Crunchy green beans make me feel cold. Unloved. It’s a very tricky thing to cook them the way I want. There’s a perfect spot, a fleeting moment, when they will be right. Any longer in the boiling, salty water and the beans turn to mush. The fibers and flesh separate. This is the too-far of my mother and grandfather. But not far enough, not long enough, and I’m trapped in a world of raw virtue. Food as nutrients. A crunch that clacks like marbles or billiard balls. This is food that is too sensible and lacks a concern for the sensuous. There is a moment, an elusive window of time, when lurid softness meets the tiniest resistance, the slightest push-back against chewing teeth. The green still captures some of the fury of the summer sun that sent the beans crawling up from the dirt and around a rusting link of fence. It is a green that resists the forlorn darkness of early dusk. I try for this moment each time I cook green beans. Standing over the pot, I wonder: did I miss it? The skin pops like July 4 salutes and tiny bubbles swim out from the beans’ long seams. Is it now? I take one out and wiggle it between my fingers like the rubber pencil trick of a bored high schooler. I’m never confident when I finally fish them all out and wrap them up, steaming, in a towel. Ten minutes later I use the warmth of the resting beans to melt a clove of finely grated garlic. I drown them in slick oil and coarse grains of salt. I’ll know then if I’ve found my way, or if, somehow, I got lost.
I heard the shopping cart coming. I’d thought its owner long dead. It had been a long time since I saw him or heard the rough rattle of his wheels on the road. He wore shimmering black leggings, a kind meant to cling to the wearer’s flesh and draw attention to bulges and muscles. But on this man’s insect-thin frame, they bunched around the knees and pooled in sagging bags around his calves. He walked with dainty half steps, up high on his toes, in aquamarine pumps. What he carries in his cart is a secret. It’s covered and tucked up tight with bedding. He moves through the middle of these city streets with grace, paying no mind to the car honks and hoots, or the traffic gluts he’s caused. A fanfare announces him. The speakers of his boom box blare from the top of his cart. Brassy jazz of the Benny Goodman-era rises in volume as he approaches, reaches its peak when he passes, and drifts in behind the background of boring city noises as he moves away. Sometimes I see his shadow under the BU Bridge on the coldest winter nights. He visits the pharmacy to buy batteries. Ds. The big fat ones. He needs six or eight, maybe ten, to make his music play. Once, ignored by employees at the local Rite Aid, he lit the stump of a cigarette. He stood smoking alone at the register. He was calm and he was cool. I’ve never heard him say a word, but I can hear this man’s voice.
[Photo: Homeless encampment under bridge from City of Strangers]
We crossed the street at an odd angle. Scurrying to beat the traffic, my eye was drawn to a wide crack in the stained pavement. Something was wedged inside. A rat, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, was smushed and packed into the contours of the crack. It stretched out to the edges like warm, soft putty, flattened across the top. A succession of heavy truck wheels pressed the lifeless and filthy body more and more perfectly into the form of the opening. Should I take a picture? I asked Nina as we stood over the rodent-filled seam. No she said. I was relieved, hopping up on the curb to avoid a truck growling through its gears and headed straight for us.
[Image: Yarn-filled crack by Juliana Santacruz Herrera, date unknown]
Our oven breathes back to life at the same time the old iron radiator does. For long months, all of the spring and summer, it’s just a forgotten box in the kitchen. But when the air turns cool and long shadows creep across the sharp fall skies, I am alerted to the oven’s uses. I begin to run a finger along its dial and remember. I imagine a thermostatic device buried somewhere in my flesh, near the base of my spine, like the one that tips a tube of mercury, trips a lever, and starts the fuel burning in the ancient furnace beneath our floorboards. Warm air expanding between the heavy pipes of the radiator sounds a similar echo to the jets of fire that hiss through the oven’s walls. It sends the thin metal expanding outward in a chorus of clangs. I forget the quick-cooked meals of the warm months and crave the slow preparations that are possible only in this metal box. There’s no window in our oven, no light, just a black door that obscures like a curtain. Something goes in: water and oil, beans and meat. Another thing, bubbling and steaming, moving as if somehow alive, comes out. You watch all the changes take place when you cook on the stovetop. You see water evaporating, the oil and fat turning brown and thickening, pulling up around the edges. But we have only our ears and our and nose with this oven. There is no summer equal to the moment when a cast-iron skillet is pulled from the 420 degrees of inferno, writhing, and comes to rest at the center of the table under a dim bulb. It feels like a magic trick, a grand illusion, performed on a stage.
[Painting: Baking Bread by Engels Kozlov, 1967]
The fat white beans melt into the oil and the water. Hunks of sausage, their shoulders poking out above a salty broth, turn dark and char in the corners. The liquid thickens and the beans plump, drinking it in. Everything becomes more than itself when I make sausage and beans. The oven needs to be hot, at 420 degrees, so the dish arrives in the fall and stays a guest through the winter. I brown the sausage in the smallest cast-iron skillet and set the links aside on a plate. Pink fluid leaks from the meat and collects underneath. I add smashed hunks of garlic to the pan, keeping them roughly the size of the cannellini beans that I cooked back to life from dry stones in the morning. Add the beans and some water. Stir in tomato paste and crack black pepper, so much of it, over the top. Add more water and some good green oil and return the sausage, cut into thirds, to the skillet. Pour in the leaked liquid too. Bring it all up to a boil, then slide it in the hot, hot oven. The sizzle and crack, the echoes of the metal, transform into to the aroma of garlic and sausage mingling. It climbs up your nose and in your eyes, then up the walls and out into the street through seams in the plaster. It’s late afternoon and the clear light of October, its wiggling brushstroke clouds stretched across the sky, draw me to a window or the front steps. Leaves, now jut dry paper, drift slowly from the branches in the quickening winds of the long autumn dusk. It takes a half-hour for the water to cook out and the food in the skillet to become a soft, steaming mass of garlic and beans and pork and pepper, held together by the blood of a dark sauce that creates itself. There is no food that brings me closer to the memory of my late grandfather, and a belief in immortality, than this dish. No other item in this world, not his watch or his gold crucifix, brings him back to life this way. Parents, busy with work and life’s demands, sent me to his house when I was a boy and this is what we ate. The two of us. His rough hands pulled the foil back from a white casserole dish and it smelled, then, the same as now, here. It filled my nose when I walked in the door. I drag bread across this plate now like I did that plate then. I use the same sausage he did, from the same butcher. I am careful not to change this. I use a little chopped parsley, which he never did, because we shouldn’t be slaves. I eat this meal alone, under dim light at the kitchen table. The smell of garlic lingers in the couch cushions and the rug fibers late into the night. It is there, in my towel, when I pull it to my wet face in the morning.
[Painting: Brother’s Sausage by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983]