BOSTON — 'so! how d'you like my sweet peas?" asks Big Ted. The blustery-voiced Englishman always speaks as if he's competing with a high wind.
I look at heart-shaped leaves and small red flowers brilliant in the sun, and twining vines six feet up poles.
"They look suspiciously like scarlet runner beans to me, Ted. If you sowed sweet peas, you should get your money back."
He doesn't bat an eyelid. "Know when they were planted? June 25."
"That's late," I say. "But they're doing well."
The scarlet-flowered runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus) originated in Mexico, but has become a decidedly British vegetable. Not only are the long flat pods, young and tender, a favorite food, but the plant itself, beguilingly and unassumingly beautiful, is a common sight in our gardening landscape.
Ted has his row as a background screen of foliage and flowers. Runner beans reach 10 feet. That's why they're so happy, grown for their looks, up the side of an old Vermont barn.
But plots like ours don't have high walls. You have to improvise a support. Mine is bamboo canes and horizontal strings, but the canes you can get in this part of the world never exceed eight feet, so my beans waft and flail around like loose hair at the top.
The traditional support is two parallel rows of long tree branches, tepee-angled and bound at the crossing point. But strong, straight branches are difficult to find round here.
Before I arrived, I thought all plotters grew runners. They don't. Billy Fullerton says (as he descends like an avenging vulture on a colony of mare's tails), "I am not a beans man. Don't even like baked beans."
Until last summer, the Macleods' patch was equally runnerless. I had a few plants going to waste, so they took mercy on them. Now they are runner-bean keen, sowing their own in '99.
When this kind of bean was introduced to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was an "ornamental," not for eating. Even today in the United States the idea of eating them is only just catching on. Ashley Miller, in the April/May issue of Taun- ton's Kitchen Gardener, writes with great enthusiasm about growing scarlet runners as vegetables.
She introduces interesting ways of cooking and eating them, but what she doesn't mention is how we eat them in Britain. Unlike Americans, we slice the pods lengthwise, with their baby beans inside, into long tender strips.
Admittedly, doing this with a mere knife is a persnickety skill. But so integral to the British way of life is this vegetable that several kinds of runner-bean slicers are manufactured. Then it's easy.
Beans sometimes find their way into books. Yeats sang: "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree ... nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee...." And Thoreau, devoting an entire chapter to his field of beans ("the length of whose rows, added together," he informs us, "was seven miles....") asks: "What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?"
But what do I, a mere plotter with a single, modest 10-foot row in sunny Glasgow, visualize when I encounter such famous, poetical, and classical beans? Do I think lima, butter, or kidney bean, French or common or fava or broad? Do I think Romano, soy, bush, pole, Campbell's, or Heinz?
Not at all. Whatever Yeats dreamed or Thoreau grew, I think sky-climbing scarlet runner bean. I think quintessential British bean. From Mexico.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society