by Dave Peyton, originally printed in the Hur Herald (Calhoun Co., WV) 6 August 2001
If I were a poet, August would be my month to write an ode to half-runner beans.
They’re one of the reasons I live in Appalachia and why I can’t imagine living anywhere else. After
all, you can’t find half-runner beans just anywhere. We mountain folks have a taste for the heirloom. Most folks in other parts of the country have never heard of them.
They’re called half-runners because they are halfway between a bush bean and a pole bean. If you grow them on a trellis, you know the vines grow about five feet tall. Bush beans have no vines at all and pole bean vines can grow six or seven feet or longer.
I once sent half-runner bean seeds to a gardening friend in southern California. He had never heard of them and couldn’t find them in any seed stores in Los Angeles. He planted them in his garden in February, the normal time to plant vegetables in that semi-tropical climate.
A few months later, he e-mailed me to say that half-runners aren’t half-runners in California. Because of the extra-long growing season, half-runner vines grew 15 feet and longer in his garden.
The horticultural books mention half-runners only in passing and most say these beans are grown primarily to dry and cook the way you’d cook dried pinto beans or navy beans. That’s not the way those of us who wait for the new crop of half-runners in July and August cooks them. We pick them fresh off the vines or buy them from local farmers. Then we snap them, put them in a pot and cook them to death.
That’s what differentiates us from the folks up north. We cook our green beans, no matter what variety, until they’re nearly green bean mush. The first time I traveled up north and ordered green beans, I was amazed to find they eat green beans after they quickly dip them in hot water and declare them ready to eat. I don’t like crunchy green beans. It’s not natural.
In conversations with other half-runner fans, I find that most of them cook their beans for hours with smoked bacon, salt pork or a ham hock. My wife, Susie, and I add onions and new potatoes halfwaythrough the cooking. Why? Because that’s the way our mamas did it. And that’s reason enough.
I still recall those Sunday dinners when I was a kid. The ritual began on Saturday when my mother would go to the garden to pick half-runner beans and harvest Mortgage Lifter tomatoes. While she harvested the produce, my dad and I would go to the chicken house and choose a young pullet he had grown from spring chicks.
While I mostly watched, Dad would do what had to be done to prepare the fryer for Sunday dinner.
He’d put the clean young chicken in the refrigerator to cool overnight.
Mom would put the half-runner beans on to cook early Sunday morning before we went to church. Then, when we returned, she’d put new potatoes and onions out of the garden into the bean pot. She’d fry the chicken, slice the tomatoes and make cornbread from scratch. I swear Mom had 10 arms. I don’t know how she did it.
An hour or two later, we’d sit down to a feast fit for any native son or daughter while the jar flies serenaded us in the trees.
And it’s why, if I were a poet, I would write an August ode to half-runner beans. Why? Because they taste like home.