There are few Willamette Valley (and SW Washington) baby boomers who don’t have a story about picking berries and [string] beans in the agricultural fields of the region.
Back in the day, we’d get up at the crack of dawn, with a sack lunch (including a Shasta brand soda that mom froze overnight so it would thaw, yet still be cold for our lunch time in the field) and dungarees and head to a street corner to wait for the school bus loaded with our friends to pick us up and shuttle us to the field.
Whereas some stalwart kids did it summer after summer, I recall doing it only one summer — that of the year prior to going into 7th grade.
My two-year younger sister and I would go together to wait for the bus. I recall for the strawberry bus, the incentive was that if you didn’t miss a day there would be a trip an hour north to Portland for a day of thrills at the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park (now a strip mall). There was one day when we missed our bus and we were struck by fear at the thought that we may not be able to go on the fun trip. I remember running like the wind (my sister with her long legs setting the pace, and me the short, non-athletic one doing my best to keep up) to a stop east of ours that we thought we could make. And we did — which also meant that we did get to go on the outing to Portland, that is still etched in my mind.
I was not a huge fan of the picking, really. I didn’t care for the dirtiness, I wasn’t all that fast, it was hot, there were spiders and other bugs as you sat on the ground and scooted along the rows of strawberries. There would be berry fights and plenty that went in our mouths instead of the hallocks.
Bean picking then was a bit better, because you could stand and pick from the poles that the green beans snaked upward on. The difference in our heights worked to my sister’s and my advantage. We’d work a row together and she’d get the upper beans while I picked the lower ones. You’d fill a bucket and then dump it into a burlap bag, that once filled you’d lug to the scale to get it weighed. The weight would be punched into a card and the card was used to determine how many pounds you picked and hence what you would be paid.
The pay wasn’t particularly lucrative, but it was some pocket change that came in handy at back to school time.
Being kids though, our attention spans were short and the picking got boring pretty quickly. Hence the games we made up to make the chore more tolerable. My favorite was the “champ’een bean” contest. As you were picking, if you came across a seemingly pliable bean with a curve to it, you could challenge a fellow picker to a competition. The beans were then intertwined in a kind of “u” shape and then holding both ends, you would pull on your bean, in hopes of causing the competitor’s bean to break in half. The bean that remained was the reigning champion (champ’een) and would then be the bean that all comers would then challenge, until eventually it broke and a new champ’een was crowned. It was quite a feat to have the best bean that survived more than half a dozen competitions.
I was thinking about the bean picking days today when I picked up some fresh green beans at the local Farmer’s Market this morning. I didn’t really check to see if there was a potential “champ’een” among them, but I’m steaming them now with center cut bacon and sweet onion (as pictured above) and imagine they will be delicious!