Time to Spill the Beans

This essay was published Nov. 1 on The Globe and Mail website.

The opening of the 2016 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto will mark 40 years since my father, Lawrence Bostwick, was named the World Soybean Champion for the fifth and final time. He will not enter again. He died in 2000. Furthermore, the Royal no longer has a category for soybeans in their entry guidelines. I think it is safe now for me, his younger daughter, to spill the beans about how he won.

Lawrence was a quiet man with a Grade 8 education, toiling the soil in the boonies near Wheatley, a village in Southwestern Ontario. While he had been the first farmer in our county to grow soybeans, other fellows in the area had started to take turns winning the World Soybean Champion title at the Royal in the 1950s. The attention they got seemed to unearth my father’s competitive instincts. My mother, Irene, was a Grade 9 graduate with ambition at least as high as his. In 1958, they decided to enter soybeans at the Royal, too.

Here is the order of events I recall:

1. My father planted a patch of soybeans near the house.

2. My mother cut them down with clippers once they were ripe. She brought several sheaves at a time onto the enclosed sun porch for shelling. Harvesting by machine would have damaged the beans, making them harder to sort.

3. My mother shelled the crusty pods by hand. Dad helped a little. His hands were already calloused from farming, so this task wasn’t as painful for him as it was for her.

4. My mother used a magnifying glass to sort the beans three times – removing those that were larger or smaller, fatter or thinner, and yellower or whiter than the norm. She also rejected any that were wrinkled or had any other blemishes. Mom’s rigid standards meant she had to shell close to 50 pounds to get the required sample of 10 pounds for the entry. The path from the patch to the porch was well-worn during the few short weeks between the beans’ ripening at the end of September and the Royal’s deadline in late October.

5. My mother used several layers of old nylon stockings to create small drawstring bags for polishing. She put each handful of sorted beans into a bag and rubbed it back and forth rapidly against her thigh until the beans shone. She conscripted Dad to help polish when he came in from milking cows in the evening, too tired to do anything else. She recruited me, as well, whenever I dared come downstairs to take a break from homework.

6. My mother packaged up the sample, filled in the application form, and asked Dad for money to pay the entry fee and postage. Then she drove to the post office in Wheatley to send the whole works off to Toronto for judging. The anxious wait for the results began.

My father won the World Soybean Championship on the first try. The whole family was thrilled. I missed school for a couple of days so we could make the five-hour trek to Toronto to witness the presentation. My sister, attending university there at the time, joined us. Dad got a huge trophy to keep for a year and a sterling silver tray engraved with his name to keep for good. All the newspapers in our area carried stories about his accomplishment, supplied by my mother of course.

He, or should I say they, tried again in 1960 and also in 1963, winning both times. Mom got concerned. They had two daughters. She didn’t want us to fight over their things in the end. There would be no way to divide three trays evenly. She advocated that they enter one more time to have a chance to even things up.

When they won the fourth championship, Mom was dismayed to find that the Royal had started to economize. The engraved tray was silver-plated, not sterling. What to do? They set to work and won again so that one daughter could get two sterling trays and the other could get one sterling and two silver-plated ones.

The win in 1976 marked the last attempt. They’d evened the spoils as best they could. The wall of the farmhouse kitchen, where Mom displayed the trays, was crowded. And she was tired of polishing soybeans – and silver.

I’m glad they stopped at five. Neither my sister nor I enjoy polishing silver. In fact, when we inherited the contents of the farmhouse, we decided, magnanimously, to pass the trays on to our children immediately as mementoes of their farm heritage. I have no intention of asking my kids or my nephew or niece whether they have kept the trays polished. In fact, I have no intention of asking whether they have kept the trays. All of them remember their Grandpa and Grandma Bostwick, clearly and fondly. That is what matters.

The reason the Royal suspended the World Soybean Championship is unknown to me. Maybe changing social values are to blame. Women today can shine in their own right. They have more options than my mother, who knocked off her socks – or, should I say, her nylons – so her husband could win a prize at the Royal. And that, in my mind, is a good thing.

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