s book “The Potlikker Papers,” a history of the South told through the food we eat and grow. He writes how, for Black and white Southerns alike, identity is found on the dinner table, larded with salt meat, Kentucky Wonders, okra, purple hull peas, fresh tomatoes, barbecue and cheese grits. And I realized then that, if I went the winter without the beans, I was missing more than a good meal. I was foregoing a small piece of who I was and the life I lead.
It was mid-August, 103 degrees outside and way too late to be planting. But I got in the truck anyway and headed to the farm store in Cabot and was able to find a half pound of Kentucky Wonder seed.
Planted outside this late in the season, frost will kill the beans before they can make. But I have three long, plastic-covered hoop houses that, with luck, will protect the plants from light frost and extend the growing season by as much as four or five weeks. Back in March I had planted heirloom tomatoes there and even though the tomatoes were long gone, the wooden stakes and horizontal string that I used to support them was still there. I planted 200 feet of seed beneath the string along the furrows and then ran vertical baling twine from the rafters to the top level of the horizontal strings. It was heat-stroke hot inside the hoop house and twice I had to get out and get my head under a water hose.
But I got the seed in, the string run and the irrigation repaired, and in just two days the beans had sprouted, their thin, translucent green tendrils already up and searching for the support twine. As I write this in early September, some of the plants are already 6 feet high and headed up the twine to the rafters of the hoop house.
They still may freeze before they make. Hell, they probably will. But it’s good work, something I needed to do. It honors where I come from, and the people who brought me along.