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.