I had my first green beans of the season the other day. They were sweet, tender and smelled of ham.
They had spent the better part of an afternoon entwined with a hambone as the beans and the bone slowly boiled on top of the stove.
That is my favorite style of string beans, ones that have cooked all afternoon. They are the perfect dish for those summer days when all bodies, not just those of the beans, go limp from the heat. They also are terrific at night when plucked cold from a plate of leftovers during a raid on the refrigerator.
I will eat green beans raw, especially if they are fresh out of somebody's garden. I am so blinded by passion that I can convince myself these beans are as sweet as Tootsie Rolls. I get this way every year at the beginning of the green bean season. After spending months putting up with saggy supermarket beans, the firm garden beans burst back into my life and I'm ravenous.
However, the novelty wears off. A few weeks later, green beans become as common as zucchini and my appetite for them wanes.
One of the reasons I am so fond of green beans is that one of my first jobs in life was being a "bean snapper." As a child helping my mother, I was given the responsibility of washing the green beans, then pulling off their ends, snapping them in half and tossing them into a pan of water.
This was done at the kitchen table, which had been covered with old newspapers. Usually beans were snapped an hour or two before supper, as my mom began the initial work of getting the evening meal together.
The work was not that exciting, except for an occasional long-distance toss of a bean at the pot. But I soon discovered bean snapping provided an excellent opportunity for reconnaissance.
When you snapped beans you had inside information not just on what you were having for supper, but more importantly you were the first to know what was going to be served for dessert.
This information enabled you to plan your strategy. If for example, you knew dessert was going to be chocolate meringue pie, then you would unhesitatingly take the required bites of whatever dreaded vegetable was being thrust upon you. But if dessert was going to be nothing more than gelatin with bananas, you could resist the vegetable without fear of losing out on any good stuff.
Being a bean snapper was a position of considerable influence. My mother, like most cooks throwing together a family meal, was sometimes uncertain about what she was going to serve. When stuck, she would ask the bean snapper "maybe we should also have some squash," for supper. A firm but thoughtful, "I don't think so," from the bean snapper saved my brothers and me from facing a meal filled with strange-tasting substances.
A bean snapper who kept his mouth shut and his ears open could learn a lot about what was going on with the grown-ups.
Whenever my mother's sister visited her, for example, the two of them would often "get caught up" telling each other the news in their lives as they worked in the kitchen. And when my father got home from work, he would sometimes use the time before supper to talk over pressing family matters with my mother as she cooked.
The bean snapper heard all -- the funny thing that had happened at the office, the tale of the visiting relatives who wouldn't help with the dishes, what the doctor had said about a little brother -- and pretended he wasn't paying attention. It was good training to be a reporter.
I thought of my early days as a bean snapper the other nighwhen my wife and I were in the kitchen trying to have a private conversation. As we spoke, I looked over at the kitchen table and there was our 11-year-old, pretending not to listen.
A bean snapper in training.