SUMMERSVILLE — Lou Maiuri reached through the leaves, picked a plump green bean off the vine and snapped it in half without even really looking at it, because after all these years, he knows exactly what to do.
“These Logan Giants, they’ll still be green inside, and they got a big bean inside, a good size and a real good flavor,” he said.
He finally glanced down at the grass-colored pod that filled his aging hand, and the oversized seed inside.
“You see how big that is?” he asked, with a sense of satisfaction. “You get the best of both worlds with a Logan Giant.”
At 90 years of age, between tending the patch of land behind his house, Lou still calls the occasional square dance, and still offers clogging lessons that have gained him a foothold at dance competitions and Vandalia Gatherings for decades.
And he talks about the beans like they’re his babies — the Logan Giants and their slightly slimmer siblings, the Fat Horse beans. In the same way parents of twins and triplets can tell their kids apart when no one else can, Lou can rattle off their distinctive qualities from memory.
It’s all in the look and the feel and, of course, the taste, he said.
“The hull on the Fat Horse bean is a little bit rough. It has a little bit of a rough feeling to it,” he said.
The giants have a slicker, shinier casing and a nuttier flavor.
It’s as if he’s been planting and picking, canning and eating these very beans for half his life.
And in a way, he has.
It all started about 40, 45 years ago, though he remembers it all as if it were yesterday.
“This lady was taking clogging lessons from me. ... And of course people that raise gardens, they talk back and forth, you know. And she was telling me about these beans, this Fat Horse bean,” he said.
The Fat Horse variety was prominent in Roane County —- still is.
“And she said she’d give me a start off of ’em. She was gonna give me some seeds that I could plant.”
The lady handed over 16 precious seeds. Seeds, it turned out, that had been handed down in her family for maybe 40, 45 years ... so, give or take a few years, they date back to roughly 1928, the same year Lou was born. But he scoffs at any notion of sentimental attachment to the taste of his childhood and family memories.
The Fat Horse, he insists, is just a good bean.
He took those 16 seeds and planted them the following spring. When they sprouted and grew that summer, he harvested the crop — and saved more seeds for the following year.
He’s followed this pattern every year since then.
Every. Single. Year.
Almost the exact same thing happened with the Logan Giants.
“I ate some of them one time. A friend of mine had some in a jar that he canned and I ate some and I really liked ’em,” he said.
Later, “I was talking to somebody in Marmet ... and she said she knew somebody that had a Logan Giant bean, and so he gave me some seeds.”
Well. What really happened is, he traded some Fat Horse seeds for some Logan Giant seeds. Seems it was a good deal for both parties.
Old-timers, he said, would put them in a coffee can or a container that would keep them dry until the following spring.
“Long as they kept ’em alive in a dry place and they didn’t mold” they would be just fine. But today, “you put ’em in the freezer and they’ll last forever,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Lou grows more than beans — though, arguably, they’re his favorite.
Whipping up a homegrown lunch of corn, tomatoes and potatoes fresh from the garden for his wife of 68 years and a couple of lucky visitors, he joked, “I should’ve cooked some green beans, but I didn’t want to spoil you — I might never get rid of you.”
He’s been growing his own garden for 70 years now. It’s been that long since he’s bought a potato at the grocery store. Is it easier, and actually a bit cheaper, to just buy a can of this or a can of that? Sure, he said.
But trying to describe the difference between homegrown and store-bought, he is at a rare loss for words.
“There’s just no comparison,” he finally said.
And he thinks of all the places on earth where eating anything at all is a struggle.
“I sit at this table many times and I think, ‘You know, there’s people in this world, you’d have to be a king to eat like this, in some of these third-world countries. And people that raise their own food eat like this every day and have done it for years.”
Lou Maiuri is among a dwindling number of seed savers in West Virginia, in Appalachia, on small farms and hillside communities around the world. Wherever they are, most seed savers tend a smallish crop on a compact plot of land, growing enough for themselves and their families and friends, passing on the flavors of the generations that have come before them.
Commercialized seed production and hybrid varieties that can be mass-produced on hundreds of acres have taken over much of the process. As many of the seed savers age and pass on, there is concern that some of those unique varieties will be lost forever — that our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the greats that follow will be stuck with blander, more generic crops.
But there is a significant effort underway in West Virginia and beyond to preserve those flavors for future generations. Next Sunday: a look at the movement to save the seeds of history.