My mom always said that her sister Margie, an artist, started married life around World War II knowing how to cook only two things: Fudge and spaghetti. Twenty-five years later Margie had added a few other things to her repertoire, mostly sweets that even as a kid I never really liked: Strawberries hand-molded from Rice Krispies and chopped dates, rolled in red granulated sugar and topped with bitter little green frosting stems; crescent cookies with almost no sugar in the dough but a blanket of powdered sugar on top that was easy to breathe in and choke on; and crumbly shortbread balls that were really an apologia for unexcellent butter. Spaghetti remained popular as the main course, as I remember, and the fudge was always tooth-achingly sweet and good, if a little granular. When she grew older and the husband she’d tried to cook for had died, Margie dined like an ascetic, on toast and cups of hot tea, as if acknowledging she’d been a culinary poetaster all along.
Still, some of my fondest food memories are from her kitchen, where there was a large round oak table with a lazy Susan that encouraged family-style meals and long talks, at which even the youngest had an equal role. Best of all were winter holidays that insisted we be together indoors. My grown cousins taught me to play card and board games in that kitchen and let me taste sweet wine. At New Year’s, Margie’s Great Northern Beans and ham bubbled on the stove until a light crust formed on top and starchy drippings were baked hard down the side of the pot. Margie said every bean you ate that day was a dollar you’d earn in the new year, though an exact figure could never be calculated since she’d boil them until their atoms recombined to make a motile sludge that grumbled and steamed like a banker.
Never pin your financial hopes on a legume. Ham and beans is really about making use of what one already has at hand, driving one’s own good luck by not wasting opportunities, such as a few handfuls of hard dried beans and the inedible shank of a pig left over from Christmas dinner. It’s food for the poor, who dream of dollars one at a time. If ever there was an adjunct’s dish, this is it.
But what would I do with prosperity anyway? Re-roof the house? Fund new research interests? No, I’d buy my sons the biggest Lego set in the world with all the coolest and hardest-to-find figures in it. Then I’d hire somebody to pick up all the gottverdammt Lego pieces strewn around this house before I stepped on them with my bare feet and broke my neck—again.
I could even float the struggling university a loan so at the end of the month they could hand me something like a real paycheck.
You won’t get rich quick on Margie’s beans either, but enjoy a bowl this New Year’s. I’ve updated her recipe so even the tenured will like it:
Recipe for Instant Karma beans:
1 lb. bag of dried Great Northern beans
Leftover ham bone, with a little meat still attached
2 or 3 cans low-salt chicken broth
1 medium onion, diced
1 rib of celery, sliced thin
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Black pepper to taste
Rinse and pick the beans for bad ones and stones. Soak overnight in cold water. Rinse and drain.
Make a stock by bringing to a hard boil the ham bone in enough cold water to cover it. Skim foam and impurities during first 10 minutes. Add bay leaves, reduce heat and simmer 3-5 hours, topping with chicken broth as needed to replenish what boils away. The stock will need to be salty in the end to flavor the bland beans, but if it starts to get overpowering, top up with water instead of chicken broth. Some people like to add a little brown sugar, but there’s no need if the ham was glazed. (Glaze will impart cloves and spice too.) Remove the bone and bay leaves when done. Pick the bone for any meat that can be shredded and returned to the stock. Discard bone and bay leaves.
Make a mirepoix by sautéing the onion, celery and carrot in the oil until the onions are translucent.
Add mirepoix, beans, and baking soda to the stock. Add water or broth as you see fit. Bring back to a boil then simmer for at least two hours, or until the beans begin to fall apart and their own starch thickens them. Pepper to taste; I’d start with a lot of it and go from there. You could also use white pepper if you don’t want to sully the beans’ color, or cayenne. Or let people add their own hot sauce at table.
The dish should be somewhere between thick soup and a stew. If the consistency rounds the corner to look like porridge, you might as well stick an immersion blender in it and blend it all smooth. No harm done. Serve with buttered sweet cornbread and a glass of cold milk, and meditate on what just rewards would look like if luck were on your side….