Green Beans: A Love Story
Let me say right off the bat that I do not ever remember going hungry. So calling this a “hunger story” would be a little bit misleading. It’s more of a “how my mother kept hunger at bay” story, and it has everything to do with what a parent will do to make sure a child has something to eat on her dinner plate.
When I was eight, my father, a major in the Army Corps of Engineers who was a 20-year-man with three yearlong tours in Southeast Asia, found himself on the very last list of names of soldiers who were being cut to help lighten the defense budget during the difficult economic days of the mid-to-late 1970s. He found work in a small town in the Ozarks, overseeing a construction project. We moved into a small farmhouse on about a half-acre lot, high up on one of the Ozark hills. After a couple of months, the owner of the project needed something for his nephew to do, and my dad’s job was it. So there we were, early 1977, national recession going on, high unemployment and inflation, and no income coming in.
My mother did two things. She had my dad till almost the entire backyard into a garden, and she went down to the Best Western and got a job waitressing. She planted corn, tomatoes, green beans, and strawberries, and she spent several shifts a week making sure that complete strangers had beautiful breakfast plates with fluffy eggs and special garnishes. Her tips were tremendous, not least because she was 30 years old and awfully pretty, and that income plus my dad’s unemployment let us meet the note and keep food on the table.
These were the days when, for a special treat, my mom would divide a stick of Juicy Fruit and give one half to me and one to my little brother. When so many people were facing such hard times that the cafeteria workers at my elementary school would put out big bins of slices of white bread and big bowls of peanut butter, separate from the lunch line, so any kid could come up and make a sandwich without having to worry about paying for it. But I don’t remember the times as hard. I remember my mother telling funny stories about her shift, about the regular customers who made sure to sit in her section, and I remember running up and down the garden rows watching the corn come up and the strawberry plants start to pile themselves into little mounds. I remember trees and blue skies and a creek down the hillside running over the rocky shallows where we’d splash and play the afternoons away.
It was shortly after the strawberry harvest that my father found a job. In Alabama, at a paper mill. He took my brother and me on down to the little south Alabama town where he’d found an apartment, and my mother stayed behind to sell the house. While she was waiting, packing up the house and finding a buyer, the green beans came in. She picked them all, froze them in batches so we’d have them to eat later. During her two-day drive down to rejoin us, the green beans thawed, but rather than throw them away, she put them back in the freezer. Times were going to get better, but food was food, and she wasn’t going to waste it. Several nights a week for the next several months, those frozen-thawed-refrozen green beans would make an appearance on our plates, next to a hamburger or a chicken leg, sometimes with some mashed potatoes. I don’t remember much about the dinners except for the beans, which managed to be both tough and mushy all at once. Never a picky eater, I started to refuse.
And I didn’t stop refusing. To this day, I can hardly stand the sight of a green bean. Maybe in a three-bean salad, though you could leave them out and chock that salad up with chickpeas and black beans and tomatoes instead. Not even roasted, despite Mollie Katzen’s wonderful method for making any vegetable sweet and essential. The fresher they are, the more clearly picked from some garden, the worse it is.
So my can of green beans from the Hunger Awareness Blog Project is still sitting on the kitchen counter, and probably will until it goes into my sack for the Stamp Out Hunger food drive next Saturday. But as I’ve looked at it this week, every night, while deciding what to cook, I’ve thought how much I hate green beans. And I’ve thought about my mother, about all the time and effort she put into growing that garden and saving her little crop to make sure her children would eat, about how much she must have wanted to be able to put something else on our plates. And I’ve thought about how much love was piled on those plates alongside those tough, mushy, freezer-burned beans.
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