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Around the bend: Separating the beans from the chaff

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Posted on September 22, 2011 |
By Jessie Raymond



I work with a good bunch of people, but sometimes I get the feeling they’re a little, well, out of touch.

Last Monday a few of us were standing around the coffee pot chitchatting about how we had spent our respective weekends.

“I went to my daughter’s soccer game Saturday,” said one person.

“My wife and I went out to dinner Friday night,” said another.

“I spent Sunday afternoon winnowing my beans,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee.

Everyone blinked at me — but not before glancing at each other.

“You know, winnowing,” I said. “Throwing my dried beans in the air to get rid of the chaff.”

More blinking.

Had I said something odd?

“I grew beans for drying,” I said slowly. “I pulled the vines after the pods had started to turn yellow. Then I let them dry for a couple of weeks. Then Sunday, I dragged the vines into the yard and banged them around in a big plastic barrel in the yard until all the beans got knocked out of the dried pods — ”

Somebody said, “Wait, you stood outside with a pile of bean vines and smacked them around inside a trash can in broad daylight? Did anyone see you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I kind of had to cover the top with my body to keep the beans from flying out. It worked pretty well but there were still a lot of dried leaves and things mixed in with the beans. So then I threw the beans in the air and let the wind carry off the other stuff. It’s called winnowing, or at least it is when you do it with wheat.”

They looked at me as if I had been the only person in Addison County winnowing beans last weekend. I guess these people don’t get out much.

“You really tossed beans in the air?” one girl said.

“Well, actually, the tossing got a little out of control. So then I put the beans in a bowl, held the bowl high in the air, and slowly poured the beans back into the barrel a few times.”

I looked around at the faces. Not a winnower in the bunch.

Finally, someone said, “Why don’t you just buy beans?”

The others nodded in shared anti-winnowing sentiment.

“For the obvious reasons,” I said. “Beans are good for your garden soil and for your health. You can use them in soups all winter, they come in all kinds of pretty colors and patterns and look all ‘Country Living’ in Mason jars on the pantry shelf, and they’re delicious and easy to grow.

“The real question is,” I continued, glaring reproachfully around me, “why don’t you all grow beans yourself?”

Here, I anticipated a dramatic pause, during which the assembled group would see how empty their winnowless weekends had been to this point. But the pause was cut short by a smart aleck who said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because I can buy a pound of dried beans for a dollar?”

Laughter ensued.

Sometimes I wonder how I work with these people. Don’t they get it? You can’t put a price on eking your own meager supply of food out of the earth. It’s supposed to be grueling and impractical; that’s what makes it so satisfying.

I can’t argue with my colleagues: Store-bought beans are cheap and convenient. But since when are saving money and time important factors in a person’s food choices?

Normal people, like you, understand the value in knowing the provenance of their food. When I eat a bowl of homemade sausage, bean and kale soup in the middle of the winter, it brings me back to spring, when I saw the first bean tendril breaking through the concrete crust of our clay soil. I watered and weeded those vines all summer; I beat those vines in a barrel; and I threw those beans in the air. Those beans and I have a history together.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with store-bought beans, except they’re so impersonal. Beans with which I have no emotional connection just don’t taste the same.

It seems statistically improbable to me that I’d end up in a job where I’m the only person who has ever thrown beans in the air. I’m relieved to know at least my readers are more worldly.

Which reminds me: Have you seen the forecast for the weekend? If it doesn’t rain it’s going to be perfect winnowing weather, people. Let’s get it done.

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