A Place for Food, Family & Friends
July 9th, 2012
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The summer I graduated from high school, I left home with Van. We climbed into my gold Jeep the day after commencement and headed west. My dad was reluctant, sure I was making a wrong turn. We fought about it a lot in the months leading up to graduation. He wanted me to start college right away, but I was 17 and the whole world was on the other end of that cross-country ride.
Van and I spent most of the summer in Boulder, Colorado with a houseload of deadheads who hung around making gazpacho and getting stoned and watching their saltwater fish tank. Van’s boyfriend, Joe, lived there between Dead tours, and they let us crash whenever.
It was a sweltering summer and we were outside as much as possible. We would finish up a day-long hike, take a nap by the river, then climb barefoot into whatever ragtag vehicle was on hand and drive countless hours to various music festivals and Dead shows.
One June day, we pulled up to a campsite outside of Sandstone Amphitheater in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Rolling into our spot, we ground to a dry, croaky stop. Van hopped out and walked across the grassy field to find Joe. I gathered a few things, and was going to roam and find friends, but as I closed the back gate of the Jeep, a smoky, garlicky smell kindled a different need in me. It was the kind of smell that permeates the outdoors, making an ill-defined spot in the woods seem like a homey cottage. I peeked at the campsite next to ours, and saw a man stirring a big enameled pot with a wooden spoon.
He was shaggy, but muscular with no shirt. He held devil sticks tucked under the arm that wasn’t stirring, and his eyes were content in a way I had not seen in many of the restless, searching people around. A four-year-old boy circled him with a toy airplane.
His big camping pot teetered over a fire pit, and when he put the spoon down, he plopped onto a Mexican blanket at his feet and grabbed the boy, tickling him. That’s when he noticed me standing there. He smiled. The air was heavy with the pungent smell of campfire mixed with an earthy, heady aroma of garlic and beans. I smiled back.
The boy walked over to me.
“We were soaking the beans in the night,” he said. “In the other night tomorrow.”
“Last night?” I asked.
He grabbed my hand and walked me over.
Their tent was neat and small. Ripped up jeans and mini-sized t-shirts hung over a makeshift clothesline. The boy had big, brown, delighted eyes and he jubilantly relayed their whole cooking process to me. They had slept in two sleeping bags with the pot of beans pushed safely to the corner of the tent until morning, at which time, the boy—Xaviar was his name—helped his dad (John?) drain the beans, and they threw them back in the pot, covered them with fresh water, smashed a few cloves of garlic and added salt. Then they sat back to wait for the pot to boil and they played kites or frisbee or hacky sack while the beans cooked. They went over to stir them together once in a while.
As the afternoon teetered on, others straggled into their circle, drawn in either by the smell or by the child.
After about an hour, maybe more, John finally scooped out a bowl of beans and handed it to Xaviar, then to anyone hanging around who wanted some. He handed me a tin bowl that had a big dent on the side. The beans were salty and warm, creamy in the simple, intoxicating broth they had made for themselves. I missed home a little, but in the way that home is sometimes an elusive place inside of yourself that you long to access.
Someone ran up with a plate. He’d heard someone was giving out beans and he was hungry. John spooned some out for him while Xaviar finished the last bite in his bowl and handed it back to John.
“Hey brother,” the voice came from behind me. I put my spoon down and swiveled around. “Is this your kid?”
It seemed that a few people sitting in the circle around John and Xaviar’s camp were wondering the same thing. People got quiet. It seemed, for a second, John didn’t know what to say.
“He’s his own kid, man.” John laughed. “I just get to hang out with him for a while.”
My own dad and I were in the midst of one of our steepest lessons about autonomy and the importance of untethered familial bonds. This father and son pair seemed to master something we were just beginning to grasp.
I wish there were some way to thank John (if John was in fact, even his name) for the two important things I learned that lazy summer afternoon in a grassy lot in Kansas. I would thank him, first, for teaching me the patience and simplicity it takes to make a great pot of beans. Also, intertwined with every bubbling pot of cannelinis or black beans or kidneys I put on the table for my family is a reminder of another lesson I absorbed that day: We’re our own people, we just get to hang out here for a while.
Tips for making a great pot of beans
- Any kind of dried beans
- -It's good if you can soak your beans at least 4 hours ahead of cooking them. I often do this overnight, but have also been known to throw a pound of white beans under water first thing in the morning. If you forget to soak, you can always do a quick-soak method where you put your beans in a pot, cover with about 2 inches of water, and bring to a rolling boil. At that point, turn the heat off and cover them for an hour. Drain and use as you would any other soaked bean.
- -I was lucky enough to learn a little bean cookery from a well-respected chef of Northern Italian heritage, and his best advice was to cook beans in enough water that they have room to dance. You don't want too much water, lest the broth they make will be thin, but you also have to give them enough room to dance.
- -Your beans will dance if, and only IF, you keep the heat at a perfect simmer. What is a perfect simmer, you ask? You have to find it by playing with your stove a little. Keep the heat at a level where the beans are moving, but not too vigorously. Just put on your favorite song, play with the heat a little, and wait for the beans to move. If they look like they're dancing, you've found a perfect simmer.
- -Do not skimp on aromatics, spices or salt. Be creative. I always throw in garlic, no matter what. You can make a perfectly good pot of beans with salt and garlic alone. But a little onion or some parsley stems or a celery rib are good things, too. A touch of cumin or bay leaf or rosemary never hurt. Tamar Adler, in her astoundingly delicious book, Everlasting Meal, says that you can't go wrong with fennel.
- -Let me reiterate the salt thing. Do not forget to salt your beans. This is a hot topic in the riveting bean cooking world. I was taught that salt toughens bean cookery, which has since proven not to be true. Even so, on more superstitious days, I add salt about 20 minutes into cooking time. Either way, don't forget to salt those beans. They'll be bland without salt.
- -No pot of beans is complete without a glug or two of fat. Olive oil and bacon grease are my fats of choice when it comes to cooking beans, but use whatever suits your fancy.
- -If you don't eat all of the beans you've made, store them in their own rich broth. Even if the beans go fast and all you have left is the broth, keep it anyway. This liquid makes a wonderful soup base or something to sop up leftover bread.
June 7th, 2012
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In my house, we set the table last night, as on any given night:
I stand over a boiling pot, checking pasta for doneness when the phone rings. Last minute, I invite neighbors over; they’ll be here in 15 minutes. Deckard asks for a snack and upon hearing for the fourth time that he doesn’t need a snack because we’re about to eat, he runs out the front door to see if friends can play. I call him back in because we’re about to eat. I smell something burning and run back in. Amelia is quietly finishing a note to the fairies, when Deckard runs back in and slams into her chair. They start to argue.
Anticipating a knock-down drag-out, I decide the bread is warmed through enough and call everyone in for dinner. Gregg rushes through one last email. Then one very last email.
Hurriedly, we work to lay out the baby artichokes with buttered pasta. Amelia grabs the shaved fennel and spring carrot sticks, popping one in her mouth on the way to the table. Deckard scatters napkins across the table and Amelia moves them just so. Our friends arrive.
Somehow, we all make our way to the table and start digging in. I look around—really look around—for the first time in hours. The house is a jumbled mess, but this tableful of smiling faces– the people I’m closest to– makes me shrug it off and smile myself. I see them all laughing and stuffing things into their mouths that I had held in my hand’s that very morning at the market. I think about the farmer who raised those artichokes and how he’s such a smart ass. He always makes me smirk. Deckard puts an artichoke to his lips and wrinkles his nose, hands it to me. Our neighbor tells a story about the first time she tried an artichoke. I drift out of the conversation, remembering a certain artichoke on a rainy afternoon in Rome.
Sometimes it’s hard to untangle all these moments of tasting food from the people with whom we dine. As hard as it is to make it happen sometimes, meals are our best reason to slow down with the people around us.
Most of us share tables with a few people. Things happen there. Conversations take place. Deals are worked out. Life persists. Friendships are fabricated. There is hard science that suggests we actually become more social while we are eating. Seriously, our brains strive to connect with other people when we sit down to share a meal.
So, shouldn’t it follow that how we garner and prepare our food reflects how we share time with the people in our lives?
Some people are our rocks and our comforts. Some people delight us in a way that makes us think differently. Some make us laugh. Some people know how to incite adventure. Some thrill us to take a risk. And some do a little of all of this.
For me, mealtimes delight my senses and bring family and friends together. Also, I like to feel the juxtaposition of emptiness and fullness, and to recognize that “full” and “empty” have many layers that have nothing to do with putting food in our bellies, per se, but have everything to do with filling the spaces in our lives and in our days.
I’m thankful for the quotidian indulgence. What is mealtime for you?