Monday, July 15, 2013


Shelling butter beans
The other day I walked into a vegetable market in Winchester, Tennessee and got excited when I saw a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruit– tomatoes, squash, corn, South Carolina peaches – fresh, mouth-watering food that made me think about my childhood visits to the home of my Grandfather and Grandmother Greenlaw in Franklinton, Louisiana where we had fresh vegetables, including fat butter beans, for lunch all summer. I didn’t see any speckled butter beans in the market, but I probably wouldn’t have bought a bagful because a particular memory of shelling them back in the 40’s suddenly assailed me. Here’s the memory in the form of a short-short vignette:

Grandfather set down two washtubs of speckled butter beans – a Mt. Hermon farmer’s harvest of plenty – on the back screen porch and grinned at us. He had a wide mouth, and his grin covered his entire face. He was hardly ever serious because he said he was a Greenlaw, a bona fide Scot, and Scots were known to be practical jokers.

“Fifty cents each to shell the whole bunch,” he said to me and my brother Paul, as he headed out to sell Fords at “The Garage,” a plebian name for a motor car business, also known as “Motor Sales and Service,” a moniker just a tad above “The Garage.”

In 1943, fifty cents looked like a good deal to us. Paul was ten; I was eight, and neither of us had earned over a quarter for doing chores in our household. We smirked at one another and began shelling.

Four red, sore fingers and four hours later, we had done one tubful. We worked steadily in a silence broken only by the buzz of the sawmill further up 10th Avenue. Our grandmother stayed in the kitchen next to the porch because she disapproved of Grandfather putting this Herculean project in our hands. The noon whistle whined and died, but no one called us in, and we plodded on, heaping shells on the green painted concrete floor of the porch.

At first, it had been fun to see the fat speckled bean pop out as we peeled back the shell, but amazement quickly turned to monotony. Mutual, fast shelling became a matter of who could lollygag the longest. After all, we were to be paid equal wages, so it didn’t matter who did the most work, Paul said.

My grandfather came home for lunch, patted us both on our damp heads and didn’t offer for us to stop working. I could hear my grandmother in the kitchen admonishing Grandfather about “child labor.” We had begun to sweat heavily, and the beans were early salted. When 4 p.m. showed on the Motor Sales clock that hung on a solid wall leading into the kitchen, we sat staring down at an inch of beans lying at the bottom of the second tub.

Grandfather came home early because he said he hadn’t sold anything except a handful of auto parts that day.

“Well,” he said to my Grandmother, who had finally decided to check on us, “do you need help canning these beans?” He gave us an evil grin.

My brother and I looked at one another and stood up, then left the porch, letting the screen door bang behind us and not looking back at the inch of beans on the bottom of the second tub.

“Fifty cents between you,” he called after us. ‘You didn’t finish the job.”

We sat under the pear tree in the side yard until dark when Grandfather came out to look for us.

“I shelled the rest,” he said. “And I paid myself twenty-five cents for finishing the job for you.” He didn’t bother to smile and turned to go inside where my grandmother was waiting supper on us. I heard him saying something about being a good Baptist and to remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard to my grandmother, who mumbled the words “proof texting.” I went to bed early, my heart filled with spite…and my stomach gnawing with hunger…but not for butter beans.

Paul ended up thanking him, but I quit going down to Motor Sales in the afternoons where I had worked the adding machine, pretending I was selling cars for my grandfather. I no longer wanted to be a businesswoman. It seemed like business people skimmed the best off the bottom of the tub and cheated the ones who did all the labor.

However, three years later, when I broke my front tooth playing croquet on my grandparent’s side lawn and Grandfather Paul had to witness me squirming in a dentist’s chair, he gave me $25 to spend on whatever I liked… and I didn’t have to perform any tasks to earn the money.  

But I have trouble digesting butter beans to this day, especially speckled ones.
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