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(SAF) Green Beans

Two of life’s great maxims are: there’s no accounting for taste and you can’t make someone do what they don’t want to do. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of culinary preferences. And, as anyone who has kids—or anyone who remembers being a kid—will tell you, nowhere are food idiosyncrasies more pronounced or, well, idiosyncratic than among the young.

I know boys who love sushi—raw fish of often dubious freshness with such textural challenges that many adults run screaming at the sight of a piece—but would rather die than eat a vegetable (or, for that matter, a piece of fruit), regardless of type or method of preparation. In their antipathy toward fruit and vegetables,  they are far from alone. Moreover, I would submit that the condition is congenital: boys want meat, like they want trucks and weapons. They’re three strands on the y chromosome.

In contrast, girls actually seem to like vegetables. In fact, I’ve known several girls who would never eat meat. Ever. Not that they were ideologically opposed to the practice (this came later). They simply didn’t like the stuff. It’s just one of those things: they were born knowing that they were vegetarians, much like some people are born knowing that they are gay or others are born knowing that they are a Tibetan lama.

Having been a kid and a boy, I, of course, was not without my own proclivities. There was, for example, the time when I awoke one day to proclaim that I hated bananas. Loved them on Wednesday. Come Thursday, and–bam!–Generalissimo Danny made the unilateral decision to cease all banana-related hostilities, effective immediately.

“But… you love bananas,” Mom said.

“No, I don’t. I hate them!,” I replied.

“You didn’t yesterday,” she persisted.

“I hate them. I’ve always hated them,” I said. Of course, when you’re 4, a day constitutes “always.”

My mother, more than most, was—and remains—a balanced diet fanatic. High protein, low fat, low carb diets were a staple of our household decades before they became a dietary fad. Mom was the proto-Atkins. Carbs were limited to Grape Nuts for breakfast and whole wheat bread for lunch sandwiches. Sodas were something rare and exotic—a special treat that was rationed out on a weekly basis. As for dessert, well, that whole business about “No dessert until you finish your vegetables!”? At our house, that took the form “No t.v. until you finish your vegetables!”, the sweetness of t.v. sitcoms being the substitute for empty calories.

Try to imagine the cognitive dissonance that I experienced upon discovering that a friend’s cupboard contained Ho-Hos and Hostess cupcakes! And that they were freely available without an appointment or secret password. Little wonder that I became a frequent visitor.

To Mom’s credit, she did instill in us a certain discipline around eating that has served us well as we have aged. Millers are not overweight. Our insulin levels are normal. Any troubles that we may have with cholesterol can be blamed on Dad’s side of the family.

There was, however, one area in which Mom did face a steep learning curve on her way toward achieving culinary balance: the whole vegetable thing. On this front, Mom faced both cultural and contextual challenges. For one, she was from Iowa, where, near as I can tell, the diet consisted of meat, milk, white bread, butter, and corn. Except during the winter and spring and fall, when there was no corn.

Secondly, Mom came of age in the post-War period when everything was becoming SO CONVENIENT! (N.B. those words should be sung) Why clean and chop vegetables when Birdseye (or Libby’s or Springfield or…) can do it for you? What could be easier than opening a box of frozen x, dumping it in a pot, boil for a few minutes, and serving it to your adoring family?

Finally, Mom had three kids in four years, which means that she had her hands full and made her particularly susceptible to the whole convenience thing (see above).

And so it came to pass that a young mother, determined that her growing family should have well-balanced meals, strove to incorporate vegetables into our diet. To be honest, I cannot remember all of the forms that those vegetables tried to take, but I do remember the green beans. And I remain scarred by the memory.

In those days, there was no distinction to be made among the type or variety. Bush or pole; haricot vert, Blue Lake, or Asian long beans, it mattered not. What you got was French cut or plain old green beans. Canned or fresh from the freezer section of your local supermarket. There were similar limitations to the preparation methods available to the home cook. Steaming hadn’t yet been invented and microwaves did not yet exist. One’s options were limited to either boiling or adding the beans to a casserole. (Remember the green bean-cream of mushroom soup-canned fried onions combo? If so, I feel your pain).

Mom got her beans frozen and boiled them. While I am hopeful that culinary science has since come up with a method to remedy this, in my experience, boiling frozen vegetables has an inevitably deleterious effect on things like texture and color, never mind taste.

Being the oldest child, I have long felt the burden of living by example. I have always tried my best to be a good boy and a dutiful son. As such, it should come as no surprise that when Mom put the beans in front me, my reaction was:

“Ick! What’s that?”

“What’s it look like? Green beans,” she said.

“But, I don’t like them!” I protested.

“How do you know? You haven’t even tried them!,” Mom pointed out.

That was immaterial. They looked inedible. I pushed the beans around on my plate and, the more I played with them, the more they disintegrated. The more they disintegrated, the less palatable they became. There’s an old joke about a pair of (fill in nationality/ethnicity/profession here)’s who run across what looks to be a piece of dog shit. One orders the other to “Touch!”, “Smell!”, and finally, Taste!” the substance, before concluding that it is, in fact dog shit. The punch line: “Good thing we didn’t step in it!” I had arrived at that place.

“Eat!” Mom ordered.

Poke, prod, push, smash.

“Don’t play! Eat!”

Right head in my hand, elbow on the table. My feet kicked against the legs of the chair. Heavy sighs issued forth from my lungs.

“Dammit! Try the damn things,” she said.

Clearly she was at her wit’s end: “dammit” was as bad an exclamation as Mom would utter in those days  (“shit!” came later). And, let’s face it, “damn things” is not a phrase that should be applied to anything edible. I wouldn’t/couldn’t look at her, much less try the damn things.

Poke, prod, push, smash. Tears welled in my eyes. An anticipatory lump welled in my throat.

Finally, Mom had had it, and appealed to a higher authority.

“You do something!” she said to Dad.

That was bad. Dad didn’t like being dragged into matters of parental oversight and discipline. Mom was not above backhanding us when pushed to her limit (this usually occurred after “dammit!”), but, inevitably, there were times when Dad’s superior firepower was invoked. As a kid, you did not want to be around at one of those times.

“You heard your mother!,” Dad said. This was his equivalent of “dammit!”

“But, they’re gross,” I whined. (This is a fabrication: to the best of my memory, I didn’t actually use the word “gross” until 6th grade.)

“Don’t make me get my belt…” he said, giving fair warning that pain was imminent.

“O.K.! O.K.! I’m eating!,” I lied.

By now, on top of being of dubious color, the boiled frozen butterless unsalted smashed green beans had cooled and congealed, and were, if possible, less appetizing than they had been at the outset. Still, eating them seemed a better option than getting whacked. So, against my better judgment I stabbed the smallest piece of bean matter imaginable with my fork and, in between sobs, tried to sneak it past my tastebuds.

Have you ever tried to consume something that you physically could not swallow? The taste or texture of which is so thoroughly repugnant that your epiglottis slams shut and prevents the attempted swallowing of said thing? What does “gag reflex” mean to you? It has happened to me twice: when I first tried drinking warm Scotch in high school, and when I tried to eat those green beans.

“It’s horrible!” I screamed.

“Oh, stop it! It’s not that bad,” Mom said.

“Yes it is,” I cried.

“Stop overreacting and finish your dinner,” she said. “I don’t care if you sit there all night. You are not to leave until you finish every one of those beans.”

Life had never sucked so bad. There was no pity to be had.  My siblings were dismissed, and although they left quietly, I could detect a look of merriment in their eyes. The little shits. Had they managed to eat the beans? Clearly, they were too young to have cultivated a sense of taste.

The table was cleared, the dishes done, and I was left alone at the dinner table to consider my fate, the dulcet tones of the theme from My Favorite T.V. Show streaming into the room. Those fucking beans stood between me and all that was good in the world. It was them or me. They must be destroyed.

But how?

Clearly, there were only two options: suck it up and eat the beans, or make them disappear. Option one was a proven non-starter. Option two was a challenge, like trying to dump a body. My tired, cranky, t.v.-deprived 4 year-old brain started to explore possible solutions.

Chucking them via the sink or waste basket wouldn’t work: Mom would hear me get up and, even if she didn’t, the remains were sure to be discovered (who knows what the half-life of boiled frozen bean matter is). Stuffing them in my pockets seemed similarly unworkable both for reasons of discovery and possible contact with a caustic substance.

No longer sobbing or sighing, my mind was hard at work. I was kicking the chromed legs of the chair ever more furiously. I scanned the room for possible bean matter repositories. There was a potted plant of a similar shade of dying green that seemed an option, but I worried that the beans would kill it, and  Mom would eventually find them in the soil.

I tried flicking a fork full of the matter onto the acoustic ceiling. To my amazement,  it actually stuck, creating a conspicuous, unsightly stain. Strike that. I considered the light fixture, but dismissed it as being too high, too electric. I kicked. I scanned. There was the rug. Surely, it would not be the first time that someone swept something under it. Seemed like a strong possibility. What’s wrong with that, I wondered? What am I not  seeing in this option?

Oh, right: it would make a mess and Mom would kill me.

Time was running out: My Favorite T.V. Show was only a half-hour long. I started to panic. I turned my attention to the table. It was an extension table with a black formica top, chromed metal legs that matched the chairs, and a beveled decorative metal edging. I looked underneath the table and made two potentially significant discoveries: one, there was already some gum stuck there suggesting that a precedent had been established, and, two, there was a small lip on the inside of the edging. The time was for acting, not thinking. I grabbed a blob of the bean stuff, stuck it to underside of the table, and held my breath.

Thousand-one… thousand-two… thousand-plop. Failure. It fell to the aforementioned carpet, from which it was immediately retrieved, now rendered conclusively inedible.

Panicked, but not despairing, I moved to the second option and started to apply bean matter to the lip of the edging. This produced mixed results: the crud stayed in place, but the lip would hold so little of it that it would take the entire length of edging to accommodate the mass of aging beans. A precision solution to a wholesale problem. It would not do.

Desperate situations require desperate actions. It had come to this. Ever so carefully–and quietly–I half-stood in place, grabbed two fingers of bean stuff, and was trying to decide whether my pockets or underwear was a better–read: more commodious—solution when I caught site of a small tear in the top of the orange vinyl that covered the bottom cushion of my chair. Without concern for color coordination, I reached between my legs and shoved the bean matter deep into the cotton that filled the cushion.

It worked! There was no sign of the beans and the chair appeared no worse for wear. Better yet, when sat upon, the bean-and-cotton mixture felt no different (or at least not different) than the cotton padding alone. Score! I quickly set to work stuffing the rest of the beans into the chair, finishing just as the closing theme from My Favorite T.V. Show began to play.

Take it from me: disposing of decaying bean matter is a tough business, and the effort left me exhausted. I had had enough for one night. I pushed myself back from the table, deposited my cleaned plate into the sink, and went off to bed.

Whether or not Mom discovered the beans, I never did learn. But, the following night in their stead we were served an iceberg lettuce salad. And so it remained, every night for dinner, for the next 14 years.

And never again did a vegetable come between me and television.