Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Great Pickled Bean Experiment

First.  Let me be, well, just crystal clear about something.  I do not like pickled beans.  I don't like pickled corn or pickled peppers, either.  However, my husband's family likes all that stuff.  My father-in-law has consistently "set a churn" of Hungarian wax peppers every fall for at least the last 39 years, because that's how long Larry and I have been married.  One of my first memories of being at the Estep house is of Larry offering me a carrot from a crock of hot peppers.  When I resisted, he said, "Go on.  Taste it.  It's not that hot."  It was that hot.  Cracking hot as I remember and very, very salty.  I can't remember a time when I saw Larry's uncle from California that he didn't ask me if I knew how to make pickled beans.  No, no, I do not know how to make pickled beans, but Larry has talked for 39 years about how his grandmother made salt brine pickled beans in jars, not a crock, and how good they were.

Oddly enough my neighbor, just this week, asked me if I knew how to make pickled beans.  We had a long discussion about it.  He recounted memories of eating beans straight from the crock; I told him about Larry's grandma.  But I wasn't able to help him with making pickled beans.

I relate to a story I read on the internet in which a woman said the first time she had pickled beans, she quietly scraped them off her plate into the garbage after the meal because she thought they were spoiled, and she was embarrassed to bring it up in front of her hosts.  That's the way I feel about pickled corn, which I have made.  It really, really stinks.

Recently I signed up for a service on the internet that allows the user to search and view copies of old newspapers, some dating back to the 1600s.  I've been scouring over those pages, looking mostly for obituaries but eager to read any stories that relate to family members.  As I searched, I found many "hits" for Bessie Estep in the Charleston Gazette.  It seems that she liked to read a column called, "Tell Dottie", in which readers could ask questions about housekeeping and cooking, and other readers responded with answers.  Bessie liked this column a lot.

I found recipes she sent in for pea salad, milkshake pie, and stuffed pork chops.  Then, as if a light shone from heaven, the flickering screen of the computer revealed Bessie Estep's recipe for pickled beans.

"There are two primary ways for pickling beans, and we want to thank Mrs. Ruth McCray of Corley, Mrs. Pearl Wills of Madison, Mrs. Gypsie Vance of Spencer, Mrs. Bessie Estep of Powellton, Mrs. Owen D. Fields of Gandeeville, Mrs. Martha E. Miller of Danville, Mrs. Mack Green of Chesapeake and Mrs. Sarah Hatcher of Charleston for sharing their recipes with our readers.

The first method requires only one step and is quite simple.  The beans should be strung, cleaned, broken and washed as for table use.  Cover with water; bring to a boil and cook for 30 minutes.  Drain thoroughly; wash several times in cold water and let stand until completely cold.  Pack in sterile quart jars; put one tablespoon coarse salt on top and fill with cold water.  Seal tightly; let stand six weeks in cool place.  The beans will be ready to eat at that time."  The Charleston Gazette, p. 29, July 1, 1971.  The article goes on to describe another method using vinegar and salt in jars and yet another method using salt brine in a stone jar.

Larry confirmed that his grandma didn't use vinegar, and she didn't use a crock, so this has to be how she made her pickled beans.  "Are you going to make some of these," he asked.  "I don't like pickled beans," I responded.  "But I do!!," he said.

So this morning I was cooking beans at 7:30 a.m. so they would cool enough to put in the jars by 9:00 a.m. or so.  Things went as well as can be expected.  Other than accidentally sticking three of my fingers in scalding water, there were no major incidents to report.  It didn't take me long to get my fingers out of the boiling water.  Then came the big question.  The "recipe" doesn't say whether the jars should be sealed in a boiling water bath.

Cooked or not cooked?  Can you tell the difference?
You see, people have not always been so careful about canning procedures.  As my neighbor related this week, the canning was done in open tubs out in the yard over a wood fire.  And I'm familiar with canning food by heating the lids or other double-secret canning processes that are not exactly legit anymore.

I ended up with four quarts of pickled beans.  As I was "fooling" with one of the jars, it made that lovely pinging sound and sealed.  Did that mean that all of the jars should seal?  I discussed this with Larry, and he said yes, he thought the jars should seal before we set them away in that cool place for six weeks.  I said that each jar was like a little stone crock.  Corn and peppers set to pickle in a crock aren't sealed, and they last for a long, long time once they've properly fermented.  Does "seal tightly" in the recipe mean the jars should seal?  Should I cook them in a boiling water bath to seal?  It seems to me, I said, that the heat from the cooking might destroy the natural pickling process that would take place.

As things ended up, two of the jars sealed on their own, uncooked.  I turned on the stove and cooked the other two jars in a boiling water bath.  They sealed.  I labeled those two jars "Cooked".  Being of a scientific bent, I will now observe the four jars and note the difference in the product of each of the two types of processing.  I looked on the calendar, and six weeks from today is October 4.  I simply wrote "beans" on that date in pencil.

On October 4 the results of the experiment will be finalized.  A major problem will be that I can't tell the difference in spoiled beans and pickled beans.

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