The Beans. We’ve been working on them for years. Every summer. A fixture in my existence since the day Diane brought them to me as a hostess gift, and like the taste of something stronger and forbidden, one was not enough. Firm but supple, smooth and cool with a fiery burst that surprised and delighted and encouraged another try once teeth pressed through the slender outer core, and tongue rolled the spicy green center, and the whole was carried away, rinsed by a flash of pale gold drawn through the lips from a crystal rim: have another. Inquiring as to the vendor, “Oh, I make them; it’s a canning recipe.” She was serious: home-canned, cold-hot, vinegar-bathed with a cayenne kick, garlic-pickled, Minnesota summer green beans. Admirable, I thought, but to my east-coast, city-born reason, a problem solvable in the marketplace. I searched everywhere to duplicate them. None could satisfy my quest—not the gourmet shelves in Byerly’s carpeted flagship, with rows of impressive-looking labels accenting sparkling jars, their promise unfulfilled upon opening, nor any other local grocery store of lesser stature. Desperation grew. The solution was slow in coming, and to my shopper-schooled sensibility, ever unconsidered. If I were to have them, I would have to make them myself. Undeterred, even at the alien thought of home canning and the attendant risks of burn or botulism, I considered the recipe and instructions. Discussing the dilemma with my college friend Danita, another bean aficionado, I discovered she had, in childhood summers on her family’s Mora farm, helped her mother with the canning. Her memories of the procedure were as sharp and dear as the memories of her mother. She retained the trusted black-pot water bath and its wire-mesh basket lining. “You actually know how?” “Let’s see the recipe.” [End Page 49]
Canning beans is nine-tenths washing, peeling, cutting, trimming, measuring, and loading. It is one-tenth canning in the water bath for ten minutes. The jars are run through the dishwasher and emerge hotly sanitized and faultless. The garlic is first, its fragrance trapped beneath the tissue-thin sheath and waxy surface. Shiny white, peeled and pearl-like, each clove is cut down the long way, exposing the flat, sticky middle, rather than left whole. It improves the flavor that way, and the cloven couplets adorn the bottom of the jar, resting icily against the glass. Next comes the powdery cayenne, a scant quarter teaspoon tapped gently over the wide-mouth Kerr; the orange dust smothers, scorching the gleam of pearl and glass like the shock glare of hot red clay in the Sedona desert. The dill, bushy flower clusters on wiry stems, has a strong garden smell and stands rebellious against confinement in the top layer of the jar, waiting as we load—placing each bean, trimmed to fit lengthwise in the jar—the jar set on its side, so the stack will be neat and straight. Two college alumnae, steeped in the seven sisters tradition as found on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; two knives; two cutting boards; two plastic strainers; two Tupperware wash bins; metal tongs; measuring cups; a pot to boil the rubber-lined lids; a pot to brew the salt brine; hot pads; paper towels; and clouds of vinegary vapors claim the kitchen on bean day. Pour the brine, wipe the jar ridge, set the lid with a twist of the ring, fill the basket—one jar, two jars, four to go, and lower them into the bath. “Pop!” as they seal. Did they all seal? Amid the music of our talk, the munching of stray bean discards, hot coffee, sweating water glasses, and lunch fetched in, it takes eight hours to complete the work and a bushel or better of fresh-from-the-farmers’-market beans to produce the glory of two dozen jars glowing gold-capped in uniform rows as they cool on the counter. We each take our share, but two jars are held aside for entry in the fair.
The Minnesota State Fair is a phenomenon staging summer’s finale in the...