Food prices are high. So’s unemployment. In a perverse way, this could be good news. Some of our most exciting culinary times have grown from poor soil. During the worst days of food shortages and ration cards, M.F.K. Fisher taught us how to cook a wolf (1942).
Frankly, many of Fisher’s recipes from that time scare me. However, I’m totally behind her belief that even in dire times — especially in dire times — we have to live, and we might as well do it stylishly. To her, it meant mock duck made with breaded flank steak. To me, it means rice and beans.
All right, they lack the glamor of duck, but rice and beans are not mock. They do not mock. They’re the real deal, the people’s food. They’re integral to who we are. Well, that sounds kind of high-minded, but it’s true. Almost every culture serves up its own version of rice and beans that sustains people, body and soul.
In Korea, it’s kongbap, soybeans and rice married in a sticky, sweet soy reduction. In Mexico, it’s arroz con frijoles, black beans and rice cooked together with a spark of chile and a heavy hand of cilantro. In India, it’s kichri, lentils and rice heady with turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, and fennel. In Egypt and throughout the Middle East, lentils and rice mean m’jeddrah (mujadarah), a comforting, cumin-scented dish topped with a blizzard of caramelized onions. What do you think fed the masses and helped fuel the recent uprising in Tahrir Square? It wasn’t mock duck.
I cooked up rice and beans by the potful when I put my husband through grad school. My dirty secret? I found it all a bit of a turn-on. In How to Cook a Wolf, in the chapter “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving,” Fisher wrote, “It takes a certain amount of native wit to cope gracefully with the problem of having the wolf camp out with apparent permanency on your doorstep.”
I was determined to show my native wit, to create meals that were delicious, nourishing, and still within my frugalista budget. Despite the abundance of pigeons in our neighborhood, I was damn sure not going to resort to Fisher’s recipe for pigeon. Rice and beans meant I never had to. They’re happy to take on the flavor of whatever vegetables and seasonings you add, so they offer endless permutations. They provide nourishment by way of iron, protein, fiber, and belly-filling satiety, all for pennies. But they make me feel replete for another reason. Rice and beans are the very essence of soul food — humble food that connects us by way of the stomach and the heart to the past and to each other.
In New Orleans, Monday isn’t Monday without RBR, the stewy, sausagey melange of red beans ladled over white rice. Red beans and rice is such an intrinsic part of New Orleans culture that Louis Armstrong used to sign his letters with “Am red beans and ricely yours.” More recently, RBR is what chef John Besh dished up to the dispossessed survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
In my home of Miami, beans and rice take on almost a dozen delicious iterations, flavored by our rich multicultural community. Every Cuban restaurant offers black beans and white rice infused with cumin, garlic, oregano, tomatoes, and a splash of vinegar. It’s deeply beloved and unfortunately named moros y cristianos, or Moors and Christians (I think you can figure out what the black beans are supposed to represent). Do not confuse it with congri, the ham-scented Cuban red beans and rice. We make Brazilian feijoada, Nicaraguan gallo pinto, Haitian riz et pois rouge, simple Puerto Rican rice with pigeon peas, and Caribbean rice with pigeon peas, brightened with allspice and lime and a Scotch bonnet kick.
There are splashier dishes by far, but none that feeds us on so deep a level.
When you make rice and beans, you’re not only making dinner, you’re keeping alive a great culinary tradition. Mark Bittman, who knows a thing or two about how to cook everything, said on this very site that if you learn to make only one dish, it should be rice and beans: “It’s the most important dish in the world.”
All this, and it’s still cheap. Look, poverty sucks; all hardship does. And yet, with a little native wit and some rice and beans, we can somehow summon the spirit to get ourselves through, the way we’ve been doing for centuries. This is really what I like best about us as a species.
Opposable thumbs are also nice.
Related recipe: Caribbean Pigeon Peas and Rice
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An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite