22 June 2020

Sort The Beans, Free The Mind*

The passage of years can change a person’s opinions on most anything. So it came to pass on the subject of beans. That shift was a long time coming. Beans were an infrequent visitor to the tables of my younger days. Kidney beans sometimes joined us under cover of chili. Bean soup brought navy beans or their kin. I do remember enjoying those dishes, even though I have no clear memories of the taste of those beans. They were never considered with the same enthusiasm reserved for fried chicken or spaghetti with meatballs or my mother’s (via her mother) potato salad. Those dishes made me happy to see them on the table at dinnertime.

Not so with the beans. Have you ever made pleasant small talk on an elevator, or in line at the grocery store? Beans seemed the gustatory equivalent of that chatter: it made the encounter enjoyable but unlikely in the long run to take up residence in the warehouse of imagination. Beans were okay but my palate focused its attention on the matrices that supported them. Matrices of salty broth or spicy sauce. In fairness, the household of my youth was no hotbed of bean culture. The olla of Mexico, the bean pot of New England, these were strangers to our kitchen. It was simply a pot. Cans were the delivery method. Such reality explained my long belief that little was to be done with beans.

The years would prove me wrong. Happily, happily wrong.

In terms of taste memory, the first major shift in thinking was triggered by a dish that was neither chili nor navy bean soup. It was refried beans. Where I had them is lost to the mists of history. The effect on my palate was not. Beans, simple and good. Another door opened in the mind’s kitchen. I finally had an inkling of the possibilities inherent in a food that, to date had not captured the imagination. Eating beans ceased being incidental and became a purposeful activity. True discovery began.

True discovery requires commitment. Commitment eluded me at first. Bean possibilities were unearthed but not pursued. The acquisition of new knowledge, in my mind, appeared low in relation to its costs. Consequently, enlightenment was slow. I recognized the laziness in myself. It carried with it a faint, sour whiff of prejudice: that beans were still too humble to take seriously. Later in life, this would be a source of culinary shame.

The second major shift in my thinking occurred after an encounter with charro beans. It was in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. The name of that establishment escapes me now, but the charros? They delivered a heartfelt (bellyfelt?) message. Swimming in a spicy broth laced with chorizo and jalapeno chilies, these beans were well-made, delicious, an exemplar of the style (as I later discovered). That happy congruency of place and food would lay in my subconscious for decades. Curiosity took the reins to lead an on-again, off-again relationship with beans.

Fast forward about a baker’s dozen set of years. Curiosity reawakened. I embarked on a research program that has lasted into the present day. I was, as Thoreau put it in Walden, “determined to know beans.”

Thoreau also posed a great question, asking “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” One of the most important lessons for me also took the longest to sink in. The lesson was of the time involved to respectfully cook beans. While cooking beans at a basic level is simple, time and attention are key to crafting a good pot. A hard head and impatience kept me from properly fulfilling those criteria. Consequently, excellence in beans constantly hovered just out of reach. Serendipity leant a hand one fateful Saturday afternoon. Circumstances conspired to push me. In my pantry were pinto beans. On the clock, there was plenty time. Fortune favored my hunger in that onions, garlic, and dried chilies were on hand, too. All the earmarks of good, basic pot beans. Cooking them slowly was not a conscious decision on my part, but it was meant to be that day.

Dozing off in a chair certainly contributed to the slowness. The heat was down very low. Everything simmered undisturbed while I slumbered.

It is grand to awaken to a home redolent of the good earth. What a blessing we should all have! The pot, low on water, needed a good stirring. If the color and aroma were any indication, dinner that night was going to be good. Really good. The pintos did not disappoint. I reckoned it was the best pot of beans I ever had the good luck to cook. I finally understood the importance of time as an ingredient. The lesson sank in. I know it is true because in some subsequent batches of beans when I succumbed to impatience, the quality suffered. The mistakes get eaten, though, because so far mediocre beans have always been better than no beans. Time plus patience equals goodness.

Time investment in cooking is not the sole arbiter of goodness. Time investment also extends to the prepping of the beans before they even grace the pot. Sorting, rinsing, and soaking the beans are all key steps. They may not have as much say in the taste of the beans but they have high gravity in deriving satisfaction from the process. I did not understand this until relatively recently, much to my chagrin. It was not that those things were not done, it was that I was blind to their value in creating a flow state of cooking. A state where even the so-called drudgery of such actions is performed mindfully, with focus, and knowing they all give energy to a savory, satisfactory outcome.

So it came to be. Sorting is now a favorite part of the process, one to look forward to rather than sighing at with impatience. Sorting serves the practical need to check for pebbles, dirt, and other interlopers. It has the spiritual value of a simple thing, done well, from love.

Sorting, as with many things in life, is not immune to bias, benign or otherwise. This truth I did not understand until earlier this year. Prior to that revelation my sorting had diligently followed the prevailing wisdoms and voices I trusted. Ridding one’s beans of pebbles and dirt is, and always will be, sound advice for anyone determined to know beans. But the voices went further. They urged me to check all the beans carefully. Be on the lookout for the floaters, the shriveled that surely would not cook right. Discard the fragments, the cracked-skinned ones, to stave off the uncertain sin of mediocre taste. I did, faithfully.

Too faithfully, perhaps. Faith serves as an anchor in many things, but it often short circuits the ability, or desire, to ask questions. It was not that some of what I was advised to follow was without merit, it was that I had never asked why, conceptually, I should follow it without considering what it meant to me as a cook. Perhaps I sorted too diligently. Pebbles and dirt were out, no doubt there. With such concentrated scrutiny, I considered every odd fleck, every off color, or broken bean to be suspect and therefore not worthy of consideration. Doubt fed the fear that if such oddities were not removed the bean pot would be embarrassed and sullied, slightly shamed to cook such a mess.

In my ego-besotted cook’s mind, such interlopers would not be tolerated. I did not spare the rod when it came to removal. A lot of beans and fragments thereof went into the rubbish bin.

Continuance of this state of affairs was a given, maybe, if the dual-headed beast of Disease and Brutality had not slipped its leash to threaten the world. “Sorting the beans” took on a new dimension. A soft clicking as they pour onto a towel, with cool, glass-like tactility greeting the palm and fingers. In the soft light of a spring morning these sensations became meditation. A prayer, of sorts, for some respite from daily waves of selfishness, hatred, and death.

They are called cranberry beans, these beans that turned on the light. I was sorting them for an overnight soak. In my palm fell a half-bean, split right down the middle. I made to put it in the discard pile. Doing so, it landed skin side up. Looking at it from the other side, as I did, it was hard to tell it was only half. I nudged the other pieces, wondering where the problem lay.

That’s when I knew. There was no problem with what amounted to was another spoonful of beans. Over the years I had willfully thrown away mouthfuls, to my detriment, and disrespecting that which would nourish me. The half-piece and its neighbors went back in the keeper pile. The next day, the pot cooked up nice and fed three people for dinner. The pieces, well, they belonged.

Not everything falls among the shapely or comely that we have been led to believe are the only recipients worthy of our attention and affection. Misshapen, broken, or simply just different, they are all beans. Be kind when you sort them. Each has a story to tell. Welcome them. The pot is all the better for having listened.

*Writing this piece began in April of this year. Two months ago seems a lifetime now. The world overtook it by events, changing the tone, direction, and length I set out to write. I hope it speaks to you the way it did to me.

10 May 2020

She Took Me to Communion

The day my Mama died she took me to communion. I was eating, as we do when a loved one dies and we do not know what else to do. I was standing in the kitchen, the taste of potato salad a ghostly presence in my mouth.

The chalice was a stainless-steel pot clutched in my shaky hands. There was no wine. The blood of Christ manifesting as a soothing pool of pot likker holding a mess of collard greens. If the kitchen can be said to shelter and sustain, then this one was church. I could see it overlaid on my sore eyes. She was sitting at the organ, absorbed, smiling. For fifty-one years, she had played it for the church she grew up in.

The voice called, summoning us to the rail. I worried that we had no bread. She was unconcerned.

My shadow had not crossed the threshold of a church to worship in more years than I could recall. Yet to be there, that was the important thing. The kitchen ceiling raised up. Becoming warm wood, the cross on a wall of brick. Without knowing it, I knelt. The pot was too heavy for its size. I lifted the warm metal to my lips. Salt and iron. Green intensity as wine soothing the gullet. The taste of such a thing revealed to me the meaning of the term “soul food.” I drank, thirsty and grateful and knowing that we were loved.

I would no longer have the blessing of sharing that love with her as we gathered around the table that evening. I did know this: She slipped away peacefully. That is a blessing few of us receive. Far from home, tears trickled down into the greens upon my plate. I ate in a bit of funeral silence except for her voice whispering to me that someday we will all be home, and we can take communion.

18 April 2020

Memento M(ug)ori

I woke up this morning, but unlike Jim Morrison at the roadhouse, I did not get myself a beer. Instead, I had coffee. Smarter choice, that. Pandemics may change the rules. It is reasonable to assume that does not mean open containers on a morning drive are suddenly okay. I will admit that the thought of surveillance video showing me swigging on a forty while getting my cash made me laugh. Safe bet that would end up on the internet in no time. Andy Warhol whispered “fifteen minutes” in my ear. Tempting? Yes. Smart? No. The drive to the bank would be dry like Moore County.

Dry from alcohol, that is. Coffee was a different matter. My usual morning beverage of choice is black tea. Today the gray and drizzle made a persuasive case for a cup of strong black comfort, so I poured it. I like the sound of demerara sugar sliding off a spoon. Sweetness like gentle rain. A few slow sips are the ballast to the chop of the morning. I set a spell, savoring, then poured the remainder into a travel mug for the short drive. Stepping onto the porch I felt breeze on my skin, cool air filling my lungs. A round little wren perched on the worn wood fence. It cocked its head to peer at me with consternation. I tried to show I was no cause for alarm. The bird, like me, understood caution as a motivator. It flitted off to join some cousins in the shrubs across the street. 

Leaving the neighborhood for only the second time in a month felt like an overdue vacation. The weather was less than sprightly, a mottled silver-gray sky letting go a soft drizzle. Hands on the steering wheel shone like Wedgwood china. Nitrile has a way of catching the eye and troubling the skin. At least it would save me some time in the teller machine line. Funny how a touchscreen could be the stuff of bad dreams these days. Literally could be a case of your money or your life. Or is it your money now, your life later?

That thought troubled me only a little as I drove, mask dangling from the rearview and swaying gently. The blue and white cotton seemed muted compared to the nitrile. Putting it now felt like wrapping my face in fear. Anxiety and prudence slugged it out behind my eyes. Anxiety was putting up a good fight, but I sensed prudence planning a knockout once I had to open the window. Mama hadn’t raised no fool. The mask would be worn.

I was in a mood, as the kids say these days. When in a mood music is a frequent accompaniment to the noise in my head. Today was no different. I had plugged my phone into the tuner, set to play on an album that had recently caught my attention. The music was from 1995. Memory of it had bobbed up from the dark water of mind a short time ago. It played in my head incessantly until I gave in and bought it. The album unspooled through the speakers to land on my favorite song1. Alone in the car, the volume upped to borderline discomfort, I sang along loudly and badly. The steering wheel morphed into an impromptu drum kit. Bass thrummed through the seat. I could feel the crunch of power chords in my mouth. It was good.

I was alone at the drive thru teller, too. A good thing in the face of the pandemic. I looped the mask strings over my ears. The touchscreen presented itself with corporate anonymity overlaid with distrust. There was no accounting for how many hands may have touched it before my arrival, nor for any cleaning that may have been done. I rolled down the window. The card slid silently into the slot. My blue left hand typed its way through all the screens. I wondered all that time over probabilities, disease vectors, and low-level fears. The sound of the bills extruding from the machine was surprisingly cheerful. I took the money and ran.

Driving home I had the song on repeat. The volume a little louder, the singing a little more amped up. That coffee graced my gullet, sips taken with gusto between stanzas. The drive back home seemed a little less fraught. The landscape was a little less threatening. I did something I had not done in ages once I pulled up to the curb in front of my house. I put the car in park to finish listening to the song. Volume down some, of course. I had no desire to annoy the neighbors. The song faded out. I finished the last of the coffee. My eyes teared up at the sight. This mug was a gift from my daughter years ago, adorned with artwork of her creation. What it lacked in technical brilliance it more than made up for in exuberance, in wonder. It shone in the pearly light. The mood stirred again. I absorbed the colors of the mug. It came to me that if I am blessed to be treated like a pharaoh when I depart this mortal coil, this mug is coming with me into the afterlife. It has to, holding as it does a piece of my troubled heart.

1For the curious, the song was “Stars” by Hum. It is in heavy rotation.

28 February 2020

The Emperors' New Sandwich

The crowd goes wild over a pop queen movie star getting her costume jacket back from some dude who bought it an auction. Isn’t he a sweet man? Yeah, it was for a good cause, raising money for a cancer charity. That’s nice. No offense to her but why the need for headlines? Can’t do something nice without a shot of celebrity attention? Something is messed up, willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on vanity. Let’s hope they won’t scream too loud when asked to put something fair towards the common good. Ah, who are we kidding, they will howl like someone stole their SUV.

Turn up the volume on whatever is crammed into our ears. Irrigate the nostrils with mist reeking of donut glaze or cotton candy. Anything to drown out the noise and reek that are the side effects of wrecking the planet. Distraction for the senses as parts of the world literally go up in smoke, while the so-called leaders take vacations or go golfing on the backs of working people who are killing themselves to survive. Breathe in, all you mad kings, you soulless bastards, and stop using precious oxygen attacking youngsters who want a planet on which we can live. But what’s that you say? Bitches already gave you yo money? So they can step off, to die in wildfires or hurricanes while you get fat in your bunkers? Yeah, no surprise there.

Breathe in the smoke. Shelter in place under the radiant parasol of the night sky. Marvel at days brighter and hotter than they have ever been. Sirens? What sirens? The rulers of 330 million separate empires plug their ears against the din. Pupils dilated by legal speed, twitching eyes struggling to focus on the latest commercials. Corporate shills hawking the promise of fast-food nirvana. Press lever, receive drug. Repeat, while the goddamn palaces burn down around their ears. The emperors chew loudly to drown out the voices of the abused, the oppressed, the melanin-rich but power-poor. Chicken sandwiches, man. Fuck you if you get in the way of their chicken sandwiches. Courtiers shrug when someone dies fighting over goddamned sandwiches. The emperors continue to gorge on Death, golden brown and delicious.

28 January 2020

You Cannot Evade the Knife

Never reach into foam and water through which you cannot see. Basic kitchen procedure. Familiarity begets imprudence disguised as confidence. The hands think they know what they are doing. They reach, swirling the water. Erstwhile Moses parts the sea of bubbles. Soft light over the sink limning the long blade in a nacreous glow. The left hand grabs the haft, the right a scrub brush. No offerings are made to the gods of good luck. A distracted mind is heedless. The blade turns. Swift as a viper, it lodges itself in a hapless fingertip. Kitchen air turns blue with invective in the midst of a desperate grab for a paper towel. A move to swathe the finger is put on pause by the sight of blood, bright spatters against the dull gray metal. Crimson on stainless steel is a morbid beauty, spots dotting the bowl like the bright eyes of tarantulas. The heart slows while wrapping the finger in gauze. Regret brings a newfound commitment to carefulness.

Caution is a blanket that keeps us warm. It is heavy, warm, and comforting. Such a blanket is also an imperfect armor against the knife. No amount of caution exempts us from the surprise phone call that shatters the mundanity of chores at the end of the day. A loved one has died, says the terse voice on the line. No warning, no indication, no clues this would happen. The blade finds the chink. Hot steel between the ribs and a choked shout. The pain sears. Every nerve in the body feels the edge drag as it parts the flesh. On the far side of agony, the mind boggles at the depth to which this knife can sink. The soul has not yet been quantified, but surely the blade cannot match its infinite depth. The truth is that the hilt eventually meets the torso. It is of cold comfort to survive long enough to feel it sink no further.

The razor edge evisceration of an ordinary day can be swift and savage. It is simple like nuclear fission to be shattered by trust become dust. Home from work, in a fog of fatigue, the mind cannot process unfamiliar shoes in the foyer. An open door reveals the truth. Eyes do not lie. Someone you thought you knew lies entwined with a stranger. Breathing now becomes a luxury as the blade moves up and into the heart.

The knife can make your greatest fear come true by separating you from that which you hold dearest. At the moment of cleaving this fact manifests like diamonds, clear and true. It is knowledge truly gained the hard way. It may be a slow build up to swift, blinding horror. Watching a child die is to have the knife pierce the breastbone up to the hilt, poison coursing along the blade to announce its presence with agony. To see it happen to a second child is to experience death by proxy. The body, the mind, both consumed by volcanic pain while holding the knowledge the child you love is insensible to it. Insensible to everything. Mercifully, perhaps. Machine noises fade into silence as the doctors and nurses turn off the equipment. Screens go dark. The knife remains with its point between the shoulder blades. The hilt is cold against the chest. In the coming darkness, one can contemplate kinship with butterflies pinned against cork under tired fluorescent lights.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” is a great sound bite but a feeble palliative with blood welling up in the cut, bright as roses. Fear grows from the soil of memory, it is broken terrain watered by blood and pain. Fear latches tight the door to life, keeping us out of the kitchen. There is no shame in wanting to keep the door shut, but survival has its own imperative. Obeisance to it makes life possible. The kitchen cannot be ignored. It is a source of critical energy even when the air is thick with fear. This is the paradox that must be overcome.

The knife will cut you. This is a fact of existence. Now, later, somewhere on the continuum, it will happen. Believing that the knife can forever be evaded is dangerous self-deception, and serves to amplify the pain when the blade finally finds purchase in the flesh. Self-deception is understandable. No one willingly wants to experience pain that threatens life. But surviving pain sometimes requires picking up the knife to increase our chances to live long enough to remain alive because we know something. This is deep knowledge, and it is useful. Embrace it. You cannot evade the knife, but with knowledge you can master it, and resume your rightful place in the kitchen.