Life Can Be So Sweet — & Sour — When You Pickle Beans With Your Lively Grandma

I had wanted the headline to be “Getting Pickled With Grandma,” but the editors balked at that line.

“I need to get home to give my hostages some water,” my grandmother announces nonchalantly over dinner.
Heads turn, and the coffee-drinkers at Ma Gooch’s cafe in Cleveland fall silent and scratch their heads. However, Myrtle West is not a terrorist; what she means is “hostas,” the flowers she lovingly tends. She has a gift — a genius, really — for malapropism, for mixing up words and syllables in ways that end up more interesting, if not more macabre, than intended.
I like to think of her as the Appalachian-Gothic version of Yogi Berra.
So I am not alarmed when she tells me, “I checked the picture of that man with his guts hanging out, and now’s the time to pickle beans.” She is referring to the anatomical diagram in the Farmer’s Almanac, which maps out the custom of “planting by the signs,” a complex astrological system that applies to preservation, as well germination, of crops.
If you’re going to pickle beans, you need to wait for the moon to circulate through the extremities — the arms, legs, even the neck. Once it moves into the guts of the torso, forget about it. Dire things happen during those periods. Smelly, ill-starred, viscous gunk will ferment instead of the artfully tart, briny delicacies that ease an upset stomach months after the harvest.
So we begin the process: stringing and boiling the beans.
Normally my grandmother uses her in-laws’ legumes, gangly “white half-runners” from seeds that boast a century-old lineage. However, today she is using produce from Jaemor’s market, which she, to the consternation of the store clerks, calls “J.Lo’s.” She likes her beans straight; I prefer them tempered with the sweetness of corn, and she defers, as always, to what someone else wants. So we layer beans with corn and salt, over and over, in a voluminous, hand-turned Georgia-clay churn, which also is more than one hundred years old. My grandmother’s mother, and her mother, stored similar essentials in it. That history alone is enough, for me, to sanctify a vessel. I am happy, though, that it is not a quaint museum relic. For the moment, this churn is just another implement in everyday use.
As we work, I picture my grandmother as a young girl, the reputed belle of the county, another homegrown Ava Gardner, more delectable than any farm-fresh produce, with her Cherokee ancestry showing in her black hair and sepia skin — features I always have coveted. How she unassumingly bewitched my rounder of a grandpa who had seen it all!
At 90, Myrtle West remains one of those genetically blessed beauties, a head-turner among the leathery widower-veterans at the American Legion Hall. She knows how to work a room, as well as how to pickle beans. I feel vaguely inadequate as a female just now, but grateful nonetheless, as I watch the sure, sweeping movements of her forearms.
“You need to learn these things,” she says, giving me one of her meaningful nods, “ because who else will?”

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2 thoughts on “Life Can Be So Sweet — & Sour — When You Pickle Beans With Your Lively Grandma

  1. Brilliant, as usual, C.
    My grandmother’s churn is out in the garage. You and Miz Myrtle have inspired me to dust it off and put it to use. Any beans left at J. Lo’s?

  2. Joe Wiercinski says:

    The crocks for dill pickles that I remember from the ’50s wouldn’t have had the lengthy family history that Miz Myrtle’s churn has. My guess is that my parents bought their crocks shortly after buying the farm in the ’40s and before my father died in 1952. I saw them during pickling season only a few times but that was enough to watch in fascination the layering of cucumbers, dill and garlic over grape leaves on the bottom ( I think) and grape leaves over the top. Women’s hands packed the crocks and weighted the brined mass with a plate and a scrubbed stone to keep the pickles submerged during fermentation in the cellar. How we anticipated the day of the first taste! I don’t remember whether I ate my first one with relish (ahem) or some trepidation which is more likely from the very young boy that I was. What is certain is that the pickles tasted good to me, then and now I still smell the pickly aroma of that long ago day as I gaze on it fondly in my mind’s eye. This very day, I packed tiny cucumbers from my vines in a jar of brine to ferment with tarragon, garlic, cracked peppercorns and mustardseed because I’ve learned to be curious about other tastes like cornichons but memory is the reason I make pickles at all instead of buying them at a store. Of course the first ones, last week, were packed in dill but sans grape leaves at the suggestion of more modern picklers. Maybe I’ll used grape leaves in the next batch for the sake of tradition. God bless Myrtle and Josephine, my Polish grandmother addressed only as Babci (grandmother) by all 14 of her grandchildren.

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