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Looking out my Backdoor: The allegory of the green beans applied


Last updated 7/30/2020 at 8:30am

Several years ago, while I still lived in Washington, I visited Dad in Harlem. It was during the last days when my step-mom was still able to do simple things for herself. She put the meal on the table.

She was never a good cook. She’d raised 11 children and her meals were made to feed hungry bellies. Nothing was thrown away, ever. I don’t remember the meal. Certainly a meat, potatoes, perhaps a cabbage slaw since it was toward the end of Dad’s garden. But I will never forget the green-beans.

Withered, shriveled, in a tiny bowl, perhaps eight or nine pieces of green-beans, snapped, not whole. They had been offered every meal since I’d arrived. The beans were so over-cooked they no longer had color, well, cement gray. I wasn’t about to touch them.

I looked across the table and met my Dad’s eyes. We’d both been looking with disdain at the beans. Dad reached for the bowl, dumped the desiccated mess on his plate, gave me a half smile and said, “If I don’t eat these, they’ll come around again.”

I thought, “Greater love hath no man.”

All of us whose parents had lived through the depression, through other hard times, grew up that way to a certain extent. We used, re-used, patched and repaired. The broken shovel today might be ground down, given a different handle, and appear as a garden trowel tomorrow.

Some of our family’s early examples and ways stick with us, unquestioned. Some practices we rebel against. All leave a residue that influence decisions we make in our daily lives.

Having grown up on a family farm, we always had food, fresh from the summer garden, or from jars in the cellar or frozen packages in the freezer. Beef, pork, chickens and eggs; we had it all. My tolerance for left-over food is limited.

I have a friend who makes a vat of soup or spaghetti to eat for a week. I couldn’t do it. Today, tomorrow and maybe one portion frozen for a month. Then my stomach growls, “Nevermore.”

Last week I baked bread. I bake all my bread, good farm-style loaves for toast or sandwiches or plain bread and butter.

I’m not quite sure where my head was that day, but my focus clearly wandered elsewhere. While I was kneading the dough, it didn’t feel quite right. “Maybe it will be alright.” When I have that thought, through long experience, alarm bells and whistles go off.

In a hurry for a reason I don’t remember, I ignored the warning. Set the dough to rise, punched it down later, after the second rising, formed dough into loaves and plopped them in the bread pans, even though the dough still didn’t feel right. Well, I wasn’t going to just throw it away, was I?

I lit the oven to pre-heat. Turned my attention to another chore. As soon as the oven was hot, I plunked the loaves in to bake. Truthfully, I didn’t even look at the dough to make sure they’d risen, just shoved the pans into the oven.

What came out of the oven looked pitiful; puny loaves but solid as bricks. They made up in weight and density for what they lacked in size.

I cannot even tell you the last time I made a bad batch of bread. Other things, other foods, oh, yes. Bread, no. I make four small loaves, keep one out for present eating and freeze three.

Almost always I enjoy the first slice, still warm from the oven, slathered with butter. I ate it. That’s all I can say. It wasn’t dreadful. It wasn’t good. My second rationalization was, “Maybe it will be OK for toast.” Again, warning bells and whistles sounded. I turned away.

I don’t eat bread every day. So a couple days later I sliced a piece of bread to toast. I looked at that dense slice of bread. I mean, I really looked at it.

And what I saw, as clearly as though I were still sitting at that long-past table, was that pitiful little bowl with eight pieces of withered, gray green-beans.

I gathered my bread, the slice I’d just cut for toast, and the loaves from the freezer and took them out the far rock wall boundary of the ranch and crumbled the offering across the rocks for my enemies, the iguanas, a penance of sorts. (Waste not.)

Today I baked bread. I paid attention to every detail, gave each part of the process my fullest focus. The loaves floated out of the oven, light and perfect, evenly grained. I cut a slice of hot bread, slathered it with butter and savored every bite.


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com/. Email [email protected]


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