Many years ago, before the old Soviet Union imploded upon itself, I spent a day interviewing a gentleman from Russia, a school teacher, who had temporarily come to the United States on a cultural exchange program and made the fateful decision not to go back to the USSR.
He somehow eluded the Soviet security agents assigned to watch him, and got away. All of a sudden he was an American, walking the streets with no home, no job and only the cash he had in his billfold. After many, many phone calls he located a third cousin in Birmingham who agreed to share his small apartment with the new emigree until he could figure out what to do next.
The cousin’s apartment was within walking distance of a Winn-Dixie, so the next evening the former Russian walked over there to buy some food. What he found at the supermarket was like nothing he had ever seen or imagined.
“Just inside the front door was an aisle, 50 feet long,” he told me, “and both sides of it were piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, and you could get any amount of them you wanted. I started to cry, and it made me embarrassed, so I left without buying anything, that day.”
Every year, about this time, I think of the Russian gentleman and of the great English phrase, “an embarrassment of riches” — as in, my life is so good that it embarrasses me even to talk about it.
Unthinkable amounts of beautiful, succulent food are springing up out of the earth, thanks to the wisdom, gift and grit of farmers, and miraculously it all comes to be marketed in produce stands, near us, where we can buy all of it we want.
Well, not ALL of it that we want. We have to pick and choose.
If I had a big enough truck and a huge bank account, for example — and knew how to can and freeze stuff — I would say, “Yes, please give me a big basket of each, and I’ll worry about what to do with it when I get home.” So, lacking those resources, I have to pick and choose.
Peaches and melons and tomatoes are always at the top of the decision tree, because they are available year-round but are only at their peak of perfection for a few brief weeks, depending on the rainfall, lack thereof, temperature, etc., of the farming communities in our immediate region.
Next down the must-buy list, for me, are squash and beans. Squash run a close second, because they grow for a longer time and are somewhat more plentiful than beans. (I have a great recipe for Zucchini Bread, but that’s a different story.)
The main question about beans, at my age and advanced degree of wrist-and-finger osteo-arthritis, is “But, are they shelled?”
Amazingly, at places like Jolly Cholly’s Little Giant Market in Sumiton, the answer is “yes.” Speckled butterbeans, cranberry beans, black-eyed peas, field peas and the list goes on, are available in little plastic bags. And the staff there is kind enough to remind you, “These are really fresh and tender, so you have to be careful not to cook them as long as dry beans. Do you use pork rind or bacon grease?” Bacon grease, ma’am, and thank you very much for the reminder. Freshly shelled beans with just a touch of bacon grease are as close to heaven as I ever hope to get, in this life. Actually, I’m almost embarrassed even to talk about this miraculous bounty. Except that Ernest Hemingway once wrote a book called “A Moveable Feast,” so at least there’s a macho outlet for such sentiment.
Sometimes we eat this wonderful stuff in the kitchen, sometimes in the dining room, sometimes in the bedroom and sometimes in the patio out back. But I never eat it without thinking of the gentleman from Russia and wishing him the best in my thoughts and prayers.
I would bet you money he’s learned to season with bacon grease, and not to cook fresh beans too long.
God bless America. And farmers. And us all.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 p.m. on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.