Five years ago, when we lived in California, our green bean plants were producing half a kitchen garbage bag of green beans per day. It got to the point where we had to take garbage bags of green beans in the car and drive around town (a very small town) to dish out green beans to everyone we knew (and even some people we didn’t really know.) We knew that we’d soon be moving to Scotland, and so putting some beans away for winter wasn’t much of an option for us. But sharing them, of course, was its own reward.
This year, in New York, we’ve again got loads of green beans–an easy 2 quarts a day, and while we’re eating plenty of them fresh, we’ve also been doing a bit of what 19th century folks called “putting food by”–that is, saving it for that time of year when Persephone goes back to the underworld and her mother, Ceres, mourns, turning our lush, green garden a dead and frozen brown. (No, I don’t believe that myth. But I do like it. My mom and I are really close, and you better believe that if one of us had to go to the underworld, we might forget to water the garden.)
So against that day, we’re storing up food, green beans among them. Frozen green beans can actually be quite delicious. Our favorite ones are the petite French beans you can buy at Trader Joe’s–and while they’re reasonably priced, I sometimes feel a little funny about the fact that they’ve come from France. I love French food, but we can grow great green beans right outside our door. France is a long way away, and while I love me a good French import now and then, I’d kinda rather see those transatlantic miles used differently (say, to bring Nora here. Hi Nora! Bisous!)
My mom and I, together, trimmed and washed the beans, dipped them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water, dried them with a towel, and packed them into freezer bags. It wasn’t as hot and difficult as I once imagined such a process would be. In fact, it was kind of fun. Instead of going out for coffee, or ice cream, or shopping–instead of consuming, which we love to do (who doesn’t?) we stayed home and produced something, not for immediate enjoyment, but for future days.
In other times and places, to speak reverently of such a practice–as if it constituted some kind of virtuous act–would be silly. ‘Putting food by’ was just what everyone did in the days before year-round availability of EVERYTHING NOW! There must have always been a kind of satisfaction in this work, though–the work of virtuous necessity, done (usually) in groups, with laughter, chatting, and singing to make ‘drudgery’ into good times. That’s what I’m grasping at when, in my own fumbling way, I try my hand at gardening and preserving. I’m trying to tread lightly on creation while exercising a homely kind of creativity, making small steps toward a hopeful future, and, in the present, creating good memories fueled only by necessity and love.