IT'S EASY TO BE TERRIFIED OF SPIDERS and dizzying heights and getting lost in a guano-filled cave, but it takes a certain neurotic genius, I submit, to be brought to clammy fear by the genus Phaseolus, that leguminous plant species commonly known as the lima bean.
My lima bean phobia dates back to a family dinner in my very early youth. That greasy little veggie looked to me like some slippery bivalve from under the sea, of an unhealthy gray-green color at that, and was therefore almost certain to be just as strange-tasting.
Still, I might have managed to choke my portion down as I obediently did the fried liver and other disgusting substances that every kid must learn to live with, were it not for the emotional vortex in which I was first forced to deal with the challenge of the lima bean. That dinner was presided over by my father, just home for the weekend from his job a hundred miles away in Toronto. Our attendance was mandatory, in the way of a roll call. But as we kids dutifully assembled in our places at the dining table, my oldest brother, Mike, was missing.
This threw my father, never exactly serene, into a rage. Half an hour later Mike finally straggled in from whatever diversion had warped his sense of time. Dad banished him from the dinner table amid a fusillade of threats and general contumely, followed by the sickening silence that always settles over the scene of a public execution. I stared down, head bowed, at my plate, and sublimated my roiling emotions onto my lima beans.
Mastodons in the root cellar, fire, heartburn 40,000 years before Pepto-Bismol—primitive man had much to be afraid of. But primitive man probably never came face to face with an ominous kidney-shaped legume. If he had, I bet he'd have developed a fluttery stomach and a desire to flee the vicinity, like me. After all these decades, a lima bean has never passed my lips. But I know what they taste like, without ever having tasted one. They taste like fear.