“Danny’s not having pasta,” my daughter says.
We’re setting the table for lunch at her house. I’ve brought a pot of ragu and tagliatelle, which we’ll eat with a generous dusting of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. If I were on death row, this would be my last supper request.
Her husband, I gather, is in a training, thinning, low-carb phase just now. She sets down a medium-size salad bowl where his pasta should be. It’s not a salad. He gets cannellini beans and tuna, with chopped celery, parsley and scallions, a couple drops of vinegar, and olive oil, a lot of it.
Please, could I add something to my last supper request?
Please, beans and tuna.
The day of revelation, when I discovered how well beans and tuna go together, came in May of 1999. I had taken a small group to Italy for eight days of heroic eating. In Florence that meant a lunch at Buca del Orafo, a restaurant my wife took me to in June 1978, a few months after we were married. Just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio, this cellar restaurant features, among many other delights, the big Florentine steak, suitable for heroic eating, served back then by an avuncular waiter named Piero whom we came to love. Every return trip to the Buca had almost as much to do with Piero as it did with the food.
This particular day, while we waited for a pasta, then the steak, Piero brought us cannellini beans and tuna for an antipasto. A minute after he set the dish down he returned to the table and suggested we add some of their amazing Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. He held up the bottle. The oil was luminescent green. Of course we said yes. A few minutes later he returned again and surveyed the table, saying, “Guarda come sono bravi miei bambini.” Look how good my children are. They’ve eaten everything.
The beans and tuna were gone.
Never to be forgotten.
I am now, and have always been, a bean eater.
In the household I grew up in, there was one church, one God, and one bean. That bean’s name was Navy (“navy” for the beans served to US sailors in the 19th century). Also known as the pearl haricot bean, boston bean, white pea bean; a common bean whose Latin name is phaseolus vulgaris.
A vulgar staple, navy beans were local and abundant. They grew in fields surrounding our town, not by the acre but by the square mile. In our family we ate navy beans in soup, we ate them boiled and ladled over bread, we ate them baked in crockery distributed by one of the local grain elevators called Freeland Bean and Coal.
The crock came with a baked bean recipe that was heavy on brown sugar and molasses. What’s for dinner? B & C Beans, my mother would say. B & C for Basler and Campbell (not Bean and Coal), the families that owned the elevator. The recipe should have been called R and B beans, for Ruth (Basler) and Betty (Campbell).
In my formative years their recipe set the brown standard. No other baked bean could compete. At potluck events not in my town, when I plunged a serving spoon into a bowl or vat of baked beans, I did so expecting to taste a diminished thing, a bean that, no matter how brown, paled in comparison to the baked beans I knew.
Over time my taste for beans grew broader, more ecumenical. In my wife’s family, on Christmas Eve, we ate chickpea soup. The chickpeas came from a couple Progresso cans and were boiled close to the point of disintegration with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil, served, naturally, with a little pasta swelling in the broth.
At that point in my life, I knew chickpeas mainly as garbanzo beans, having seen and studiously avoided them at the Sweden House and at other ample grub cafeteria salad bars. Funny word, garbanzo. The term comes into English from the Basque language by way of Spanish. Basque for chickpea was “garbantzu,” which Bon Appetit foodist San Dean reports is “a combined form of ‘garau,’ meaning ‘seed’ and ‘antzu,’ meaning “dry.” So: Garbanzo.
In Italian they’re called ceci (CHAY-chee). A reliable source for recipes, food history, and etymology, Bon Appetit traces chickpeas back 10,000 years, to the Middle East and to the ancient world of the Mediterranean, citing “cicer” as the Latin name for them. From “cicer” comes the Italian ceci, leading to pois chiches in French, and from chiches to the chick in the English chickpea. “Cicer” is also the origin of the great Roman orator’s name. His family grew chickpeas. From cicer, Cicero. Just think, if Basque had been the language of his time, today we would read and admire the works of a rhetorician named Garbanzo.
A few weeks ago I learned that Mario, one of my pals from our building in San Marino, passed away. He was 77. Whenever we parked in front of the building to unload our bags, just arrived in Serravalle after the 14 hour trip, Mario was likely to be sitting out front. He was warm and chatty, a great conversationalist who practiced that art all day long. He also had, as they say in Italian, a big fork.
One Tuesday morning I was standing at the little fruit and vegetable mercato in the piazza up the street, stuffing fava beans in a paper bag.
“I love these things,” I said. They were in season. They were local, fresh, the pods deep green, soft and velvety.
He smiled and said he grew them in his garden, down in Dogana. He said he had more than he knew what to do with.
The next morning I found a bag on the floor next to our apartment door.
I will never eat a fava bean and not think of Mario. Anymore than I will eat a chickpea and not think of my mother-in-law, or beans and tuna–and pasta with peas and ribollita–and not think of Piero, or baked beans and not think of my mother and Betty Campbell. These are legacy foods.
The sage that grows next to our house is coming in right now. I reach down, rub a few leaves between my thumb and forefinger, thinking: fagiloi al’uccelletto: beans boiled with sage, garlic, olive oil, and a touch of tomato. Also, and always, I remember Teresa, the lovely woman I thanked for that dish every time she served them at Trattoria Mario.
Guarda come sono bravi miei bambini.
I eat my beans. Their beans. So good.
Betty Campbell was one of, if not the best cook in Freeland. Betty Booth too! I am going to try the cannellini and tuna.
Love your writing.