It's pole bean season!

August 29, 2021

It's late summer, that transitional season. Part summer fading into early fall, when cornfields hold the promise of raw sienna color for my palette. The last taste of green. Pole lima beans, soft pillows of that velvety, verdant hue. My mother called them King of the Gardens. I don't hear that any more, nor is Silver Queen corn seen on the hand-painted signs that adorn roadside produce stands.

Upstate purveyors at the markets didn't shell them, so I carted home the bean pods displayed in bushel baskets, then dumped unceremoniously into bags. It was a lengthy and tactile experience to shell them, but the reward was great! Down here you buy them already shelled, which is nice. I sometimes wonder who has the patience to sit and mass disrobe them into plastic bags.

The last couple of summers have been so hot, it's been a real scavenger hunt to find them. I went to my local market only to be told that the blossoms had fallen off, so there were currently no pole lima beans to be had, and I would probably have to wait until September. Not being one for delayed gratification, the search was on!

Coincidentally, when I went to my local lab for my dreaded "nothing after midnight" blood test, a woman came in, went to the back and came out with two plump, shiny-green plastic freezer bags stuffed with the large, flat, coveted beans. As she backed out the door with these trademark treasures, she was immediately interrogated with desperate and envious questions, "Where did you get those beans?" One of the women in the back had them! They could hear my pleas all the way past the curtain as I presented my arm to the phlebotomist. "Who has the beans here, and where is she?" I asked. She pretended not to hear me, so I left with empty hopes, and a bandage on my wrist as the only souvenir.

When I got home, my husband said, "The lab called. I thought you had passed out!" No, the bean lady had heard my pleas. "Come to my house at 4:15 p.m., and they will be shelled and ready," I was told. I was given circuitous directions to somewhere in the nearby countryside. We drove all over, stopping at the Lincoln Post Office for directions, backing in and out of rural driveways. Finally, we found the house nearer to Milton. A field of bright-green legumes trailing up poles told us we were in the right driveway at last.

A woman waved us in, and there was the "Bean Broker" sitting in an armchair in front of a TV set taking calls, I imagine from bean aficionados like me. I received my two prized freezer packets cold from their fridge. Now to cook them! It felt like 120 degrees inside my small kitchen, but I prevailed. My own pole bean heritage passed down from my grandmother dictated that it would be succotash.

My personal addition to this legend is that I boil shucked ears of corn in the water first to give the stew its flavor, much like chefs boil lobster shells in the water for lobster bisque. I then cut off the kernels and discard the cobs. I brown a generous slice of salt pork, add blanched beans and a boiled, crushed tomato, plus chicken stock for flavor. Simmer until tender. They're better the next day, but who can wait?! I've fooled myself with frozen Ford Hooks all winter, after all.

My daughter called, having caught the pole bean fever from me. She was in Trader Joe's buying the accessory ingredients after finding the upstate unshelled variety. She had bought a small but costly bagful. "You'll need more than that to make up a potful," I told her. She said she was in a "romantic bean-shelling mood.” When she tried the recipe last time, although she's very smart in the courtroom, she thought you dumped the beans, shells and all, in the pot and cooked them.

They don't freeze too well, I've found, but there is no fear of that happening. My husband has this habit of always leaving a little bit at the bottom of his bowl – no matter what it is. "You'd better not leave one single bean this time,” I warned. Not with green gold!

  • Pam Bounds is a well-known artist living in Milton who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art. She will be sharing humorous and thoughtful observations about life in Sussex County and beyond.

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