Friday, September 25, 2009

Red Beans Monday

During my years working in New Orleans' Central Business District, I have endeavored to observe the culinary clock of our city by consuming red beans for lunch on Monday and seafood gumbo on Friday, served at local lunch counters and po-boy shops. As every New Orleanian knows, red beans are the standard Monday lunch offering throughout the city, because, traditionally, Monday was a "wash day" and your beans could sit cooking for hours without much attention while you cleaned up. (Seafood gumbo on Friday is connected to the city's Catholic traditions, which historically forbid meat on Fridays. I am pleased to live in a city where eating a fried shrimp po-boy or a bowl of gumbo counts as religious observance.)

Sometimes on Mondays, but more often on Saturday or Sunday when I have more time on my hands, I'll make red beans for dinner. Cooking red beans requires some forethought - the beans need to be soaked over night - and is somewhat labor intensive with lots of vegetable chopping. Red beans is (are?) the only dish that gets me cooking first thing in the morning, even before breakfast, because the longer the beans simmer with the pickled pork, sausage, trinity, and seasoning, the better it tastes at dinner time.

Untethered from any real calendar aside from the one that measures the days of my baby's life during my paternity leave, I made red beans last Thursday (pictured above) and have been eating them consistently since. (Has anyone else tried eating fried eggs on red beans? It's terrific. A New Orleans version of huevos rancheros. In the New Orleans greasy spoon restaurant that I conjure in my mind when I happen upon some terrific, geographically specific dish that I have never seen in a restaurant, it would be a best seller. Along with my Leidenheimer po-boy bread pain perdu.)

I work from a recipe that I found a few years ago, from a New Orleans ex-patriate on the internet. (Chuck Taggart at Gumbo Pages.) I always use dried Camellia Beans because I love the packaging and because no other bean could possibly get so creamy. (I have never tried any other brand but became convinced on the creaminess point after reading an article by New Orleans' finest journalist, Katy Reckdahl, about New Orleanians stuck in Phoenix, Arizona after Katrina and their passion for Camellias: "Sabrina Williams cringes as she opens her cupboard and pulls out her last pack of Camellia kidney beans, the only brand that cooks down into creamy and smooth New Orleans-style red beans — impossible to find in her adopted hometown, Glendale, Arizona. But Williams' timing is good. Her parents are currently in New Orleans, mucking out their house, and they will soon return to Phoenix, suitcases heavy with Camellia beans.")

Here are the ingredients I use:

2 pounds red kidney beans, dry
2 large onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
1 1/2 pounds of pickled pork, without bones, diced, for seasoning
2 pounds hot smoked sausage, sliced and halved
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves, crushed
2 bay leaves
Red pepper and black pepper to taste
Salt to taste
Fresh sausage links, one link per person

The directions from Gumbo Pages:
Soak the beans overnight, if possible. The next day, drain and put fresh water in the pot. (This helps reduce the, um, flatulence factor.) Bring the beans to a rolling boil. Make sure the beans are always covered by water, or they will discolor and get hard. Boil the beans for about 45 - 60 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Drain.

While the beans are boiling, sauté the Trinity (onions, celery, bell pepper) until the onions turn translucent. Add the garlic and saute for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally. [I omit garlic.] After the beans are boiled and drained, add the sautéed vegetables to the beans, then add the ham hock (or ham or pickle meat), smoked sausage, seasonings, and just enough water to cover.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for 2 hours at least, preferably 3, until the whole thing gets nice and creamy. Adjust seasonings as you go along. Stir occasionally, making sure that it doesn't burn and/or stick to the bottom of the pot. (If the beans are old -- say, older than six months to a year -- they won't get creamy. Make sure the beans are reasonably fresh. If it's still not getting creamy, take 1 or 2 cups of beans out and mash them, then return them to the pot and stir.)

If you can ... let the beans cool, stick them in the fridge, and reheat and serve for dinner the next day. They'll taste a LOT better. When you do this, you'll need to add a little water to get them to the right consistency.

Serve generous ladles-ful over hot white long-grain rice, with good French bread and good beer. I also love to serve grilled or broiled fresh Creole hot sausage or chaurice on the side. Do not serve with a canned-beet salad, like my Mom always used to do. (Sorry, Mom ... try something interesting with fresh beets and we'll talk. :^)

If you are not trying to feed an army, or don't want a week worth of left overs, you don't have to make two pounds of beans. Make a pound. Feed a smaller army.

Monday, September 21, 2009

9/11 Satyagraha

On September 10, Nikki was four days past due at her midwife's office hoping to get some indication that our baby would come soon, that the pain and discomfort of ten months of pregnancy would abate.

It wasn't until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the eponymous attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman who we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife's office and, though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction scheduled for the following day because she didn't want her child born on such an inauspicious date.

Nikki's original due date, September 6, 2009, had a comforting numerical pattern, 09/06/09, eclipsed by the following Wednesday, September 9, 2009, 09/09/09, which struck me as a powerful set of numbers.* I had considered our baby's birth on either of those dates, or even on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2009, but had not looked as far as Friday September 11.

Having just moved from New York City to New Orleans a month before 9/11, with family and friends working in New York's financial district, and with my father and step-mother on New York bound airplanes on the morning of the attack, 9/11 was etched into my mind as a day of horror and anxiety. The fact that the attack was exploited as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties - in ways that may never be undone - only made the day more tragic.

But my wife was in agony so I reconciled with the date, posited that another day of early labor was infinitely less desirable than having our child share her birthday with a mournful American anniversary. I soon forgot all about days and calendars, which I traded for minutes and seconds, when I got home at around three or four and Nikki's labor had become much more pronounced. I timed her contractions - forty five seconds long every seven minutes - which tightened over the course of hours to ninety seconds long every four minutes around midnight, when we left for the hospital.

At the hospital, this continued for another five hours, during which time I tried my best to provide Nikki comfort, playing Bach's Cello Suites and Nikki's favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo that she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, Nikki began to seem really focused, distant, in a place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass's Solo Piano Works, thinking that the familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her.

When that ended with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, that it was long enough that we would not have to change the music again. "Satyagraha?" she asked. I hadn't remembered its name. I had burned it onto my computer, without even glancing at the liner notes, from the New Orleans Public Library's music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and words, though unintelligible, seemed true to me and more clearly resembling life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. "That's it," I told Addy.

It began with a low voice and a deep string instrument and wound around the room, sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, sometimes almost disappearing into the rhythm of Nikki's contractions and then her pushing. When the baby's head finally emerged in the water and as I held the tiny baby against my standing, fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then eventually stopped, unnoticed.

I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, "Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child."I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.

But as time passed, hours and then days spent with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly, necessary, for Rose, and others, to be born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy, as had occurred at least for our little family. I sent out an email to some friends, this time owning the date: "Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me."

I got a response from Rebecca Solnit, who I had met when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on magnanimity of people in the face of disasters. She pointed out that September 11, 2001 had been, for the most part, "a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy." But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe that the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906 is the day that Gandhi began to harnass non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called "satyagraha."

Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote for Gandhi and his vision of social justice. It is an opera, with a libretto of sanskrit words of the Bhagavad-Gita, in three acts, the first overseen by the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore, the second by Leo Tolstoy, and the third, the music of Rose's birth, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The name of the opera, of Gandhi's tool for harnessing the might of a people against their oppressors, satyagraha, is a sanskrit meaning "the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence."

On September 11, 1906, again one hundred and three years later, and innumberable times in between, people have seen it and can attest to its power.

*Apparently the date, or its inversion, 6 6 6, inspired a man to hijack a plane in Mexico so that he could bring the coming apocalypse to the attention of the Mexican president. The news originally reported that there were four hijackers but that was based on the hijacker's own representations. As far as he was concerned, he was there with three others, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Family: Rose Mae Sothern

Last week, Nikki and I drove around New Orleans listening to Glen David Andrews' new album, Walking Through Heaven's Gate, trying to get Nikki some distraction from the discomfort of the ninth month of her pregnancy. The last track on the album, Family, struck both of us and gave us some sense of what was approaching for us. It's a spoken word piece with New Orleans poet, Chuck Perkins.

Perkins describes the birth of his child:

It was watching my wife
After eleven hours of labor,

Whose eyes and face

No longer possessed the words

To describe her pain,

So she pushed.

It was twenty years of anticipating

What my child would be

And who she would be

And when I saw the tip of her head,

Before the slap,

Before the cry,

Before I saw her eyes even,

It was like I was about to meet a long lost friend

Whom I had never met.

Early this morning, after an epic, unmedicated labor, Nikki gave birth to Rose Mae Sothern here in New Orleans. I am in awe of Nikki and the little baby girl that came into the world this morning. New Orleans artists have a gift for describing the indescribable, but as much as I like Perkins' description of child birth, he doesn't fully capture the feeling of seeing your wife give birth to your child. I am not sure anyone could.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Borderland in NYC

Artist Maysey Craddock was gracious enough to allow me to live with her, at her creaky old house on Jena Street in New Orleans, in the summer of 1999, when I first came here. I worked a lot that summer - at an office full of renegade, British radicals trying to stamp out the American death penalty - but, at Maysey's house, drinking gin and tonic, there was an altogether different tone and feeling that could have only been in New Orleans, a city that I grew to love sweating in the summer heat on her back patio.

I lounged around the unairconditioned house in suit pants and an undershirt, having peeled off layers of my suit to get a break from the heat, which Maysey took as a good enough reason to start calling me "Boarder," in her elegant, high Memphis accent. To fulfill my role, I frequently drank in excess and put on twenty pounds of turkey necks, fried chicken, and red beans. It was as close as my life will likely come to a Tennessee Williams play.

While Maysey's work is "southern," it accomplishes this in the tradition of fellow Memphis inhabitant, William Eggleston, which is to say that it manages to be both highly vernacular and altogether universal.

Maysey has her first New York show, called, coincidentally, "Borderland," with an opening this Thursday at the Nancy Margolis Gallery. If you are in New York, you should go.

Maysey Craddock : borderland
nancy margolis gallery
september 10 - october 17 2009
opening september 10, 2009 6pm - 8pm

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Handmade by Kittee

Other than my girl Nikki, Kittee is pretty much the cutest girl I know. Kittee was one of the best New Orleanians until she recently moved to the greener pastures of Portland, Oregon. She is certainly the best person in Portland, a city that I have never been to and where I know no one but that I am certain could not possibly deserve her.

Aside from being outrageous cute, Kittee also happens to be one of the craftiest of all God's children (and a vegan chef of such ability that her cooking makes veganism seem to be a lifestyle choice of ridiculous indulgence rather than shirt-haired deprivation). For our little girl, whose due date is today but who has not yet arrived, Kittee made a closet full of beautiful, vegan, knitted sweaters. Each is a work of art.

I am especially fond of the baby shrug, the nicest baby shrug in existence. That shrug makes every other garment in the world wish it hadn't been born. It's why God made fiber.

Can you believe it?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Al Pacino's Doppelganger

I recently rewatched the Norman Jewison, Al Pacino film, And Justice for All . . ., about a good defense attorney in a bad system.

There a few things to like about it as a movie but its a weak piece of social commentary that essentially takes aim at the adversarial process in criminal court.

The New York Times review from 1979, by Vincent Canby, sums it up as follows:
With the exception of two old men, one of whom is senile, all of the characters in " . . . and Justice for All" have such low thresholds of emotional distress that I wouldn't trust one of them to see "The Sound of Music" unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. They dress sloppily. They talk dirty. Yet they are of an innocence that boggles the mind and sinks the movie.
And, concerning Al Pacino's character's distaste for representing someone guilty, Canby rightly observes that the system requires just that:
If you follow what seems to be the film's feeble point to its logical end, it is that our judicial system is rotten not only because of the people who administer it, but also because it provides safeguards for the accused. The next step, one should think, is a nice, predictable law-and-order state.
(I don't often see people get that issue right, as Canby did. You have to provide a defense for everyone, whether or not they appear guilty or innocent, because there is no way to determine guilt or innocence until you provide that defense. And because the question of culpability is often a hard call, we err on the side of acquitting the guilty because we have far greater abhorrence for the possibility that the innocent might be convicted.)

The only reason why I am bothering to comment about this imperfect film is that it made me blush. You see, Al Pacino's character is a lawyer in his thirties. I am a lawyer in my thirties. Al Pacino runs around an old criminal courthouse in Baltimore. I run around an old criminal courthouse in New Orleans. Al Pacino makes pompous legal arguments to indifferent judges. I make pompous legal arguments to indifferent judges.

But here's the kicker, Al Pacino drives around town in a blue/green 1973 BMW 2002. And I drive like a maniac in a blue/green 1973 BMW 2002.

I would prefer to think of myself as Pacino's Frank Serpico, or his Michael Corleone, but instead my doppelganger is Pacino's Arthur Kirkland. I'll live.

If you are interested, Pacino's slightly famous (and ridiculous) "You're out of order" speech from And Justice for All . . . is on You Tube. It denigrates the Sixth Amendment and Blackstone's maxim that its better for ten guilty men to walk free than one innocent man to languish in prison but it's fun to watch and a classic Al Pacino-yelling scene.

***The photo of the BMW 2002 is the same year, color, and model as mine but its in far better shape (and I am sure has much less character).