Jenifer’s Journal: Bupkes

There is very little difference between magic and art…the ultimate art of magic is to create something from nothing.— Alan Moore

For the benefit of the uninitiated, “bupkes” is Yiddish for “beans” —denotatively, anyway.  The connotation of “bupkes,” however, is well, “nothing,” “nada,” “zero,” “zilch.”  What did beans ever do, or not do, to deserve such a naughty reputation when they are, in fact, colorful, ubiquitous, nutritious and, many would say, delicious. Their negative image is no more strongly perpetuated than in that old saw, “It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

In his book, “World Wide Words,” Michael Quinon discusses beans’ history of being thought worthless, and then turns to that very phrase: “The original sense of hill of beans was literal. For example, a book on rural affairs by one J.J. Thomas dated around 1858 used it in describing how to grow lima beans … It would seem that this is the origin of the phrase, and that it was then applied figuratively to the illogical idea that if one bean was worthless, a whole hill of them would be even more so.”

However, in a display of the best bean-magic since Jack swapped his cow, two intrepid Island prestidigitators, Tom and Lisa Hashagen, and their “cast (and crew) of 100’s” are transforming the much-maligned bean into a star. On behalf of the Shelter Island Historical Society, Tom and Lisa have written and are producing and directing their original musical, “Hill of Beans”, starring not just any beans, mind you, but the aforementioned lima beans — until now, arguably, the most abominated beans of them all.

Recently I asked this creative couple, both now-retired teachers but “forever” musicians and singers, just how, with all the Technicolor topics available from this Island’s rich history,  they came to light on the lowly lima. Apparently, Nanette Lawrenson, the Society’s executive director, had originally asked Lisa to develop a nice, festive program highlighting Island Christmases through the ages. Apparently, material was scarce on that subject so, aided by the society’s archivist, Rachel Lucas, Lisa explored other, more (pardon the expression) fertile fields.

They finally located the late Pat Schillingburg’s history of “The Beanery,”an ill-fated attempt by 10 Island farmers in the early 1950’s to form a co-op that would cover all aspects of lima bean production, from planting to plate. Not only did Lisa recognize several of the names woven throughout the Beanery’s brief history, she was reminded of stories from her Island childhood, rumors about strange occurrences having to do with that short-lived enterprise,like the poisonous leeching fields that all Island children were warned against straying into. 

Coincidentally, she had just finished a songwriting workshop at the Southampton Performing Arts Center where she’d received kudos regarding her knack for narrative songwriting.  Abracadabra, what might’ve been a mere footnote on page 273 to some, became a “Beans on Broadway” inspiration for Lisa and Tom, though he claims it took some initial “arm-twisting” to convince him to collaborate on the project. Actually, it’s that very “collaboration,”not only with one another, but with all the people who have volunteered to participate, that they claim is the creative secret sauce fueling this whole grand experiment. 

Full disclosure: Not only am I a cast member with a small role, who can attest to the levels of energy and exhilaration that are increasing with every rehearsal but, it turns out, I’m also an historic artifact. (Had to happen sometime, I guess.)  As we rehearsed, I realized, with dawning horror, that the raging hurricane that provides the climactic event in the show is, in fact 1954’s Hurricane Carol which, as an 8-year-old, I lived through with my brothers out there on Silver Beach.

To think, the next day, while my dad made “Hurricane Stew” from any foodstuffs not already liquefying in our warming refrigerator, and my brother Jon and I navigated our bikes around fallen trees and huge branches to stare awestruck at the choppy waters that had eaten up the beach and were lapping gently over the top of the landing bulkhead, that those 10 hapless farmers were, at that very same moment, surveying the ruins of their great experiment. By the way, maybe I should’ve given a “spoiler alert,” but trust me, the audience is in store for the best storm recreation since Dorothy’s tornado hit the school gymnasium in 1990.

The performances will be Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 23 through 25 at 5:30 p.m. outside at the Haven’s House.

For ticket information go to shelterislandhistorical.org 

Hey, after this, bupkes may become the new bitcoin because suddenly what amounts to a “hill of beans” seems considerable. We all may be “has-beans” on July 26, but it will have bean worth it.

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