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.
-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 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 to add. 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 cookery world. I was taught that salt toughens beans, 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 or 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.