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April 9, 2013


     We may not have lived in the smallest house in that spare, little town, but it was close enough; a tar-papered, rolled roofinged model elderly and leaning even then.  On the trip down to bury my father awhile ago, my first visit in a couple of decades, I noticed that someone had torn it down and thought that that job didn’t take very long.
     It was one bedroom though a large closet or small storage room had been fitted with narrow bunk beds for my brother and me. There was no plumbing and we used an outhouse, bathed in tin tubs, but it did have electric run in and a gas heater hitched to a tank outside.  On cold nights the little heater couldn’t manage to heat all of even such a small place and my brother and I and the dog all slept on the folding-out sofa in the living room.  
     Our living situation was certainly sorry, but it was nothing unusual to the area.  Our next door, uphill neighbor (in that part of Arkansas everything is either up or down hill) was Little Mary, an elderly lady; she seemed Biblical to me then, who was a dumpling of a woman in a ground-length dress whose conversation consisted of descriptions of past surgeries and who lived with her husband in what had once been the town store.  The settled in with their few effects among the store fixtures and never did clean them out as if sitting beside the empty glass cases helped them remember a time when somebody had some business to tend to.
     I don’t remember thinking of us as poor although we were one of the families that received Christmas packages from the church, hunters dropped off packages of venison and other game because they “had more than they could use,” and when Dad made a deal with a farmer to buy a pig for butchering the price quoted was as much charity as commerce.
     The only standout thing about my family was that our poverty stemmed from my father being crippled instead of drunken or disinclined.
     In every other way we pretty much like everybody else, especially in how we ate; chicken and pork mainly when it came to meat.  Beef rarely and then only the cheapest cuts, hamburger for goulash and chili.  In those days if I smelled roast beef I knew I was at my grandmother’s as it was only at her house that we had a Sunday roast.  And beans of course.
     White beans-they may have been the little Navies or Great Northerns…I don’t know.  We called all white beans Navy beans  and pintos and reds plus kidney, limas and butter beans, though those last two taste off to me and I don’t really consider them beans.  I’m sort of middle ground on kidneys.
     we ate a lot of beans, beans with a little meat for flavoring and bread.  In our case mostly white Wonderbread because my dear mother, for all her other qualities, was no baker and there was a Wonderbread bakery in town where you could load up cheaply on day old loafs.  Sometimes corn bread and biscuits, but this, again, was usually at my grandma’s.  She was a tough woman who preferred man’s work, only kept house because somebody had to and was an indifferent cook, but she had the bakers’ touch.
     Surviving a bean fed childhood affects people differently.  My brother, five years older than I, will no longer contemplate a bean.  As soon as he left home he swore off legumes and, as far as I know, has kept that pledge with perfect fidelity.
     I love them.  I don’t serve them every meal for fear of familial rebellion, but often enough that when I rattle off the supper menu to my son ending it with the phrase “and beans,” he replies, “Of course.”
     Pintos are my mainstay followed by reds and then whites.  If my life was ordered as I’d like it, there would always be a kettle of pintos simmering, Texas style, at the back of the stove and another pot soaking for tomorrow, but it’s not and I usually find myself throwing a meal together in scarce moments cadged reluctantly from other needful activities so I rely heavily on canned beans, shameful as that is to the true beaneater.  Most of my recipes begin with beans from the can.  If you have the time I most urgently encourage you to start with dry beans cooked the regular way with a little fatback and patience.  But that we lived in more patient times.


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