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Green Beans are Good for Your Heart

Over the years, you've been subjected treated to tales from my garden. We've had posts about tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins (actually two about pumpkins), and corn. Well, not about my corn, but my corn didn't do too well this year. What did well this year was beans. I hadn't grown beans in quite a few years because the rabbits in my old neighborhood loved them. They probably would have enjoyed the beans, but they couldn't wait that long and ate the plants as soon as they sprouted. But the only critters we've seen in the new neighborhood are ducks, geese, and squirrels, and they prefer corn, so we planted two rows of beans this year.

Beans

If you don't have rabbits around, beans are extraordinarily easy to grow. Push a bean a couple inches under the soil, and wait. Well, we enriched the soil thoroughly with compost and horse manure, and drought conditions meant the garden had to be watered often this year, so your mileage may vary. Our beans grew well. By the time this picture was taken in August, they were already starting to look tired. I prefer bush beans so I don't have to build a trellis for vines.

Beans

Check your bean plants often. You can't tell whether you have any to pick until you lift the plant and peek underneath. Then you may be surprised! Still, you must train your eye to see what to pick, as the pods look exactly like the plant stems. Move the plant around to get a look from every angle. You'll get used to it, because you have to pick beans every day. The tastiest beans have not reached full size. Once they are bigger than a #2 pencil, the pods tend to turn tough and lose taste.

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Then comes the snapping part. Wash your beans to remove dust and leaves, then break off the stems and the pointy ends. When I was young, this also involved pulling the "string" from your string beans, usually down both sides of the pod. If you missed a string, the bean would be hard to eat and someone would complain about getting them stuck in their teeth. However, I planted a stringless hybrid (Burpee's tenderpod) so there are no strings attached. Then snap the beans into pieces. Breaking them into smaller pieces, about two inches, makes it easier to fit plenty of beans into a jar. If you're cooking them fresh, you can leave them long or just break them once. There's something very satisfying about hearing the "snap" that reassures you the beans are fresh, firm, and tasty.

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On some canning forum, a newbie asked if she could just line beans up on a cutting board and cut them with a knife. The canner said something like, uh, yes, you can. I thought NO! Don't do that. Not only would it take more time, but it takes the fun out of processing beans. Snapping beans takes me back to my childhood, sitting on the front porch with a bushel or two, helping Grandma break them. It's a mindless but satisfying use of your hands that gives you time to chat or to think. While I broke beans, I thought about how I would write this post.

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Beans can be packed in the jars raw, but they will pack better if you boil them a little first. Put the beans in the jars first without the water, or else you'll end up canning too much water and too few beans. You can burn yourself separating beans from boiling water, so don't hurry.

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After filling the jars, I shake them a little to make the beans settle, then I can get more in each jar. That's when you add salt, a half-teaspoon for each pint. Then pour the cooking water over them, or boiling water if you packed them raw. Leave an inch of "head space" at the top of the jar, to allow for food expansion and the eventual vacuum seal. Add the lids (which have been sitting in boiling water) and screw rings. The actual canning must be done according to the directions that come with your pressure canner, or you can get them online.

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Canning beans require a pressure canner, because they are a low-acid food needing a higher canning temperature than a boiling-water canner can provide. Under pressure, the temperature will go to 240 degrees instead of 212. Pressure canners can be intimidating at first, but when you have all the steps down, it's faster and more pleasant than boiling tons of water. By the way, those spots on the stove aren't stains; they are actual holes worn in the finish.

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Fresh beans cooked with salt pork is a delicious tradition that smells (and tastes) like summer. Grandma used to simmer beans for an hour or two, but Grandma was used to mushy food. Or maybe that recipe came about because they had tough, stringy bean pods. Ten to fifteen minutes is all you need for fresh, tender beans, and most of that time is to get the pork flavor rendered. Serve the beans without the hunks of salt pork (someone at the table might hand them to the dog), but put them back in the leftovers to refrigerate. Your beans will taste even better the next day. Canned beans are cooked, and only need to be warmed up. They won't have the simmered-in pork flavor, but some people add a dash of bacon grease when they heat canned beans.

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After the canning process, let the pressure canner sit until the pressure is all gone before you open it -this will take some time. Remove the jars, which may still boil internally as they sit on your counter. The sight is always a slight freakout. Let the jars cool for several hours before you test the seals (they should be slightly concave, and will not flex if properly sealed). Any jars that aren't properly sealed should be reprocessed, or refrigerated to be eaten soon. I've got five dozen pints and a dozen quarts of beans canned already, and I've cooked or given away almost as many. Giving away beans is a good way to reduce your workload, but if they are going to Grandma, you might want to help her snap them, or even do it for her. And the garden is still producing, although the harvest has slowed down a bit. Those plants are tired by now.

You won't save any money by canning your own green beans. Store-bought beans are fairly cheap, and you don't have to buy jars or a pressure canner. But home-canned produce tastes better, and kids are more likely to eat their vegetables if they helped plant, pick, and snap each bean individually.

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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