Thursday’s Thoughts: Why I Grow Purple Beans (Part IV)

In my last post, I began to explain how our family got into gardening in a big way in the early 1980s. Now, to continue that thread:

One of the banks in town hosted a farmer’s market in their parking lot every Saturday morning during growing season. No fees or permits required; anyone who had produce to sell could set up a stand.

And so began the Farmers Market Years. At the beginning of that first season, we didn’t have much to sell. Just a few zucchinis and beans. As more of our produce came ripe, we were able to offer more variety. Also, I took it into my silly little head to sell homemade bakery, too.

This wasn't my stand; mine was on a blacktop parking lot, I didn't have a sun umbrella, and my pick-up truck was brown. But otherwise, my set-up was much like this one.

We planned our gardens (which became plural and included about an acre and a half of sweet corn) with the market in mind. Having only an ordinary kitchen oven for baking, I followed a schedule for when to make the pie shells, when to make the fillings, and when to put them all together for optimal freshness. I prepared bread dough on Saturday and got up about 3 am to bake the loaves. Craig got up before first light as well, so the sweet corn I sold would be fresh-picked.

Sometimes we purchased produce at a good price elsewhere for sale on Saturday, like the time we spent the day in Pennsylvania collecting tomatoes and peaches at pick-your-own farms. I varied my bakery offerings, and sold eggs and whatever else we had on hand in excess. All summer long, our lives pretty much revolved around the gardens and the market.

I’m not sure if it was Craig’s idea or mine, but we were both satisfied with my going to market to do the selling while he stayed home with the girls. I don’t know what the three of them did while I was gone, but they didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons, because we didn’t have a TV. As for me, I enjoyed the opportunity to get away and enjoy adult company.

I had regular customers as well as random ones. The local funeral director across the street came over every Saturday for a crumb-crust apple pie. For most people, I used disposal aluminum pie pans, but for him I used glass, because they make a better crust — and I knew I’d get my pan back. One customer asked for blueberry, which I made for him the next time. He bought it with glee and walked away grinning, saying he’d take it home and eat it with peanut butter. (I guess we shouldn’t knock it until we try it, right?) Another customer asked me week after week if I had raisin pie, which I didn’t. The week I made one especially for him, he didn’t show up.

Some of the actual signs from the market; I found these in the bottom of the cash box I used to use.

One of the other vendors came over to give me a detailed lesson in marketing. He explained how I should wash my beans, remove the outer leaves of the cabbages, husk the sweet corn and pick it clean of silk, and otherwise fancy up my display so the produce would look more like what customers see in the grocery store. This, he said, would make them willing to pay grocery store prices. I said I wasn’t out to rip people off; if I give people a good deal, get rid of our excess, and make a little money at it, everybody wins. Problem with that was, my undercutting his prices left him out of the “win-win” picture. He was upset enough to write an angry letter to the newspaper about it. If I remember correctly, I replied; I believe that was the first time my writing was ever published.

I brought my beans to the market in bushel baskets but sold them by the quart. I’d hand the customer a quart container and let them fill it to their satisfaction, then put the beans in a bag for them to take home. Some would heap the container to ridiculous heights, and others seemed reluctant to fill it more than halfway. I didn’t ask the heapers to remove any from theirs, but for the timid ones, I’d throw in an extra handful or two.

One customer—I don’t recall if she was a heaper or a skimper—asked me if I’d ever tried purple beans. “Purple beans?” I said. “What are they?” She explained that they’re like a stringless green bean.  “When you cook them,” she said, “they turn green. But what’s really funny is, the water they cook in turns green too. I can’t figure out where the purple goes!” I wondered what the point of all this was, until she said they have a better flavor than a green bean. “I just like them better. They taste beanier.”

Intrigued, we ordered some from a garden catalog and put in a late crop that very summer. They were just beginning to bear at the end of August.

About that same time—August 30, in fact—the evening was so clear and cold that when we went to bed, Craig and I asked one another if it ever frosted in August. It almost felt cold enough, and we discussed starting a fire. (As you may recall, our sole source of heat was an old coal furnace in which we burned wood. If it got cold during the night, the heat wouldn’t automatically kick on.) “Nah,” we said. “We can’t burn a fire in August.”

I used to milk a goat in those days. The girls were still young enough that they were more hindrance than help where the morning chores were concerned, so I got up early enough to be done by 6:00, when I woke Craig up for work. That way I’d be in the house and ready for them when the girls got out of bed. So the next morning, I got up thinking how cold it was, went outside to milk the goat, and thought, “Wow, it’s really cold out here!”

I went to the barn—with the grass crunching under my feet, as if frozen—but no, we don’t get freezes in August, do we? Then, when I opened the latch to the chicken pen, I found proof of what I’d already suspected: the gate latch was furry with a heavy frost.

So we learned something that day. It can frost in August in Ohio. We learned something else as well: purple beans are hardier than green beans.

Of course that freeze wiped out just about everything in the garden in one night, and I was disappointed that we wouldn’t get a chance to make use of the purple beans just starting to produce. But I was wrong. Although the leaves turned brown and withered, enough energy apparently remained in the stems that the beans that had started to develop continued to grow. For the next week or so, we picked a continuous supply of fresh purple beans from the dying stalks. For that reason alone, I appreciated them.

But also, I agreed with the market customer. I like the flavor better; they’re beanier.

As she said, they’re deep purple when raw, but they turn green when you cook them. A slightly darker shade of green than an ordinary green bean, but not so much that you’d notice. And, just like she said, the water turns green too. Where’d the purple go? Turns out it’s still there, as I discovered when I blanched and froze the beans; the little bit of water that collected in the bottom of the bag turned lavender as it cooled.

All that is part of the reason I grow purple beans. There’s more to come.

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