I just took the big pan of cornbread out of the oven---my first real step in cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I DID “can” the string beans back in the summer---we got ten pounds at the Farm Market, and had one mess the first night---mess being the Southern quantity word for a batch or pile or big bowl or platter of something good from the kitchen---cooked low with chopped onion fried a bit first, in a little oil and the fat that was rendering from a big chunk of grilled ham from the freezer.
They were a wonder-of-wonders---too much wordplay---but they are Kentucky Wonders, brought back from down South by our favorite vendor. We took all he had of the lovely lush deepgreen beans---flat ones, about halfway between an Italian bean and the round little sprigs which hang fruitful on the short “bush-bean” plants and are the standard-and-only in most markets.
And there’s a world of difference in taste, and even in the aroma of cooking beans which seeps from beneath the pot-lid. The true, real depth of the old-fashioned, down-home flavor is a just reward for all the work---tilling and planting, the hoeing and the staking, getting those tall pole teepees just right, the running and looping of the string, and then helping train all those tender little seeking tendrils as they grow toward the sky---all worth the effort, for a bowl of those wonderful beans. Then there's the seeking---moving the great loops of vine and leaf to get at all the hanging treasures beneath and inside the hidden depths, all the way to the top.
Except for the mere seeding and waiting for the blooms and beans, there’s really no virtue in the bush beans---they seem to come from the vine with that tin-can tang of metal-in-the-mouth. And lots of times they go to mush in the pot before the bright is gone. We like them stir-fried with garlic and oil, quickly tossed into the almost-smoking wok and stirred quickly as they sizzle the mist of oil droplets up to land in quick peppering pinpricks all over your unshielded hands. With a little anointing of sesame oil and soy sauce, that’s a special dish, turned out quick and hot onto the platter, eaten with greedy fingers like fried potatoes---still crisp and green inside, hot and rich and salty without.
But a Thanksgiving pot of Kentucky Wonders---that’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Southern Table. (Fried Chicken, ‘Nanna Puddin,’ and Devilled Eggs the other givens---the final three are a matter of taste and cooking and What Mama Made Best). Ours will be cooked LOW on Thursday morning, with a bowl of one-curl-peeled tiny pink potatoes waiting in cold water. When the beans have cooked for perhaps an hour-and-a-half, filling the house with that Summer-in-a-mouthful scent of ham and cooked onion and those incomparable beans, the little potatoes will be nestled atop, showered with a bit of sea salt, covered tight, and left to cook soft and sumptuous in the steam beneath the lid.
My friend Keetha at WRITE KUDZU has a phrase for good Southern cooking---she says with some things, some occasions, you have to “Cook Like You Mean It.” I understand perfectly what she’s saying---you put your best efforts into the work, for a dish which is above the usual, whether it’s a pan of cornbread, turned out crusty and hot from the old black skillet, or a painstakingly-baked- and-constructed Red Velvet Cake, glowing proud on the best cut-glass stand.
Whether it’s a new dish or all the old Family Favorites---Thanksgiving is a time to Cook Like You Mean It.