On the second day of Prepping my Prepper gave to me black turtle beans, and a sapling apple tree.
I had this idea for a story. It's kind of a Gregory Macguiresque retelling of the classic story Jack and the Beanstalk, only I don't do fantasy writing well - I'm more of a realist, a la John Steinbeck or Theodore Dreiser. In fact, if had to pick a favorite genre, I'd have to say it's early 20th Century American realism, in particular the Depression Era stories.
So, in my story, Jack and his mother do, indeed, have a cow, and it's wonderful, because they have something that most of their neighbors do not have - milk, enough to drink, to make cheese, and to sell/barter for other goods they do not have. Having the cow is quite a bounty for Jack and his mother.
Unfortunately, those who know anything about milk cows, know that milk cows only give milk for a set period of time (around a year) following the birth of a calf. After that, the cow needs to be impregnated, if one wishes to continue getting milk. If there's no bull, and there's no insemination, that cow is, at best, a lawn mower, or there's the option of making her into meat.
The problem for Jack and his Mom (aside from not having a bull) is that they don't have any way to preserve 500 lbs of beef - at least they aren't up to the chore of butchering and preserving that much meat by themselves, and so Jack is, indeed, tasked with taking the cow into town to see what he can get for her.
And also, like the original story, along the way, he meets a man who offers to trade him some beans, but not just a tiny bag of magic beans. Rather, this man has bags and bags of dried beans of every color and size imaginable. Some, he says, were the food for the Pharoahs of Egypt, some were named after the royal families of Rome, and some, came from wild-eyed natives in a land across the great, wide ocean.
While the fantasy of the origins of the beans may be enough to convince young Jack of the value of the stranger's wares, for the rest of us, there's something pretty remarkable, magical actually, about dried beans.
First, they're edible, and I've made many a fine meal out of dried beans, including the ones I added to last night's chili (or, as I call mine, "Glorified Tomato Soup" ;). According to this article, beans have a long and glorious history as a cultivated crop, dating back to the Bronze Age. It has been a staple in many cultures, including among the indigenous people of North America, and in the Middle Ages, it was the mainstay for European peasants.
Second, the dried bean is also the seed, which means that it can be planted, and it will grow a whole crop of beans. One bean makes one plant and one plant can produce several meals' worth of beans.
So, back to Jack ....
Of course, being a boy, Jack is taken in by this man, who seems more mystery than mortal. Afterall, everyone knows there is no "across the ocean." Nevertheless, Jack is convinced, and a trade is made. Jack takes home two large sacks (about fifty pounds in total) of mixed beans. The man ties the cow to the back of his cart and disappears down the road.
When he arrives home with his sacks, Jack's mother is, as in the original, a little peeved at Jack coming back without the cow, dragging a couple of very heavy sacks of beans. Unfortunately, when he gets to the house, they discover that one of the sacks has a tiny hole, and they've lost half the contents of that sack.
To say Jack's mother is upset is an understatement. She's livid. Not only has Jack brought back peasant food, but he also lost a quarter of it on his way home.
"How will we survive?" she laments.
Still she cooks up a pot of beans for supper, seasoned with some wild herbs Jack forages, and they both go to bed with a belly more full than they've had for weeks.
The next day, Jack takes a couple of handfuls of the colorful beans and plants them outside around the house. It's spring, see, and it's planting time anyway. Jack figures, what the heck, might as well give it a whirl.
He gets very engrossed in the task, planting them according to size and shape, and then, color, and then, he starts making geometric shapes with them around the yard, spirals and stars and circles, making pathways lined with beans, and little rooms, that when the beans grow big and tall, as Jack is sure they will, he can sneak into and enjoy playing at his fantasy games all day, hidden among the greenery.
It doesn't take long for the bean sprouts to start popping up, and a month later the vines are starting to wend their way up the sides of the house, all across the yard, up the fence, and out into the road, threatening to swallow Jack and his mother and their modest cottage in their snaking tendrils. Jack's mother starts to get a little nervous, because their home is beginning to look a bit like a jungle, but then, she notices the pretty little flowers, and all of the neighbors mention how colorful and pretty their formerly drab yard is starting to look. So, she leaves the plants alone.
But they grow, and grow, and grow ...
... and soon, Jack and his mother can no longer see out of the windows, and they have to take care when walking down the pathway from the front door to the road, lest they trod on a snaking vine. Jack is thrilled to note that his beans have created all of the private rooms deep in their vines, just as he hoped.
The summer wanes. Just when Jack and his mother are getting close to the very last of the dried beans that were purchased with the cow, and Jack's mother is ready to box his ears and order him to take an hoe out and hack up the crazy overgrown yard, they notice little green pods all over the vines - everywhere they look.
Jack gets to work picking the beans, but they simply have too many to eat, and the more he picks, the more the plants seem to produce. So, he takes the green beans into town, where he sells them. Every week for the rest of the summer, he sells beans at the market, and again, they have a little money to buy things they can not make themselves.
As the season ends and the bean plants begin to dry and wither, to their horror, Jack and his mother realize one morning that they've neglected to save any beans for themselves. What they did not eat, they sold, and while they have some little bit of money stored, there's not nearly enough for a whole winter.
It was a great year of beans, but now that it's over, Jack is terrified of another lean and hungry winter. He resolves to find a way to remedy the situation, and decides to go into town to look for work, even though he knows there are no jobs, and being just a boy, it's unlikely that anyone will hire him.
He walks slowly, head down, stumbling along, the enormity of their sad plight weighing heavily on his young shoulders, because the reality is that he is, still, just a boy. Tears fill his eyes, and the road gets blurry. He stumbles off the road into the weeds, where he falls into a bunch of dying vines.
They seem familiar.
He hastily brushes the tears from his eyes and looks closely at the plants in which he is sitting. Beans. He's sitting in beans. The seeds from the hole in his bag took root and grew along the side of the road. While he was harvesting and selling (and eating) the plants in his yard, these were growing wild.
He jumps up and starts filling his pockets with dried bean pods. When his pockets are full, he pulls up his shirttail, making a basket and fills it, too, and then, he stumbles home with his treasure, dumps his shirt onto the table, empties his pockets, and grabs a basket to continue his harvest.
The original Jack and the Beanstalk story is a fantasy tale about how Jack gets rich by duping an evil giant, but in my opinion, the real treasure is in the potential a real bean plant offers for security during hard times. Not only are bean plants beautiful (for those more interested in ornamental gardening), but they also produce an amazing food that has an incredibly high nutritional value, and for the prepper-minded, dried beans have a long storage life.
Beans would make an amazing holiday gift. A jar of assorted beans, layered by color, is very pretty. In fact, a jar of bean soup is one of those great home-made holiday gifts. If one wanted to get really fancy with the gift giving, one might add a seed sprouter, maybe a bean pot, and/or a favorite bean recipe.
If one wanted to push the prepper ideal a bit without wanting to be pushy, one could add a set of popsicle sticks/row markers and maybe some seed starting trays, and a suggestion to plant a couple of the beans to "see what happens" :).
When it comes to beans, there's no shortage of creative ways to give them as gifts, and for those family members who aren't prepper-minded, a gift of beans won't seem like an attempt to drag the unconvinced into the craziness. It'll just be a really neat gift.
Beans, beans they're good for the heart,
The more you eat ....