Friday, March 9, 2012

Where Have All the Green Beans Gone?

I have stumbled onto a mystery. It’s been building and building for years, until now I just feel that something’s afoot, something’s wrong in the world.

The problem is that for the past several years, green beans haven’t tasted good.

This is no small matter—green beans are, hands down, my favorite food. I crave and adore them like some people hanker after ice cream or chocolate. To me, there is nothing more heavenly than a pile of freshly picked, well-cooked, butter-sweet green beans.

For years, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about green beans—I grew up on those leathery, frozen cigarette butts that food companies passed off as green beans in the 1960s. My conversion didn’t come until my 20s, when I rented a one-room cottage on an old estate in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. On the grounds were various long-neglected gardens—a horseshoe-shaped rose garden, unruly rows of iris and chrysanthemums, thickets of blackberries, and a vegetable garden, all tended by an elderly groundskeeper who came twice a week to prune, hoe, and fall asleep in the rocking chair in the woodshed.

The gardener eventually retired—he’d worked on that estate for more than 50 years. And with my landlords busy with their own lives, I was left to tend the grounds as best I could. That first spring, to my surprise, a muscular seedling poked its way out of the ground in the vegetable garden. I bought a gardening book for a buck at a thrift store, and once the seedling leafed out, I identified it as a green bean—and, with the help of a discarded seed packet in the shed, pegged it as a Kentucky Wonder pole bean. So I drove in a three-foot stake next to it and kept an eye on it. It grew wondrously fast, not unlike that fairy-tale beanstalk, and after a few days it already needed a much taller stake. I drove in a six-footer next to the first stake, and the bean soon bounded up past both of them and was waving around for something bigger to climb. I drove in another six-foot stake next to the others and watched the tendril grow up and down and up them, making a complicated ladder of green.

Eventually it flowered, and soon I had six or eight actual green beans. I carefully picked my tiny harvest and put them in the steamer one evening. They made a meager-looking side dish, a sad pile of twigs at the edge of the plate. Then I took a bite—and all I can say is that it was a religious experience. I’d never tasted anything like them—buttery, sweet, warm, and sustaining. I swooned. I made ecstatic noises. The only thing wrong was that there weren’t more of them—lots more.

Over the next few years, I expanded the estate’s vegetable garden and became proficient at workaday crops like squash and tomatoes, and even wheat and amaranth. But my real forte was green beans. My favorite type were Blue Lakes—even more delicious than Kentucky Wonders and, at the time (the mid ’80s), somewhat rare. I perfected the bamboo bean teepee and recorded planting dates, frosts, deer raids, and cutworm attacks. And after I moved away from that estate, I had a garden wherever I lived—specifically to grow green beans. One year I grew so many of them—purple-podded and yellow wax and Blue Lakes and something speckled that I can’t remember—that my boyfriend and I had to sit down two or three times a week and work our way through dinner plates piled high with them. That probably put him off beans permanently, but I was in heaven.

Then I stopped gardening for a while—I’d moved to a rental where there was no room for vegetables, and for seven years I didn’t put a trowel in the ground. Then I moved to Oregon and picked out a house especially for its big back yard. I was back in the bean business. But that first year, something didn’t seem right—the Blue Lakes came up and climbed the teepees and looked beautiful, but when I harvested and steamed them, they were…well, they sort of weren’t there. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t particularly good. It was weird—in all those years of gardening, I had never tasted a bean that I didn’t love. But these tasted like those chewy frozen beans of my childhood. I figured I’d gotten a bad packet of seeds.

The next year, I got Blue Lake seeds from a different company and tried again. Same thing—not much flavor. Okay, I thought, maybe the soil is off. I tried different varieties—Kentucky Wonders and Domatsus and Romanos. The Domatsus were okay, but they were still a far cry from the epiphany I was after. All the others—blah.

Then I started to notice the same problem with fresh beans from the grocery store. And then with the ones from the farmer’s market. They just weren’t beany. Now it’s been years since I’ve tasted a really good green bean. And it’s nagging at me. I feel like a character in a disaster movie, the one who spots the new speck in the sky but doesn’t mention it to anyone because she doesn’t think it’s a big deal until boom!—it hits the Earth.

The other night I was talking about the green bean problem with a friend who worked summers picking beans when he was growing up. He said that now, in the age of mechanized farming, the seed companies have narrowed our choices down to just a few varieties that are bred to withstand rough handling without bruising. In short, he said, like so many other crops, beans are now being bred for ease of shipping rather than for taste.

So now, the thorniest of questions comes to mind—have they actually bred the flavor out of green beans? Is it gone forever? Am I doomed to wander the Earth, tasting this bean and that, shaking my head and grumbling, “It’s just not the same”? I swear I am not being nostalgic. I was there—I ate those beans. They danced in the mouth. They were like eating the whole sweet Earth in one bite. They were like the call of the dodo and the wingprint of the passenger pigeon—they lived once, perfect and fleeting. What has happened here? Did we literally breed them to death?

1 comment:

  1. Trying growing flat Italian green beans. I'm hooked.

    I regret that I didn't take the picture of the mother and daughter snapping beans at the local pool last year.