Of Mice and Men…and beans

beansFriendships are forged over cans of baked beans. Well, some are forged, and some are rekindled. In George and Lennie’s last little piece of Paradise in Chapter One of Of Mice and Men, the two friends sure up the bonds of brotherhood over cans of beans:

“[George] drove his knife through the top of one of the bean cans, sawed out the top and passed the can to Lennie. Then he opened a second can. From his side pocket he brought out two spoons and passed one of them to Lennie.

“They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans and chewed mightily. A few beans slipped out of the side of Lennie’s mouth. George gestured with his spoon. ‘What you gonna say tomorrow when the boss asks you questions?’

“Lennie stopped chewing and swallowed. His face was concentrated. ‘I…I ain’t gonna…say a word.’

“‘Good boy! That’s fine, Lennie! Maybe you’re gettin’ better. When we get the coupla acres I can let you tend the rabbits all right. ‘Specially if you remember as good as that.’

“Lennie choked with pride. ‘I can remember,’ he said.”

So much meaning in one can of beans. In Steinbeck’s hands, the shared meal represents a fleeting moment of comfort and camaraderie, even as the beans dribbling from Lennie’s mouth convey the fragility of George and Lennie’s dream. With each escaping bean, can’t you feel the friends’ shared vision of a little plot of land slipping from their grasp? Tragic. But as is typical in Steinbeck, hope and heartbreak go hand-in-hand in this passage. Over food and full bellies, anything still seems possible.

Are beans a meal that magically binds us? I didn’t know about George and Lennie’s repast during an ill-fated camping trip the summer before seventh grade, but I found a similar camaraderie—and hope—over my own can of beans.

We were lost—a dozen of us teenagers and two counselors who weren’t much older. We’d missed the turn-off in the trail, and thunder rumbled in the distance. Being the responsible 18-year-olds that my counselors were, they decided to trespass on an abandoned property and hole up with us in a dilapidated barn until the storm passed.

No one was in a good mood. We were tired after the 14-mile hike the day before, and then a night spent sleeping under relentless, icy rain. Now, we had at least 10 miles back to camp, and only two foodstuffs left: a can of Spam, and two cans of beans.

No one was in a good mood, and no one had the energy to dig through hiking packs for utensils or a can opener. Out came my counselor’s trusty Swiss Army Knife. Like George, she sawed through the tops of the cans of beans in no time. Around they went—each of us digging in with dirty fingers, shoveling beans into our mouths. It was disgusting: the beans cold, and kind of slimy. But something changed between us as the cans circulated. Camaraderie filled the barn. We grinned at each other with messy mouths and laughed at the girl who practically licked the final can clean. By the time the beans were eaten, we’d begun singing camp songs. And when the skies cleared, we went hopefully on our way. Maybe the trail back to camp wasn’t so long after all.

Like George and Lennie, we were naive. But at least we had two cans of beans to fortify us on the endless road home.

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