The Kentucky Wonder pole beans are in, as are the Brandywine and Goldie tomatoes, which means its canning time in my kitchen. It’s a satisfying time, when the cutting table is piled high with produce and the kitchen takes on the feel of a Turkish steam bath as kettles and pressure canners rattle and hiss throughout the summer afternoon. Before we had air conditioning my mother would hang a sheet between the kitchen and the living room in a hopeless bid to keep the heat from turning the rest of her house into a damp oven. But now the miracle of central air keeps this old country house very tolerable, even during the canning season.
By Sunday evening the shelves around the kitchen are full of quart Ball Mason jars filled with a mix of bright red and gold tomatoes next to others filled with dark green Kentucky Wonders. There is comfort in seeing those jars lined up. All winter we use the put back harvest, frying up slices of salt meat in my grandmother Mama Grace’s cast iron Dutch oven and then emptying a quart jar of beans into it. We cook them down slowly until the water is half gone, replaced by a savory pot liquor. There is no better medicine against the dark, bitter cold weeks of February than a newly opened jar of dead ripe, homegrown tomatoes. When I open a jar, they smell like summer.
The closets in my Mama Grace’s and my mother’s house were always filled with quart jars of Kentucky Wonders. While no one in my family would ever join an exclusive country club or live in a gated community, we are snobs when it comes to green beans. Anything other than a Kentucky Wonder is simply a lower standard of living. I know some people will grow Blue Lakes, but then some people will wear polyester blend T-shirts. And I’ll never know why some people go to the trouble to plant bush beans when with just a bit more work, they could enjoy the superior flavor and texture of a pole bean.
My mother, who is back driving her muscle car after falling and breaking her hip two Aprils ago, came over the other day to help me snap a bushel of Kentucky Wonders. Only okra is more odious to pick than green beans. By the time my mother arrived I was sweat-soaked and my arms were scratched and itching from the burr-like leaves of the bean vines. It was the third picking and the beans were big and shelly, starting to show some insect damage. We arranged our pans and baskets and then sitting opposite one another, our knees almost touching, we began to snap and string the bushel of beans.
Snapping and stringing green beans is like chanting with your fingers. Snapping beans invites conversation, so there we sat for several hours, just talking. The mother forgot to give advice on everything from child rearing to the dangers of travel. The son forgot to be in a hurry and remembered to listen to his mother as she entertained him with childhood stories of her pet chicken, a funny Mexican gardening hat and Depression era tales. Snapping a bushel of beans slows the world down and allows you to savor the friend, family member or neighbor across from you.
Like a good pot roast, fresh Kentucky Wonders are best prepared on the weekend when they can be given the two and a half hours of slow cooking time they need. Fry up some grease from the salt meat, add the beans, then cover with water and put the lid on halfway. The water may have to be replaced twice, but at the end you should have enough pot liquor left to not quite cover the beans and they should be dark, leathery and tender. Other string beans can’t stand up to the cooking and become mushy.
By Saturday I should have another half-bushel to snap and can along with a couple hundred blemished tomatoes. Come February, that icy, dark month, our kitchen shelves will be stacked high with quart jars of tomatoes and beans, canned summer.
Alan Leveritt, a Cabot-area organic farmer, also is publisher of the Arkansas Times.