Homegrown: Making Dilly beans on a fall day

An annual ritual between friends.

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Laura Wainwright's freshly pickled dilly beans. – Stacey Rupolo

I get out of the car, lean on my crutches, and scan my friend Martha’s garden. Even in late September the white rose snugging the house is flowering, and bees hover over the late asters. Continuing carefully across the small lawn, I open the sliding door and enter her sunroom. Martha welcomes me with a tender hug and helps me navigate the one stair. I sink into the waiting chair. This short journey, one of my first, has required more than I expected.

A cluster of dill beans from a Mason jar in the center of the table, the pods heavy with seed. I lean over, pick one, crush it with my fingers and inhale. The earthy smell brings tears to my eyes. Here we are, once again, in my friend’s cozy kitchen, about to do something we love. We’ve had a tradition of making dilly beans together for half a decade or more.

Martha and I are neighbors, but we became close walking. Some winters she’s needed my nudge to get out. Plenty of times I’ve relied on her call. In 2013, the year I turned 60, I trained for a pilgrimage walk across Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and Martha was my walking buddy. That spring we took long-distance hikes all across the Island, from Chappy to Aquinnah. For both of us, being outside in all weather and seasons, paying attention to birds, animals, and trees, brings us back to the most solid parts of ourselves.

I’m not walking now. In early August we rented our house and went to New Hampshire to stay with friends. The first afternoon, our young yellow Lab Rose and I took a long walk and then swam together across a small pond. She bounded out of the water and began racing back and forth along a narrow path at full speed. By the time I thought, “She could knock me down,” it had already happened. That moment of joy fractured my tibia and tore a ligament. To heal, I’d need to stay off the leg for at least five weeks. It’s been challenging, but I’ve finally read all 800 pages of “Middlemarch,” and I’ve made it to Martha’s.

“Deb picked these this morning,” Martha says, emptying a big paper bag of haricots verts onto the table. We’d gotten lucky. We knew our friend Debby Farber had planted a last late crop of haricots verts in mid-August, but the final crop doesn’t always make it. The tall pile of deep green beans is sumptuous. I bite into one. It’s crisp and juicy.

“This tastes like afternoon sun on a summer day,” I say, mouth still full. “She’s outdone herself.” I hand a few beans to Martha. We eat.

“There’s a reason Deb is so well known for her beans,” Martha says, handing me a knife.

We go to work. Martha sets a huge pot of water on to boil to sterilize the jars, and begins measuring the ingredients for the brine. At the table, I stem the beans, and put them in a large stainless steel colander, making sure the thin ends point in the same direction. The recipe we use comes from a friend of Martha’s, and we follow it exactly. There is easy chatter back and forth, as we discuss the ratio of beans to brine.

When the beans are all prepared, I peel the garlic. The dry casing slides off easily. The plump clove inside is white and firm. Like the dill, it grew in Martha’s garden. I smile, remembering my mother’s adage — many hands make light work. It’s true. The kitchen is filled with the tangy smell of simmering dill seed, garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar; the jars are hot; the beans, garlic, and dill are ready.

Martha joins me at the table. We put two cloves of brined garlic and two sprigs of dill seed into each warm jar, and then add the raw beans. It takes time and patience to fill each jar, but we are in no hurry. Straight and thin, the beans pack well. We stuff as many beans into a jar as we think possible, then we squeeze in a few more. Today’s three pounds of beans end up filling 11 jars: five each, and one as a thank-you gift for Deb.

After the jars are all packed, Martha ladles hot brine into each one right up to the top. I put on the lids and close the metal bands tight. Ten more minutes of processing in the hot-water bath, and the jars of dilly beans are lined up on the counter. They look beautiful. As we listen for the satisfying click that means the seal is secure, we agree we’ll open the first jar of dilly beans when we always do — on Thanksgiving Day with our families, two months from now.

After the last lid clicks, I reach for the crutches, steady myself, and rise to go. Two months for the beans to pickle. Two months to get back on my feet. After Thanksgiving, if all goes well, I hope Martha and I will chat about this year’s dilly beans as we stroll beside Duarte’s Pond or walk the path to Lambert’s Cove Beach.