Johary insisted we cook this bag of red beans that had fallen to the bottom of my pantry. It was a low-end brand I’d bought at least a year ago in preparation for the end times. I hoped never to need to eat them.
I had a cold and was weak, and 4-year-olds can be extremely persistent, so rather than telling him no, I agreed and started to cook the beans.
I had no business cooking the beans. I already had plans to roast a chicken. We didn’t need beans. I wasn’t going to be home all day to mind the pot. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Another minor disaster, I told myself with a sigh.
Johary had lost interest in the beans and we were now outside, ostensibly painting pictures though in actuality I was chasing after him trying to prevent him from dumping paint everywhere. The wife popped her head out to tell me the beans were boiling.
“Turn ‘em off,” I told her.
“Just turn ‘em off?”
“Yep,” I said, trying to sound convincing.
I heard my friend Moe’s voice in my head, like a movie trope, telling me how you didn’t need to soak beans overnight, you could just bring them to a boil, then let them sit for a few hours. I hoped I was remembering that right.
My big thing is trusting myself. Well, trusting anything, but it starts with myself. Many times, I’ve thought I knew something, acted on it, then: disaster. The last decade of my life has been about me double-checking my hunches. I have avoided many disasters in this way. Maybe as many disasters as I caused in years previous. In this process, I have strengthened my intuition. Do I need to double-check that one can indeed cook beans without soaking them overnight? I was 59 percent sure I was on to something.
The other pleasant evolution in my personality is perspective. If I have to throw away the beans, so what? They cost us maybe $2.98.
I let the beans sit while I looked up “beans no soak” on the internet.
I was starting to get interested in this bean project. I wanted to see how it would turn out.
We drove to Ikea, then came back. The internet told me they should sit 45 minutes to 2 hours. It had been about 3 hours. I told myself, if the beans smell bad, I’ll just throw them away. I will try not to fret about it.
But the beans did not smell. The beans looked OK. I added water and turned the flame on.
Turns out I was supposed to drain them of their soaking water first. I didn’t find that out till they were nearly done. Oh, well. If they tasted really bad, I would just not serve them. I would throw them away, no regrets.
As it sometimes goes on the internet, I didn’t find the best recipe till after the whole thing had been set in motion. I really liked what this recipe was saying. The beans had been cooking for an hour. Was it too late to add an onion and garlic? We’ll see.
I added salt. I added Tabasco. I added pepper.
I had time. I could let them cook as long as the needed to.
I was there, paying attention. Stirring them. Smelling them. Eventually, pulling out a bean and laying it on the stove. Pressing it with my wooden spoon to see if it would give. It did.
Twenty minutes later, I tasted a bean. It was soft. They were actually turning into an edible dish.
I served the beans to my guests, along with the roast chicken, which was really the star of the show. The beans were not flashy. For one, they were a vegetable, a legume, no less, not an animal. They weren’t redolent of thyme and lemon, like the bird. They weren’t caramelized fennel, for goodness sakes.
But their color was compelling: a rusty brownish red. The liquid was velvety, and held up. The bean size was pleasing in my mouth, and the give-way when I chewed seemed perfect to me. Sometimes I chew my food like it’s a death match between me and the morsel. I have a lot of tension in my jaw and I work it out on whatever it is I am eating. Almonds: grind, grind, grind. Carrots: destroy, destroy, destroy. But the soft bean sidestepped my machine-like jaws, as if to say, You don’t have to work so hard. I love you just the way you are.
Johary wouldn’t even touch the beans and I don’t think my wife was too crazy about them. There were a lot of leftovers. I gave some to Sarah to take home and the rest I put in the fridge–a large Chinese-soup-takeout container full. Maybe I would eat them in the week to come, maybe I wouldn’t.
The next morning it occurred to me that I could eat them for breakfast. I put the a half cup of them with leftover brown rice in the double boiler and let them heat up while I made Johary’s breakfast.
I hoped Stephanie would not observe me eating beans and rice for breakfast; she would surely be disgusted.
She was in the shower when I sat down to my bowl. Johary was off playing. It was just me and the beans. I added some salt. I was prepared to eat them even if the didn’t taste all that good. But they were good. Again, the forgiving softness. The sustaining gravy. The just-right size.
I thought, These will keep me till lunch. But I by 10 am I was craving a Pop Tart. I was ravenous. The nourishing I had received from the beans had awakened in me a deep hunger. I was hungry! I was hungry most of the time. I tended to deny myself the true amount of food I required. The bean had dropped down into my stomach and set off reverberations of unmet need throughout my body and soul.
The next morning I had beans again. This time, on toast, like the Brits. I flavored them up in the pan: salt, pepper, Tabasco. I buttered a slice of toast, put it on a salad plate, and spooned the red beans on top of it. They overflowed the toast, and poured out onto the plate. Exactly right.
I ate it all and licked the plate clean.
There was a time, perhaps it was the eighties, when I regularly soaked then cooked beans. It was a lot of work and it often didn’t turn out well. I don’t think I’d done it in years. Time and ballooning responsibilities have worn down my resistance to un-whole food. I open a can of soup at least once a week. There are chicken nuggets and frozen hot dogs in my freezer right now. We are never without a box of macaroni and cheese (albeit the “healthy” kind). We eat beans often, but always out of the can. And they seemed fine to me. Why would I bother to cook them from dry?
Now I know why. The bean from the can is only a distant relative of the cooked bean. And the long slow process of cooking beans has roots in witchery: a pinch of this, a dash of that, and hitherto imagined tastes are created. The bean illuminates with the power to transform.