I will rarely cook dry beans without meat anymore. Putting a ham hock or a smoked turkey neck in it and simmering the whole pot slowly, changes everything. The beans get to a place where they come close to melting. Then you hardly need to spice the beans at all. Just take a few pinches of salt and some pepper and submerge the beans in water and let the smokey turkey smother the beans with its goodness. I’m certain that this is something that my grandmothers could have told me. They’d be surprised to discover that I only learned a thing so basic as this in my twenties, after spending several years buying boxed stock and chasing after flavors in impossibly dry places. Essence of animal bone, you are magic.
There is a rusticity in all of this, in the things that I find myself learning as an amateur cook in a millennium barely forged by either of these women. There is a rusticity in the slowness of these acts: the foresight to both soak the beans overnight in the fridge and to slow simmer the pot til the whole thing is tender. My own mother and many of her peers, rebelled against much of these traditions in the ‘90s while raising us. She and my father pushed and pulled over who had to cook and when. Jarred three cheese tomato sauce, canned beans, these items were staples, much in the same way that pork fat was to their parents. My father was more of the baker, and I learned from the gentle patina of his touch when folding pecans into a coffeecake batter.
That isn’t to say that my mother didn’t cook. She did. She perfected her own take on ratatouille with stewed tomatoes that we loved, crisped cheddar cheese on top. We would eat chicken with broccoli and homemade enchiladas and lasagne. On Christmas we alternated between my grandmother’s yeasted rolls with varied success and the buttery Sally Lund bread which was fluffy and light and easy. On New Year’s day she slow-cooked black-eyed peas. There were occasions and there were also tin-foil wrapped things with reheating instructions, or instructions on making simple things for ourselves, because she worked long and hard.
Sometimes I regret my divergence from these women on practices like cooking. A pineapple skillet cake by hand, why? There’s a tendency in my formation in fast lane city-living, that balks at the idea of retreating into a tradition that was seen as a handicap by so many, just a few years ago. That is after all, why modern technology bestowed Seamless on the upwardly-mobile young professional, isn’t it? Beyond aspects political and a simplistic take on what is feminist (a clash with the traditionally feminine — which it needn’t be), there’s also something about the act of food-making that challenges my affinity for complicating my own world with ruminations on the repercussions of x or y decision.
There aren’t nearly as many questions, just actions: flip the cauliflower halfway through roasting. Toss the tomatoes lightly with olive oil. Allow the garlic to become fragrant just before adding the string beans or carrots. I take a primitive sort of comfort in using my hands, relaxing my tendency to posture at each turn to make something of myself. But there’s also something moving and magical about unraveling the essence kept deep and secret inside an animal bone, ugly, greasy thing that it is – rudimentary act that it may be. It absolutely must be felt in the hands and tasted in the mouth, before it gets anywhere else in my head.