Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Righteous Pot of Beans

It’s February and I am thinking about the beans left in my basement, a stash that has dwindled down to four and a half pounds. They live in a cellar trove of quince paste, delicata squash and pickles. There is a lonely little jar of rosehip jam from Transylvania which I am reluctant to open for fear that my memories will disappear with the jam.

In December I was rich. I had over twenty pounds of dry beans squirreled away in the basement. They were tucked here and there, including a stash in the kitchen under the flour sack towels. I sneak a peek at them once in a while and admire their perfect beauty. They are money in the bank, like stored fabric, nuts and bolts in the workshop and leftover skeins of yarn. I am greedy to make them last until the next season brings in more. “No way, ain’t gonna happen”. They will become the centerfold of a Sunday supper or a quick Tuesday night dinner.

There are Fava di Carpino and native Oregon Peregion. Small Colorado and Maine yellow eye. Blue Tepary, Jacob’s Cattle, Tongue of Fire, Carioka, Purgatorio, Zolfino, Tarbais, Borlotto Lamon, Black Basque and Turtle. Peruano. Bianchetto. A list worthy of a large lunged opera singer who can cascade a glorious articulation of their names with equality and justice for all.

On generous occasions, I reluctantly pass them on as Christmas gifts and wonder if the recipient can feel the hesitation and strings I have attached to these bags of jewels. Sometimes the gift is greeted with bright eyes and a palatable enthusiasm in anticipation of the flavor, the story embedded in the embryo and the satisfaction of such simple pleasures. They are a just bag of beans worthy of feeding the finest and steeped in history. And they are just a bag of beans, pretty, lowly, simple and good.

I know I can satisfy my need for more. I have friends in the right places. Getting more means visiting the farmer that grows them or the chef that sprinkles them in a rich and salty broth with bitter winter greens. More means to arrange a marriage with fresh bay leaves, sweet winter leeks, and sour cabbage juice. More is to boil them madly on the back burner, furious until they render up their proteins and become soft floating nuggets in a milky broth. Enough is a pot of beans cooked in a broth with a few confetti root vegetables to brighten the grey winter of the North Willamette Valley.

That I can find such soul food without growing it myself is perhaps a miracle of this postmodern urban existence. That I can love the transformation of a dry seed into a beautiful, nourishing and soulful experience is easy to the degree that I can limit my focus when sourcing and cooking these jewels. As I assess my place in the urban environment, the ease with which I greedily acquire ingredients is challenged by my lack of knowledge and naked assumption that the hands that weeded the rows, harvested and thrashed the beans were as cared for as the beans were when they landed in my hands. When my pot contains Chris’ hock, Anthony’s bean, Sheldon’s leek and Mt. Hood’s water, I continue to ponder the transformation of the soil, water and their hard work into my nourishment. This community is with me when I eat and I am nourished by them and spiritually fed by their labors.

Recent and popular efforts to “change the food system” stem from a desire to clean up the significant mess we have made. And yet the campaigns to “grow organic”, “eat local”, and “know where your food comes from” seem vacant and leave me spiritually starved because they pander to the prevailing cultural norm that I can get and do what I want. I can buy my salvation. Somehow it feels hollow when a sensibility is distilled into marketing a behavior change that supports the ease and thoughtlessness with which we nourish our bodies and souls.

Perhaps, whether a pot of beans or an entire meal has spiritual integrity is driven not by the act of buying into a certain behavior but determined by the honesty of the ingredients, the thoughtfulness with which the table is set and the wholesomeness of the food eaten. Food and community are the essence of a rich and genuine life and as righteous as a good pot of beans.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Different Order

Perhaps the sugar cube is a good place to start. After all, I spent hours and days in the filtered sunlight of Emikaneni’s summer kitchen watching the drama play out on the windowsill and listening to the voices ask questions.

Fall arrived softly in the rural Transylvania village of Ujifalu. Ujifalu means “new village” but “new” is relative and means newer than the village that is centuries older. In other words, Ujifalu may be 200 years newer than the village next door but still older than the western migration of Europe into North America.

Well into October the sun continued to shine, the corn was drying on the stalks and a few storks lingered before departing for a gentler winter roost. I had a bed and food in exchange for labor. One day my work was to help harvest the field of corn behind the barn at Emika and Imre’s house. The walk to the village that morning was memorable and I arrived early to sit and wait in Emikaneni’s summer kitchen for when the time was right to head to the fields.

The morning sun filled the kitchen, streaming in through the old wavy glass in the paint- coated frames. On the windowsill of poured concrete, dark grey and worn with years of exposure, I saw a sugar rectangle. Unlike a new cube fresh from the box, its edges were worn and rounded. I kept myself busy tracking the light, looking for movement in the barnyard and talking to the cat. Emikaneni went about her usual business of keeping a home.

By ten fifteen the ants arrived. One by one until there was a basis of seven or so. They came for sugar. The first ones left and more came. As I marveled at this parade, my mother arrived and then my friend and then my husband and his dead mother until I was no longer alone in my thoughts. They all had something to say about the scene before me. One offered a small white disk ant trap with enticing odors and doorways. Another squashed the little beasts with a translucent forefinger and another threw the sugar away.

In Emikaneni’s kitchen I watched common sense prevail and my own cultural non-sense unravel. Though work is hard, movement and actions are efficient. There is little need for poison when a sugar cube will do. In the hall beside the bag of nuts there is a little red bowl of food for the mice- that is if the cat doesn’t get them first. Outside on the hen house a fox pelt or two hangs. Barnyard voodoo.

During my stay I watched a different order present itself and one that challenged the western capitalistic consumption-production model that provides a solution, redefines normal and creates a problem.

In Ujfalu it is not just barnyard voodoo but an understanding of and appreciation for an intricate system, natural order and practicality that is straight and to the point. At times, brutal in its honesty and yet relieving too.