Posted on June 25th, 2012
I once made the perfect bowl of rice and beans. Big deal, right? Well, it kind of is, mostly because I’ve never made it again since.
I’ve been squarely within the rice and beans income bracket for a long, long time. In college I’d try to smear my summer earnings across the year, a thin sheen of solvency that usually lost its luster by the first round of midterms. And since graduation my general aversion to anything even approaching a living wage combined with the lingering after- effects of the liberal arts/vegetarian educational complex has kept things tight and legume-oriented.
So I’ve made and eaten a lot of beans and rice. Figure at least once per week for the past 14 years, for a grand total of… somewhere around 728 batches? Repetition might be the key to expertise, but when it’s a result of limitations instead of dedication, it can be a real bummer. And as much as the dish itself has become a badge of honor to the artsy, academics and broke people everywhere, that’s not necessarily because it’s always good: it’s more because it’s efficient, economical fuel for humans.
If great meals are symphonies, my beans and rice is “Smoke on the Water.” It’s basically just chop, sizzle, crank, plop, stir and eat. I’ve kept things pretty basic for the most part: a can of beans, sautéed onions and garlic, maybe some chili flake, a bit of cumin, and cayenne pepper all mixed in with some brown rice (for extra nutritional weight). At some point, though, things started to get a little weird. I don’t know if I was blissed out on my primary source of sustenance that summer — staff meals at two very good restaurants — or if it was boredom or just the lack of consistent access to staple ingredients thanks to extreme transience (I was like a Bedouin when I lived in Portland, OR), but some deviation from the norm had left me standing in the kitchen of a house just off Alberta street, shirtless in the August heat, pulling a pot of perfection off of the stove.
What was it? I had been messing around a little, playing spice rack roulette, but what did the trick? Coriander? Turmeric? An extra-generous pour of olive oil? The thoughtless rhythm of routine had robbed me of the details and I stood there dumbfounded, like a blacked out college kid trying to unforget the origins of an ill-begotten black eye. Somehow, just that once, the ordinary had reconfigured itself into the essence of the earthy goodness inherent in the two primary ingredients — something rich, savory, and hot but not blisteringly so.
I was used to moments of transcendence like that in low-lit dining rooms, usually the result of some artfully-plated amalgamation of delicate flavors and textures. This was entirely different: it was an ugly mess, a mud of simple sustenance, calories configured in a familiar, shameful state of dishevelment. But the flavor was as beautiful and pure as a newborn babe, a brief flash of light in an otherwise drab procession of the necessary — spontaneous and spectacular in spite of itself.
In the moment, I possessed an unusual presence of mind – I knew that what was happening, this happy accident, was a once-a-decade, maybe once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. I could see myself hunched over other ranges in different kitchens in faraway cities, flailing away, trying to recreate the moment but never quite reaching the apex again. So before it was back to beans and rice as usual — next week, and the week after — I tried to savor every bite, and I scraped the bowl clean.