When I was small, we lived in Fort Collins, Colorado. On summer afternoons, towering black clouds would sweep in. The impending downpour dictated a break, so my parents often made popcorn and lemonade. For a half hour or so, the air was charged with that intoxicating summer-storm smell of ozone, wet cement and grass — the time-to-get-out-of-the-pool-smell.
We spent those cloudbursts together on the couch, watching the lightning through the plate-glass living room windows. There was always a downpour, sometimes golf-ball-sized hail. And then the popcorn ran out and the sun broke through, fiercely golden against the black sky. The earthworms came up for air and the world was new again.
Thirty-five years later, I’m still chasing that quintessential summer feeling like one of those manic idiots that drives his Ford Fiesta into the center of a tornado so he can film it for YouTube.
Invoking the spirit of summer
We all have a precise nexus of tastes and smells that instantly invokes the spirit of summer — a seasonal food ritual that says, We’ve finally arrived.
I asked my friends and family and got a range of answers that showed how personal and specific each person’s sense of summer is. Eating blackberries or Rainier cherries. Making root beer floats. Grilling and day-drinking. For my friend Jeff, it’s drinking water from a garden hose. My cousin Meghan throws watermelons in her pool to bob around until dinnertime, my cousin Jonell makes gazpacho with garden vegetables and my Aunt Jeannie eats “tomatoes. Every way imaginable.”
For my friend Conrad in California, the essence of summer eating is “making a sandwich and taking it to the park.” My friend Wade in Oregon says it’s “a picnic lunch with cold fried chicken and homemade potato salad,” and for my friend Peter in Virginia, it’s “going into the garden to pick beans for supper.”
Of blankets and beans
What’s yours? I have about 30, but I’m a displaced desert rat so many of my ideas about summer cooking are totally unrealistic here in the Land of Eternal Fog. As I write this, my dog and I are snuggled under a blanket and my Beloved is making soup. Nothing about this summer’s chilly weather inspires — or requires — the kind of spontaneous, simple eat-’em-over-the-sink tomato sandwiches, pitcher drinks, supper salads, experimental popsicles and whatever-is-ripe freeform tarts I consumed in Augusts of yore.
There is one quintessentially summery dish that still appeals to me, even in the depths of blustery late summer on the Peninsula. I’ve never come up with a better name than “Summer Salad.” It depends entirely on fresh, ripe tomatoes and tender, flavorful green beans. There’s no cheating — at any other time of year it tastes like something out of a grocery store deli case, but in the summer it’s magic.
And it wouldn’t be possible without the long-forgotten efforts of Calvin Keeney: King of the Stringless Bean.
We all enjoy telling younger people about hardships we’ve endured, if only because there’s a singular pleasure to be had in letting them know they couldn’t possibly understand what it was like.
Here at the dawn of the 21st century, most of us are so accustomed to getting our food at the grocery store that we really can’t wrap our heads around what it was like to endure one of the great scourges of our country’s agrarian past: the dread bean-string.
In the wake of the Civil War, young Calvin Keeney, of LeRoy, New York, joined his father in running a produce stand. By the early 1880s, Keeney had determined to vanquish the string that bisected each green bean shell. According to a 1921 edition of the American Florist (can you believe this used to be a magazine!?), “he conceived the idea that time and patience could be saved and efficiency promoted if the luscious string bean could be induced to grow without the hempen fibers that must be either removed from the pod before the meal, or from the teeth during it.” The same year, E.I. Farrington of the Dearborn Independent wrote, “Everybody knows string beans were very properly named. Formerly, it was always necessary to unwind a snarl of strings in dining on this vegetable.”
Making grandpas proud
Keeney was determined to become the kind of man that Republican grandpas everywhere could cite when lecturing their entitled grandchildren about the value of hard work. And so, the Florist said, “he girded up his overalls and went to work.”
Keeney spent an entire summer crawling on his knees amongst the beans he and his father grew for the purposes of providing seeds to other farmers, looking for pods that had no strings. Whenever he found one, he flagged it.
At the end of that back-breaking season, he had the beginnings of what would eventually change the fortunes of his family and town, and form the backbone of today’s Monsanto empire: a collection of seeds from those special snowflake stringless pods.
He planted those, and for several more seasons, continued reaping and sowing seeds that were increasingly more likely to yield the coveted stringless beans. He introduced his first less-stringy variety in 1884, and by 1911, he had introduced 19 new varieties of snap beans, according to the LeRoy Pennysaver.
Keeney’s invention launched his family into a realm of previously unimagined prosperity. They began acquiring farmland, eventually dedicating more than 6,000 acres to peas and beans. Keeney started warehouses in LeRoy and Cheboygan, Michigan, where women worked long shifts as “bean sorters,” and brought bags of bean seeds home for children to sort for extra cash. Keeney helped found canning, salt and plow companies in Leroy, and became director of a local bank. He bought cattle farms in New York, cotton fields in Mississippi and a lumber enterprise in Ohio.
In 1923, he incorporated all of his holdings and in 1927, merged with several other seed companies to form a company now known as ASGROW. That ultimately became one of the seed companies owned by the controversial agriculture mega-corporation, Monsanto.
Few know his name now, but for a time, Keeney was lauded as a hero.
“The next time there is a distribution of medals among benefactors of the human race, one might as well be pinned on Calvin Keeney,” the Florist opined. “He has done about as much as anyone of his generation to promote the arts of peace.”
It sounds a bit silly now, but back then, it was one of dozens of tedious, back-straining tasks that fell largely to women. Stringed varieties of beans didn’t go away immediately, and my mother and her sisters still remember the misery of preparing them for eating on their grandparents’ Minnesota farm.
“The best job was putting beans in the French slicer which cut them diagonally,” my mother told me. “But Jeannie always — and I mean always — hogged that job by pulling rank as oldest. So I had to pull the stupid strings off. I still hate doing that today.”
“I was just trying to protect you from catching your fingers in the grinder,” my aunt Jeannie replied. “Besides, I hated stringing them.”
It could be argued that by eliminating a time-consuming brain-numbing bit of “women’s work,” Keeney struck a blow for feminism. Or maybe he just gave women more time to churn butter and run laundry through the mangle. I’ll never know, because I don’t have to do any of those things. And if Keeney, who died a very rich man in 1930, were still alive today, I’m sure he’d be glad to tell me I couldn’t possibly understand what it was like.
The whole point of cooking in the dog days of summer is to pick whatever’s ripe, and go through the least number of steps necessary to make it tasty. So feel free to take a bit of artistic license. However, even if you alter the rest of the formula with callous disregard for tradition, do “shock” the beans by immediately moving them from the jacuzzi to the cold-plunge, so to speak. This step makes the difference between sad, brown school lunch beans and the tender-crisp bright green ones that make a person think, “These actually look good!”
• About a pound of ripe green beans
• 2 to 3 very ripe tomatoes or a couple big handfuls of cherry tomatoes. A mix of colors/types is ideal.
• 1 medium mild yellow onion
• About ¼ c. olive oil
• ¼ c. dry-ish white or pink wine, plus more for the cook
• 1 to 2 lemons
• 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard or (not sweet) grainy mustard
• 1 to 2 Tbs. capers
Trim the beans and cut them into 1 to 2-inch pieces.
Either steam them or simmer them in salted water. Check after four minutes, and every two minutes thereafter. Pull them off when they’re just barely tender enough to eat.
Immediately plunk them into a cold ice-water bath, swish around to cool them off, then strain them and shake out as much water as possible. Stick them in the fridge.
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil.
Dice the onion, and toss it in the pan with a sprinkle of salt. Stir occasionally, cooking until the onion is translucent. Pour in the wine, turn the heat to high and cook it off. Set aside.
Dice the tomatoes.
Wash and dry one of the lemons and zest it. Set the zest aside. Squeeze the lemons into a bowl until you have about 1/4 c. of juice. Pick out the seeds, but don’t worry if there’s pulp in there.
Stir in 1 to 2 Tbs. of mustard. Add a pinch of salt.
While stirring with a fork, slowly drizzle in a roughly equal amount of good olive oil.
Put the green beans in a wide, shallow bowl. Spoon the onions over them and spread them out to make a little nest for the tomatoes. Add the tomatoes. Sprinkle the capers (rinse them if you want less salt) and zest over the top. Add a sprinkle of crunchy salt if you have some, and grind on some pepper.