APRIL–JULY 2020: WINDHAM, MAINE
In Eric Emmanuel Schmitt’s short story, “The Most Beautiful Book in the World,” the eponymous book is written by a group of women confined to a Russian gulag who are determined to convey to their daughters one last all-important message about who they are and where they are from. With limited paper, each is paralyzed by an inability to choose the right words to convey such a message until one of them discovers the answer. The final line of the story reads, “On every page there was a recipe.”
These recipes are the meals we return to, spices and combinations that taste and smell of home, dishes we call comfort foods. They arise from our mothers’ kitchens, from our grandmothers’ ovens, from an imposed embargo, or from a long cultural heritage. A Haitian woman sells breadfruit on the frozen streets of Boston, and online forums are dedicated to sourcing Samoan hot chocolate thousands of miles from home because we are what we eat and we want to eat what we are. In celebration, or when crisis looms, we turn to the foods we ate when we were safe and loved.
When the Department of the Interior bought out the N95 mask supplies of tiny marine stores thousands of miles from Washington, D.C., in late January 2020, I turned our guest room into a pantry. Fifty pounds of flour, a dozen flats of eggs, five pounds of parmesan, and rows and rows of Stewart’s Shelled Beans. COVID-19 could prevent me from going home, but it wouldn’t stop me from tasting it.
I live in Maine now, but I am from a dying industrial town in northwest Connecticut, heavily influenced by the Italian immigrants who settled there. We ate of our time and culture if not always of our current place, limiting our palates to the recipes of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who came before us. There was no difference between food and comfort food because we ate within the confines of who we had been for as long as we all remembered.
The story of my family is the story of bean soup. My great-grandmother had six children, now four generations in each branch of the family, each person with their own version, all of us striving to bend the flavors to our memories of Nonnie’s kitchen, and each of us failing uniquely. An ideal food for pandemic times of make-do substitutions and uncertainty in the supply chain, the vegetables are up for debate. The beans, though, are an agreed-upon constant, substituted with the common pinto or a desperate combination of white navy and red kidney only when “pink beans,” as my grandmother always referred to them, are nowhere to be found. My great-grandmother used Roman (or cranberry), a cream-colored bean speckled in bright pink when fresh from the garden. In the off-seasons, and when gardening took a back seat to modern life, we turned to the dull pink of canned Stewart’s Shelled Beans. There are more than five hundred varieties of shell beans, and we’ve never been able to unravel the mystery of which variety fills those Stewart’s cans.
While others stocked up on toilet paper and filled freezers with meat, I hunted Stewart’s—once packed in Maine, now Illinois, and formerly found throughout New England, although harder to source these days the farther you get from the distributor in West Paris. I am forty-four miles away, and the beans are tucked, four to eight cans at a time, on bottom shelves of local grocery aisles. Cases—I know from ordering for my family out of state—must be requested in advance. Not wanting to take the last of anything, I bought three cans at one store, four at another, two at yet another. Combined with the two or three I always have on hand, it might be enough to last a month, maybe two.
No one knows how my great-grandmother learned to make her soup. Perhaps it was on a summer afternoon in her fifteenth year, the year of the Spanish influenza, when she picked fresh pods of Roman beans from the garden, pushing smooth fagioli between her thumb and forefinger, dropping them into a bowl, which her mother showed her how to press the beans into soup. Perhaps, in those long-ago days so much more relatable to us now, Stewart’s was already shipping cans to Connecticut, laying the foundation for a brand loyalty in my family that’s lasted more than a hundred years. Now, one century and one global pandemic later, this is the one food I cannot imagine living indefinitely without.
The instructions are deceptive in their simplicity, the intensity of the labor hidden in the phrase press through the ricer. Cook vegetables in olive oil and broth, add rinsed beans, press through the ricer, simmer, add cooked ditalini and grated cheese. It should be imported aged asiago, but no one imports it anymore. We smuggle it home from Italy in our suitcases, a trip now impossible to make as the EU keeps its borders closed. Parmesan will have to do, but don’t forget the salt. Carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and potatoes are the usual vegetables. My mother’s cousin’s ex-wife uses sweet potatoes, and my cousin’s half-sister omits the pasta because she’s gluten-free. I’ve heard rumors of soy sauce. I once dated someone who added Tapatio, but I should have known when he turned my family recipe orange with hot sauce that we wouldn’t last. My grandmother used a tomato or two, but my great-aunt Cora, Nonnie’s eldest daughter, keeper of Truth, would always shake her head in dismay at her addition of zucchini. “No, no no!” Cora would exclaim, often smacking my arm harder than she needed to. “That’s not right! Nonnie never made it like that!”
By “ricer,” my family means a chinois, a perforated metal cone with a wooden pestle. Pressing the pestle in circles with one hand while scraping bean skins and vegetable peels with a spatula in the other, nine-tenths of the soup is forced through holes the size of rice grains. Wine tempers the muscle aches. Preferably red, but if it’s white, it’s advisable to add a splash to the final product. That’s my addition to our family history, but in pandemic times, our wine is scarce, so I added bitters and soda water to an old bottle of Asti Spumante and reserved it for sipping.
With the soup finished, I was compelled to share the experience in the only way I still could—through social media. But bean soup doesn’t photograph well. Bits of beige pasta in light brown goop flecked with white bits of cheese. I posted instead an image of a can of Stewart’s, a bottle of Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a canister of sanitizing wipes, and propped in the middle the prayer card from my grandmother’s funeral with my mother’s version of her bean soup recipe on the back, minus the tomatoes that in her grief she forgot to mention. “I learned from my mother, father, and grandmother how to survive a crisis,” I wrote, the wine a nod to my mother, and the disinfectant to my father, who taught me to always trust my instincts and to be prepared. The beans, the soup, are more than sustenance. In these strange times, they become the hugs we cannot give, the sensory experiences of being loved revisited.
My family responded with pictures of their own, weighed in with versions of the soup they’d cobbled together from whatever ingredients they had on hand. One cousin is now vegan and skips the cheese. A hometown friend living in NYC, already locked down, had only garbanzo beans and a blender. Another cousin added parsley. In the most uncertain moment of our lifetimes, we shored up against the unknown with a taste of home, in all its changeable forms. At bottom, recipes like my great-grandmother’s bean soup have always been valuable precisely because they are flexible structures that allow us to adapt to the circumstances and ingredients at hand. Together, we packed our freezers with Tupperware long ago inherited from our grandmothers when they’d sent us home with their soup, tangible evidence of their love. In a single spoonful, I am connected to aunts and cousins, in-laws and family friends, the living and the dead. We eat together, apart, and we are no longer alone.