I don't know how most people learn to read. Conventional wisdom says that children can't learn on their own; they've got to have some sort of proper instruction, whether from parents or teachers. I didn't. Though I might've been literate long before, the first empirical proof of my reading abilities came at age 3, courtesy of a can of green beans (though we called 'em string beans) with a picture of an Indian chief on the wrapper.

The label was a classic. Bright yellow with a vivid, full-color painting of a dignified old Indian chief in ceremonial feathered headdress, it spoke equally of hearty goodness and political incorrectness. You just couldn't get Maryland Chief vegetables in the suburbs. I actually looked forward to the weekly trips to my grandparents' southwest Baltimore rowhouse, and one of the reasons was those string beans. It wasn't until several years later that I learned my grandma's secret - she cooked them the country way, just as she learned way back in Ohio, with bacon grease and sweet onions. You can get the same effect with the standard Del Monte product if you use the right recipe, but to me it just wasn't the same.

So there I was, a notoriously precocious three-year old, learning the rudiments of carpentry from my grandfather in his back yard. I could already wield most hand tools properly, and though my dexterity left plenty to be desired, I was working (with a little assistance from Pop) on the construction of a functional wooden table. Well, at least it stood on its own. In any case, he sent me to fetch a large can of nails. I returned, dropped the can exhaustedly (filled with iron, it was probably half my own weight) and began reading aloud from it. Maryland Chief, said I, though I pronounced it "chef." Green beans. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about at the time, but he got excited and took me inside the house. My mother, despite having read to me every evening since before I could walk, had no idea I had developed the skills on my own. For months afterward I would spontaneously read aloud newspaper headlines and food labels in front of company, taking delight in being the center of attention.

I haven't seen any Maryland Chief vegetables in many years. I did a bit of research and found that the brand still exists as the property of Hanover Foods Corporation, a "vertically integrated processor of food products." So it goes. The big boys always swallow up the smaller operators. I'd ask my grandmother for her recipe, but she's in the terminal stages of Alzheimer's Disease and doesn't even know her own name anymore.

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