I must have been six or seven when I started to spend most of my summers with my grandparents. They lived in a small town in the centre of France called Varennes-sur-Allier, about 2 hours from Lyon. Like most people in rural France, my grandparents had a vegetable garden. Both of them tended to it, but everyone knew it was one of my grandfather’s greatest prides.
When it came to food and drink, my grandfather never joked around. He cured his own meat, made his own liquor, and had a bunch of chickens. But nothing seemed quite as important as his garden. He would be out by sunrise to water the vegetables before heading out to work, and would come back in the evening to tend to it some more. Weekends were mainly dedicated to more in-depth garden work as well as picking when it was time to harvest what he had grown.
As I got older, he would take me out to the garden on weekends, wicker baskets in hand, to pick out the vegetables for the day. To put things into perspective, my grandfather had a lot of vegetables! Looking out from the top floor of the house, all you could see were two long patches of soil divided by a dusty walking path that led to the chicken coop at the back of the garden. Orderly regiments of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, carrots, zucchinis, eggplants, radishes, cucumbers flanked either side. It was truly fascinating, as a young child, to walk through the garden and see the variety that he grew, out of such little space. But, nothing intrigued me as much as the rows and rows of French beans he grew.
Together, we would sit between the beanstalks where he explained to me how he grew them, took care of them, and how he knew when to pick them. We would then bring them back to the house, where he sat me down on the patio table to show me how to prep them for lunch or dinner. Dividing our mornings harvest into two piles, he made it clear that we should pick off both ends of the beans before throwing them into the “finished” pile. This was to remove those annoying filaments, something both my grandmother and I had a tendency to find often. Together, we spent a good half-hour picking off the ends, racing to see who could finish his pile first. I never won.
My grandfather took me out at every occasion he could. Even when he had to babysit me.
From there, my grandfather would hand over our morning’s work to my grandmother or my mother, who would cook them to perfection. It was this dedication and respect towards food that really captivated me at that age.
Despite being so young, I found that respect for food through my experiences with French beans. But, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how valuable those moments spent with grandfather between the beanstalks would become. My appetite for French beans went beyond the way they tasted and the hard work that went into cultivating them. It’s an experience that shaped a core value that influenced the way I lead my life today — goals take time to accomplish, but they also take hard work to bring them to fruition.
Although I have put a lot of thought into understanding how French beans have played an important role in my approach towards food and life, I cannot disregard the most valuable thing they have given me. The ability to evoke the fondest memories I have of my grandfather through a simple French bean.
One day, I’ll finish my bean pile faster than you Pépé!
Food Story - Sébastien Dubois-Didcock