Civility and Seven-Bean Soup

“Mind your manners. Being polite never hurt anybody.”

Oh, yeah? I beg to differ.

Some years ago, as a divorced mother of two kids, I began dating a man who was also divorced. Early on, when we were both still trying to impress each other, he invited my kids and me over for dinner at his house. He served us seven-bean soup.
There’s nothing complicated about this stuff. It comes prepackaged with seven kinds of dried beans, including ordinary white beans, a couple of odd-looking varieties with spots, and of course the infamous limas. It has spices and seasonings all tucked up in their own little packet, so all you have to do is dump everything into a pot, add plenty of water, and cook it. It’s an easy meal for a busy single parent.

Mike served up the soup with a flourish, and after the first couple of bites he asked me what I thought.

First of all, I don’t like beans. I eat them on occasion, but even though I know they’re good for me I simply cannot bring myself to appreciate them. The taste is okay; it’s the texture I have trouble with—that mixture of graininess and mush that sort of grows in your mouth until you swallow it. To make matters worse, Mike’s seven-bean soup hadn’t been cooked nearly long enough. Some of the beans were still crunchy, and some of them squeaked horribly between my teeth when I bit into them, and the whole mess hadn’t had a chance to simmer until the flavors blended, which is one of the secrets of good soup, bean or otherwise.

But Mike was looking at me expectantly from the opposite end of the table. He had already made it clear that, as a single dad, he was proud of his cooking ability. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I didn’t want him to be mad at me. I wanted to be polite.
So I gulped down my mouthful of crunchy bean soup and lied through my teeth. “Oh, yes, I like it. It’s really good.”

Meanwhile, my kids were poking their spoons around in their soup and eating crackers. Mike’s son, who must have been used to the stuff, was eating doggedly. And Mike was beaming. His seven-bean soup was a success.

Now all of this might not have mattered a great deal—one bad meal, one polite lie, one batch of peanut butter sandwiches for the kids when we got home. But Mike and I kept dating for a while. Every now and then the kids and I ate dinner at his house. And almost every time he served us seven-bean soup.

Trapped by my own misplaced manners, I had to eat the stuff and pretend I liked it. My kids, more honest than diplomatic, never managed to choke down more than a few bites and gained undeserved reputations as picky eaters.

All I was trying to do with my seven-bean lie, I thought, was be polite. I just wanted to be nice. I thought I was being courteous. Actually, I was just being cowardly. The lie was simply a knee-jerk response to an awkward situation, my way of avoiding any conflict.

Telling the truth wouldn’t have necessarily meant saying, “Yuck!  I wouldn’t feed this swill to a starving stray dog!”  There were several ways I could have been polite and still made my opinion clear. I could have said something like, “Well, I don’t care much for beans, so I’m not much of a judge of bean soup.”  Or maybe, “I really don’t like beans, but for people who do, I’m sure this is really good.”

Instead, I took the coward’s way out—with unpleasant gastronomic consequences. I put my kids as well as myself in the position of repeatedly having to eat something we all hated. I failed to give Mike some information about myself that would have helped us get to know each other better. I even passed up what might have been an opportunity to tell him gently that beans are better when thoroughly cooked. My polite lie, instead of building a bridge between us, put up a barrier.

Because of that barrier, and many others like it, my relationship with Mike didn’t last very long. I missed him a little at first. There were compensations, though. When he disappeared from my life, so did his seven-bean soup.

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