Yearning for the Simple Pot of Beans

February 18, 2013 · 21 comments

Dry pinto beans

Now that I’m closing in on the publication date of Poor Man’s Feast (March 5th…good heavens), I’m also talking to a lot of people who want to know (usually in a snapshot of just a couple of seconds!) what, exactly, the book is about. It’s not easy to distill two years of writing, a year of editing, and a lifetime of taking notes (both mental and not) into the blink of an eye, and so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this story — what this story is, who and what it’s about — and the best that I can manage to come up with is this: it’s about growing up at odds with the concept of simplicity in all its meanings and measures — but certainly gastronomically — and being transformed by compassion, hunger, and love.

My beloved dad, who I wrote about long before I lost him in 2002 (and copiously since) was, for many years, a very big believer in the power of fancy: fancy stuff, fancy life, fancy food. It’s probably in part what brought my parents together, since my mother believed in it too, and to a large degree still does. Every Saturday morning when I was a child, my mother would go out to the beauty parlor to have a touch-up, and my father would squirrel me away for a secret, fancy lunch someplace in Manhattan, just the two of us.

I mean fancy fancy, like Cote Basque fancy. Or, early on, Le Pavillon. There was one place on West 46th Street that had upholstered pink silk dupioni walls. Weird fancy.

It wasn’t always a great idea, necessarily: it was the early 1970s. Business wasn’t good anywhere. But it was important to him nonetheless, and I looked forward to our clandestine lunches with a certain amount of yearning. Not at all in a Nabokovian way, mind you. It’s just that when a young girl is spirited away for secret lunches with her dad that wind up being one part education (he mysteriously knew the names of all the mother sauces, and what turned an Espagnole into a Bordelaise. Why did he know this? I still have no idea.), one part undivided attention, and one part covert operation (my mother was never supposed to know that we were luxuriating over gigantic French calorie bombs while she was out having her color done), the world for her is suddenly perfect, even if it’s not.

Years later, after the divorce, he met the love of his life, Shirley, who was and remains a staunch believer in the complete opposite of fancy: getting past and beneath the pretty and safe surface of things (which makes sense; she’s a shrink) she finds little value in ornament, psychic or otherwise. The (mostly vegetarian) food that she eats is often plain, but simple, and good. That was how she cooked for him — and the way she still thinks about things generally speaking —  and in the twenty years they were together he became happier and healthier than he’d ever been before, thanks to her: his life had become simple, and with that simplicity came a hard-won peace. The fancy stuff was still there from time to time, but only when appropriate. He knew he was loved — fancy or not — and so his life and what he chose to surround himself with, ultimately, was simple. And that included the unfettered, quiet food that he came to love.

My story runs parallel to my father’s; it took me years — thirty-six of them — to find the person who would become my spouse. When we met, I was fancy; she was not. I cooked annoyingly twee and tall food that I tortured into noisy verticality whenever I could; my prized possessions included eight timbale molds and a kitchen blowtorch. Susan made perfect poached eggs and served them to me on white toast. The first time she did it, I watched with rapt attention: she didn’t use any of the contraptions that stores sell for poaching — you know, the little silver egg trays that look like tiny soap dishes, that you’re supposed to lower into the simmering water, or the special pot with the separate egg compartments, or those little green silicon egg cups. She used a battered Revere pot, an egg, and the back-end of a wooden spoon. It’s almost fourteen years later, and the way I think about food and life — what’s important, what’s not, and why comfort and simplicity are the best revenge and can often be found in the most unexpected of places — has changed forever, and it’s largely because of Susan, her quietness of spirit, and the way she deals with the world around her. Including me.

But the funny thing is that the concepts of simple and peaceful have recently become seriously commodified: look all over Pinterest, and you’ll see ostensible simplicity everywhere— spaces shoehorned into bare-bones minimalism, and painted in monochromatic palettes. A crop of new, wonderful print (imagine that!) magazines — I’m totally hooked on this one and this one and this one — are laden with gorgeous, de-saturated photography promising calm and serenity. Basic, elemental dishes — beautiful heirloom beans drizzled with a bit of really good olive oil — served in chipped coffee bowls, are ubiquitous. And they’re a pleasure to see; they accurately represent the way we cook in our home. Still, I sometimes worry that commodified simplicity will become fetish, and ultimately an over-stressed trend. I’m not sure what I can do about that. Trends evolve, but one thing is for sure: it says a lot that so many of us aspire, long and hard, for peace and placidity in our lives.

As for us, all we can do is keep it real in our house, and in our kitchen. And that’s what Poor Man’s Feast is about, ultimately.

A few weeks ago, a formerly very fancy, newly single friend called me to discuss an ingredient emblematic of simple, real food: the dried bean. She was finally beginning to appreciate the loveliness in a bowl of beans with a little olive oil, but had never made them for herself. She had a bag of them sitting on her kitchen counter. Should she soak them, or not. If so, should she do it at room temperature or in the fridge. Could she freeze them after she soaked them, or after she cooked them? Could she freeze them in their liquid, or not? Should she add an onion, or shouldn’t she. How about a bay leaf? Would a pressure cooker be better than a slow soak? She’d read something about the way Italians cook them in a glass bottle buried in the glowing embers of a fireplace. Where would she find embers? Someone once told her that adding salt would make them tough. She sighed heavily.

She sounded weepy, and completely exhausted. She was undone by these beans.

Listening to her, I realized that in the furious struggle to de-fancify her life, she was doing the exact opposite: she was succumbing to the noise. The fancy still had its grip on her.

Maybe, I said, you just haven’t met the right guy yet. 

 Erin Scott’s Simple Pleasure of a Pot of Beans

(adapted from Yummy Supper)

One of the fringe benefits of being a cookbook editor is that I get to be surrounded by remarkable recipes pretty much all the time. Most of them are very good, but some of them are complete game-changers, like Erin Scott’s beans. This recipe, which arrived as part of Erin’s manuscript for her upcoming Yummy Supper: 100 Fresh, Luscious, and Honest Recipes from a {Gluten-Free} Omnivore resulted in beans that were gorgeously creamy and flavorful; the addition of smoked salt is totally inspired. Make sure you use the best dried beans you can find; I prefer Rancho Gordo‘s Good Mother Stallard beans. Thanks, Erin!

1 pound dried beans

1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled

1 dry bay leaf, or 1/2 teaspoon dried epazote

1 tablespoon smoked sea salt

Place dried beans in a medium saucepan, cover with cold tap water, add the lid, and let the beans soak overnight. (I soaked them unrefrigerated.)

When you’re ready to cook the next day, make sure that your beans are covered by at least 2 inches of water; there’s no need to drain the soaking water if it still looks clear—just pour in a little more if necessary. Bring the liquid to a boil, then turn the heat down to maintain a nice simmer. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface; once the foam subsides, add the garlic, bay leaf or epazote, and smoked salt. Partially cover the pot, and simmer until creamy and tender (but not mushy).

Serve them:

Warm, drizzled with olive oil and black pepper

Topped with a poached egg

Turned into a gratin dish with a couple of sausages, topped with breadcrumbs, and cooked until golden (aka Fake Cassoulet)

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 merry jennifer February 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

There is something so basic and humble – and so perfect – about a warm bowl of beans in their own broth. I hope your friends made these, and that she was able to turn off the noise and de-fancy for one night.

And I am so looking forward to your book!

2 Joy @ OSS February 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

If only I can be so eloquent about clothes!

3 Pat Machin February 19, 2013 at 5:15 am

Thank you for putting into words what a lot of us feel.

4 Sarah February 19, 2013 at 8:36 am

I think you know this but I can.not. wait. for your book! xo

5 Elissa February 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

Thanks Sarah- x

6 mimijk February 19, 2013 at 10:15 am

I have had the pleasure of reading your book already and as you know I can’t recommend it more highly – for its truth, its love and the abundance of life that passes through your kitchen. xox

7 Karen February 19, 2013 at 11:30 am

Incredibly, your book arrived here in London, earlier than predicted, a few days ago. Aside from a quick glance inside I have left it, waiting for some uninterrupted time, not so easy in half-term week, to really settle into it. I think the perfect accompaniment may be a bowl of these beans. Simplicity and sustenance for body and soul! Thank you again for your hard work both in writing this site and finding the time to publish books of your own and to remind us of the importance of keeping things simple. All the very best x

8 Elissa February 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

Thank you Karen!

9 Amanda February 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Elissa, just this post makes my heart sit back in my chest a little bit more. If your book is anything like everything else you write here, IT will be the game-changer.

10 Elissa February 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Thanks Amanda—-I hope you enjoy it!

11 Jessica February 19, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Elissa, once a week, my professor father took me to a not so ellicit lunch in Los Angeles. We worked our way down Wilshire Blvd, stopping in at the Coconut Grove, the old Bullock’s tea room, and many others that are no longer with us. What a treat fathers can share when dining with their daughters. I am glad you had those memories with your father too.

12 Elliott February 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm

How, Elissa, how DO you manage to spin me with your words time and time again? The way you put pen to paper, so to speak, reminds me of the string game children play, Cat’s Cradle. It’s hyper-aware, yet guileless. Whimsical, yet structured. In any case, very romantic, alluring and (usually) fun.

I’d be jealous, except I appreciate the inspirato.

I guess I’m going to go make some beans.

13 Elissa February 19, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Thanks so much Elliott—so very appreciated. Make Erin’s beans. They’re great!

14 Victoria February 19, 2013 at 10:19 pm

This is the most beautiful in a long list of beautiful posts. It has simply taken my breath away.

When I was in high school, my father took me to see Richard Burton in Hamlet. I can’t remember how this came to be, but I remember exactly (1) what I was wearing and the (2) what we ate for dinner at a “fancy”
Armenian restaurant. It remains one of the happiest events of my life.

I believe the key to being happy is to notice, enjoy, and celebrate the things that can fit into the simple DAILY fabric of your life = lovely soap, clean sheets, a delicious meal, listening to someone read Wuthering Heights, etc.

If there’s someone you love to share it all with, so much the better.

15 Hannah February 19, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I love your ruminations on simple living (and eating), and the commoditization of that feeling (or our attempts at that feeling) – “I sometimes worry that commoditized simplicity will become fetish, and ultimately an over-stressed trend.” – a legitimate worry, but then again, commoditized simplicity is not actual simplicity. I think there will always be those who want the real deal – and I thank you for so often sharing with us posts that really make me think.

I await anxiously your book (and your March 20th stop at Omnivore is on my calendar – yay!).

16 Almeida February 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Indeed a great article to read, thank you for sharing your experience and views of the world with us, Elissa. Your words always appeal to my emotions. So I thank you for that.
One question remains regarding you comment on “commoditized simplicity” … what do you actually mean by that? For what I understood, the idea of “simplicity” (perhaps meaning “simple life” equals to “simple ingredients”) is being abstracted from its real meaning and transformed into something else … a commodity! I’m not very clear on why do you think this is the case and why are other aspects of our life refrained from such a process of commodification? We communicate through the web, interact through a blog, read a piece of article that refers to a book, and visually display our passions through products that are embedded in the marketplace. Commodification is a channel difficult to break free from it since it’s reflected in the way we interact with the world. I might be mistaken, but I find the idea of the”commoditization of simplicity” an empty and vague concept.

17 Elissa February 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Almeida, what I meant by “commoditized simplicity” is simplicity-as-fad, or fetish, or affectation. There are many among us who couldn’t live a simple life if they tried; it holds no appeal for them (for whatever reason). But they talk the talk, as it were, very much like the Hollywood stars who walk around wearing diamond-encrusted peace signs made from blood diamonds. Commoditized peace. Same idea.

18 Rach February 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Thank you for this post. Thank you for all your posts.

I don’t have a glass jar but a have a terra-cotta one which I put directly on the stove top. My partner call them fagioli all’uccelletto. I like a sage leaf in there too.

19 Anna April 28, 2013 at 7:54 pm

I know it’s all relative, but is there a rough approximation of cooking time? I don’t know enough about cooking beans to know whether it will be 30 mins or 4 hours or somewhere in that wormhole in between. Just for planning sake.

Thanks!

20 Elissa April 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Hi Anna, Thanks so much for writing. Really, it depends upon the beans — canellini, Old Mother Stallard, lima — and where you get them from. I’m a big fan of Rancho Gordo beans (ranchogordo.com) which need no soaking and generally aren’t long cooking (of the 4-hour variety). That said, if you’re shopping at a local supermarket and buying something of the dried Goya variety (fine, too), they’ll likely need a soak followed by a longer cooking time. The best thing to do is plan to be in or near your kitchen, let the beans simmer—taste them, slice into them, and you’ll know when they’re done if they’re tender and creamy.

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