Over the years, green beans have symbolized the great differences between my parents and me.
I grew up in the deep South where green beans, like all vegetables, were simmered for hours with a substantial chunk of pork fat. We cooked them this way because for centuries our ancestors had cooked them this way.
I woke up to food during the nouvelle era, that historical nanosecond of the barely cooked vegetable. If yours didn’t crunch, you were old school. It was a beautifully awkward adolescence. For a short time I remember sugaring vegetables like beets, carrots, and sugar snap peas to heighten their natural sweetness. Just as quickly I returned to time-honored salt.
I remember Mom and Dad’s first visit after I got married. I couldn’t wait to enlighten them with my new way of cooking green beans. I was miffed when they left my beautifully bright, stick-straight, under-seasoned crisp green beans on their plate. Why didn’t they get that this new way was better, fresher, healthier, more attractive? Not only did they not like them, they left me feeling like I didn’t know how to cook.
To remind me of my roots (and persuade me back to the fold) Mom and Dad cooked green beans with cornbread every time I’d visit them. As I crumbled cornbread into the greasy gray pot liquor, I thought, “How quaint.”
Believing that one more try might convert them, I kept serving Mom and Dad my green beans. I knew they didn’t love them, but at least they didn’t leave them on their plate any more.
Once I remember getting into a battle of wills. Green beans were on the menu and Mom didn’t think there was time to cook them. I cooked the beans, turning them off when I thought they were done. Mom turned them back on. Thinking I had just forgotten to turn them off, I turned them off a second time. Mom turned them back on. Neither of us was happy with the green beans that night.
About the time nouvelle morphed into authentic, I started to appreciate Mom and Dad’s pork-braised beans. What I used to see as a murky, mushy, homely broth became a subtly satisfying pork-flavored bean stew. I finally got why they call it soul food.
My parents and I are in Houston this week for Mom’s yearly sarcoma check-up. Not wanting to eat out every night, we’re in a suite with a kitchenette. Our first night we need something homey and wholesome. I pick up a rotisserie chicken, assemble a salad, smash some potatoes, and steam-sauté green beans.
As she stems, Mom critiques, “These sure are good looking beans.” I place them in the skillet with a smidgen of water, a nice lump of butter, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Minutes from dinner Mom asks, “Have you started the green beans?” I lid the skillet, turn the heat on high, and respond, “Yes!” Before we sit down for salad I test the beans, beautifully green but not quite cooked. To preserve their color, I remove the lid. So they cook through, I turn the heat to low, and so Mom (and I) will like them, I sprinkle on a little more salt.
Mom and Dad both savored the meal, eating every green bean on their plate And I swear, I really swear it happened. Mom said, “These green beans are di-lish.”