Monday, March 14, 2011

Spilling the Beans

Eat your green beans, our parents always told us. Also known as string beans or snap beans, and in England as runner beans, they can be beans of almost any variety together with their unripe pods. “String beans,” so-called because of the fibrous quality of the pods, were referred to as early as 1754, “snap beans” (from the sound made when they are broken in pieces for cooking) in 1770, “green beans” in 1842, and “runner beans” (high-climbing scarlet runners) not until 1882.  At least that’s what Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary would have us believe.

Stringless beans (and we’re all grateful for them) were developed in 1894 in Le Roy, New York, by Calvin Keeney, who is forever enshrined in posterity’s memory (well, someone’s memory) as “The Father of the Stringless Bean.”

The French term haricots verts (“green beans”) usually refers to a longer, thinner bean than the typical American kind. These beans provided the name for the rowdy Cajun musical genre known as zydeco.  One of the earliest numbers in that up-tempo, accordion-based style was called “Les haricots sont pas salés,” which means “The beans aren’t salty”—implying the singer was too poor to afford salt pork to cook with his beans.  Zydeco is a corruption of les haricots, as pronounced in Cajun French.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows what it is to have no salt for his beans.  It’s rough, as he tells us in these lines:

            The green beans have no grain of salt,
            The lox has not one caper,
            The whisky isn’t single-malt,
            The food has lost its sapor.

            The artichokes lack Hollandaise,
            The champagne has no bubbles,
            The steak’s bereft of Bordelaise,
            Such culinary troubles!

            The pâté de foie gras’s not fat,
            The truffles aren’t mature,
            The lobster tastes a lot like sprat—
            It’s awful being poor!

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