by Rick Bailey
It’s the little things that divide us.
My wife and I disagree on toilet paper orientation: whether the lap falls next to the wall (her way) or away from the wall (my way). When I take bread out of the fridge and give the wire tie a counterclockwise twist to open the bag, if it tightens, I know who closed it last. I feel a wave of dissonance, a visceral feeling of imbalance. It’s like stepping onto an escalator that’s not moving.
We disagree on how to load flatware into the dishwasher. My system is rational—forks on the left, knives on the right, spoons in the front and rear of the basket. Loaded like this, it’s a delight to empty a dishwasher. She doesn’t see it this way. “The spoons and forks nest,” she says, giving me a look of gentle disapproval. “They don’t get clean.” She arranges flatware in a messy jumble. The way she loads, it takes twice as long to empty the basket. I won’t have anything to do with it.
Then there’s beans. We’ve had bean problems for years.
Hers, I admit, are good.
We’re in the hills above the Adriatic, a few miles inland, and just now, dusk is bluing the meadows and vineyards that slope down to town. It’s summertime, so all the windows in the trattoria are open. Like most Italian hill towns, this one has a castle. It dates roughly to the year 1000, and it was rebuilt in 1300. There’s a church, a few narrow picturesque streets, and some shaggy trees in full leaf, all part of the breath-taking normal of this region. But we’re here, sixteen of us at the table, for the tagliatelle and beans.
These tagliatelle, what we would call fettuccine in the US, are homemade, the pasta cut (tagliata) into ribbons, served with beans ladled over them. Maria, the proprietor, says it’s quite simple: beans; carrot, celery, and onion; slices of cotechino, which is a sausage of pork and lard wrapped in pig skin; olive oil and conserva (tomato paste); salt and pepper and water. In three hours you get a soup cooked just close enough to stew to make a beany, velvety brown sauce.
When the server lays four steaming platters on our table, all conversations stop. A breeze billows through white curtains. We regard these dishes with a combination of adoration and lust. Then someone says, Chi vuole? Who wants some?
Who knew beans could be so good?
The next day, my wife says to her mother, “Guess what we had last night?” Without waiting for her mother to answer, she launches into a description.
Mother waves a dismissive hand. “I know,” she says. “We had that all the time when I was a kid.”
“You did? But why didn’t we?”
“Because it’s peasant food,” she says. “It’s what we ate because we didn’t have much money.”
That’s beans for you.
When I was growing up, we sat down to a dinner of beans a couple times a month: a pot of navy beans boiled long and low, seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked far enough beyond soup to make a thick, savory, beanful broth. My father, a child of the Great Depression, called this dish “soupy beans.” The navies grew at the edge of town where he grew up, in Michigan’s bean belt, and at the edge of town where I grew up, in forty- to eighty-acre fields; long luxurious seas of green next to sections of corn and beets and soybeans.
We ate soupy beans ladled over bread. It’s what they ate back then, he explained, because they didn’t have much money. Beans were necessary. And delicious.
Trouble surfaced when I came home from Italy one year with beans on my mind. Tuscans are called mangia fagioli: bean eaters. Wherever you go in Florence, you find fagioli all’uccelletto, beans cooked in the style of small game birds. This means garlic, sage, olive oil, and tomato. For all of a month after that trip, two or three days a week I cooked beans all’uccelletto. It was a fine madness.
“Enough with the beans,” my daughter finally said. My son agreed.
“They’re good,” my wife said, “but not with those navy beans.”
Those navy beans?
“But I love my navy beans,” I said.
She shook her head. “Cannellini would be better.”
Perhaps the recipe called for cannellini. But to insist seemed pedantic. And cannellini, I argued, when you buy them, who knows where they come from or how long they’ve been sitting on store shelves? My beans come from my hometown, in Michigan’s bean belt. They’re fresh. They could probably be dated to the exact time of their consignment, maybe even traced to a specific farmer and field (Vern Stephen, the corner of Hotchkiss and Garfield Roads). It was then I began to notice her resistance to my beans. While I looked lovingly upon their blond goodness, she ate and shrugged them okay.
Beans are not a neutral food.
Thoreau was a bean farmer. “I came to love my rows, my beans,” he writes in Walden. “They attached me to the earth.” He rhapsodizes about beans, about farming—
This was my curious labor all summer—to make this portion of the earth’s surface which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on.
Having grown up around bean fields and admired the plants’ broad leaves, having driven country roads outside of town on warm July evenings and gazed down long rows of bean plants vibrating with color and vitality, I understand Thoreau’s rhapsody. He was determined to know beans.
But Thoreau, that dope, did not eat them. So how could he truly know them?
He describes himself as a Pythagorean. These days, if we know Pythagoras, we know him for his theorem, A2 + B2 = C2 . Tenth grade geometry, right triangles, let C = the hypotenuse. But Pythagoras is also known for this famous maxim: Don’t eat beans.
The record, it should be noted, is not crystal clear. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy quotes Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle, who was himself a great admirer of Pythagoras, claiming in 300 BC, “[Pythagoras] valued it most of all vegetables, since it was digestible and laxative.” On the other hand, it appears Pythagoras bought into all manner of superstition associated with beans. Don’t eat beans. They look like genitals. Don’t eat beans. They resemble the doors of Hades; their stems connect this world to the underworld. Souls, which are essentially wind in that worldview, could be reincarnated through the bean plant, and thus to walk upon beans was to trample souls. It gets weirder. A chewed bean spat on the ground and warmed by the sun would smell like semen or spilled blood. Weirder still, a bean blossom placed in a container and then buried would grow into a human head, and thus to eat beans was tantamount to eating your parents’ heads and therefore a form of cannibalism.
Beans and the dead: it’s a connection that survives to this day. On all Souls Day, Italians remember the dead solemnly, if gluttonously, eating almond cookies called fave dei morti, beans of the dead, or sometimes, because their shape, ossi dei morti, bones of the dead.
In fact, it was the fava bean that bugged Pythagoras. The blossom has a black spot on it. It was enough provocation for Pythagoras to change the menu. Not me. I’ll strip fava beans out of their pods, blanche them, tear off their jackets, and eat them raw, avid for their rich green color, their firm sweetness. It’s a lot of work for a handful of beans, but when they’re tossed with extra virgin olive oil, served with shaved parmigiano or pecorino, it’s a job I’ll sign up for.
Saturday mornings at the local market, we buy swiss chard and eggplant from Korean farmers. For a few weeks in midsummer they have cranberry beans, what the Italians call borlotti, still in their pods.
“These are good,” my wife says. “You might try these all’uccelletto.” I hear her underline “these.”
I’ve come to my senses. Every bean has its place. She’s come to her senses, developing a newfound appreciation of the navy bean. Those mornings, fresh from the market, we sit at the kitchen table and shuck beans. It’s slow going. It’s bean work. It’s a job our parents would have done hundreds of times.
I lift a handful of borlotti. They are creamy white with red speckles. After a few hours in the pan they are brown, bigger than navy beans, undeniably delicious.
“Why not,” I say. I can swallow my reservations. They go down easy as beans. “Let’s try them.”
Rick Bailey grew up in Freeland, Michigan. He now lives in the Detroit area, where he teaches writing at a local community college. His writing has appeared in Terrain, Cleaver Magazine, Gravel, Ragazine.cc, Drunk Monkeys, Toasted Cheese, Atticus Review, and First Stop Fiction.