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Beans and Baroque

Georg Philipp Telemann

This morning I have a pot of bean soup on the stove. These are pinto beans. We buy them still in their pods at a local grocery store. Tizi is obsessed with them. Whenever we find a basket full of pinto beans, she buys all of them, carrying out a whole shopping bag stuffed with beans in their mottled pink and white jackets.

Back home we shuck them at the kitchen table. Sometimes I help, because that’s a lot of beans. Also because it’s a pleasure to do the work together. Also because I really like the word “shuck.” Shucking beans is a silent, manual activity. That many beans takes us a half hour or so, grabbing the top of each bean by the stem and pulling it down the length of the pod, inserting an index finger into a gap and sliding it up or down, popping the beans, 4-6 of them, out of their pod and into a stainless steel bowl.

“More than we can eat,” I’ll say. 

“We can freeze them.” 

I’m a proponent of just-in-time grocery shopping. The idea of food stored long in the freezer, especially beans, doesn’t agree with me. Anyway, aren’t beans supposed to be dry? 

“Aren’t beans supposed to be dry?” I ask her. “Should we dry the ones we’re not going to cook?” It occurs to me that I don’t know how we would dry beans. Leave them on the kitchen counter? Put them in the oven? In the dryer? On the table, four bags of them are shucked and ready to freeze. “Four bags,” I say. “I mean, pretty soon our freezer will be a bean locker.”

“Don’t be silly.”

We freeze them. Next trip to the store, if she sees them, the process plays out again. 

This morning’s soup is pinto bean, onion, a leftover chicken leg-thigh that I baked yesterday, the meat stripped from the bone (the technical term, I guess, is “jerked”), diced and cooked first in olive oil with a splash of white wine, then in added chicken broth from a box. I would say it’s chicken chili, but I hold the cumin, which I feel is tragic. Tizi doesn’t like cumin. Instead, I add fresh rosemary. 

After I stir the rosemary down into the soup, the broth just over the surface of the beans-onion-chicken, I tap the wooden spoon on the edge of the pan. I tap it to the rhythm of La Cucaracha, 1-2-3 4 5.  

After every stir, I tap to that rhythm. I don’t know why. It just feels right.

Our response, our inclination to be rhythmic beings, must be part of our DNA.

Long experience has taught me that I do not have great rhythm. I’m a clumsy and leaden dancer. But the older I get, the more I connect with percussion in music I listen to. Anyone playing drums behind Sting, for example. Mitch Mitchell on early Jimi Hendrix LP’s–on “Fire,” for example, those stacatto triplets and stuttering pistol shots on the snare, drumming so intense I feel exhausted just listening to the song, all 2 minutes 30 seconds of it. Ringo Star on “Taxman,” again the snare, his rolls of fives–fiplets?–before the chorus–and “Come Together” (the latter of which I recently read Mr. Star regards as his favorite song in the Beatle catalog); Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints,” echoes of the jungle, of forested hills in Brazil. 

I could never drum. But In the kitchen, with a wooden spoon in my hand, I play La Cucaracha. 

Music and memory are my friends. I live by them. I live in them. “Music and dance,” Dan Falk writes in Knowledge Magazine, “are so deeply embedded in the human experience that we almost take them for granted. Without knowing it, we track pulse, tempo and rhythm, and we move in response.” Our response, our inclination to be rhythmic beings, must be part of our DNA. My friend Chuck has been leading African drum choirs in Atlanta for years. In the case of both kids and adults, he says drumming and rhythm unlock something inside them, a pleasure center, from far back in human history, that’s expressive and satisfying. 


The local store, our bean source, is Nino Salvaggio. On Sunday mornings it opens at 8:00 a.m. Inside I see Christos, a tall, talkative fruit and vegetable guy, and at checkout, Clarissa, a bulky African-American woman who smiles but ignores my banter that suggests to her that we could be friendly. “There’s an 18th century novel called Clarissa,” I tell her one morning. She nods. What’s she supposed to make of that? It has a sub-title, in the manner of 18th century British novels, “Clarissa: The History of a Young Lady.” I don’t tell her this.

“Would you like a bag?” she asks, nodding at the big bag of beans I’ve filled for Tizi.

“A bag for a bag?”

She lets this pass. “Do you have a rewards number?” 

I tell her I’m good.

“Okay, honey,” she says, “you have a nice day.

Part of the pleasure of shopping on Sunday morning is the drive to the store. I listen to Baroque radio on 90.9 FM in the car. To my knowledge, there are no drums in a concerto grosso. It’s just stately, ornate chamber music that I respond to, as if something in my psyche is deeply calibrated to those rhythms. If I believed in reincarnation, which I do not, I would say that I lived back then, in the mid-1700’s, that I did menial work of some kind–swineherder, for example, or farmer–and that one of my pleasures was lurking within earshot of a chamber orchestra making music. I stand close to an open window, brushing the dirt off my hands. Not really understanding the music. But moved by it. 

“What do you have for us today?” Well yes, I had something all right. A weekly nervous breakdown. 

This morning as I’m pulling into the parking lot, something Bach-like is playing on the radio. The lot is empty of cars. I accelerate to a parking spot near the store and stop, fumbling for my phone because I want to Shazam the music before it ends.  

My Shazam has been acting up lately, not always doing its job, but this morning it listens and reports: Essercizii Musici, by Georg Phillipp Telemann (I notice when the DJ says Georg–he pronounces it Gay-org), a composer who gives JS Bach a run for his money. This particular piece was written for the oboe, an instrument I can’t get enough of. For one thing, just the word, those vowels crowded around a solitary consonant. And its history–oboe, aka “hautboy”–an instrument that, in Shakespeare, is associated with doom and gloom, a prelude to disaster. This, from Antony and Cleopatra:

[Music of the hautboys as under the stage]

Soldier 4:     Peace! what noise?

Soldier 1:      List, list!

Soldier 2:     Hark!

Soldier 1:      Music i’ the air.

Soldier 3:     Under the earth.

Soldier 4:     It signs well, does it not?

Soldier 3:     No.

No, it does not. Coming from “under the earth,” the hautboys foreshadow Antony’s doom.  

Parked next to the handicapped section, close to the store, I listen through to the end of the Essercizi.


Where I was in graduate school getting a masters degree, the university had both a chamber orchestra and a string quartet. 

This was, hands down, the worst year of my life. Four lit classes each semester, more lit than I could possibly get through in a year, even in two years, some of which I suppose the department assumed I had already read and would now re-read, more deeply. I set out to read all of Leaves of Grass, every word of it. And all of The Faerie Queen, every word of it, in all six books, along with all the rest of Spenser’s work, in a very heavy book with very small print, which I turn to now when I can’t sleep. Worst of all was a course in the Victorian novel. Not a course, a seminar, for which we read a big fat novel every week and oral reported on it every week.  Each day we met, I was probably just getting to page 135 of the 600 page novel of the week. “So, Mr. Bailey,” the prof would say, “you were going to talk about character in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. What do you have for us today?” Well yes, I had something all right. A weekly nervous breakdown. 

With a few friends, I drank beer and ate pizza on weekends. That was a prescription for relief.

Also, solace, if that’s what it was, or escape or distraction, came on a few evenings I went to chamber music concerts. That year the university string quartet played four of Beethoven’s late quartets. 

Somehow I knew these were important pieces in Beethoven’s oeuvre (a word, as a earnest graduate student, I had begun to use).  When he composed these works Beethoven had been deaf for over a decade, unable to converse, unable to hear the music he composed. It’s hard to take that in. Like a painter gone blind. Like a choreographer, her imagination teeming with rhythm and creative movement, disabled by stroke. The work existing only in one’s mind and memory. About Beethoven’s A minor quartet, Masumi Per Rostand writes, “From the anxiously searching and manic first theme, to the heroically possessed final coda, it is a piece that only becomes more intriguing with time.” I enjoyed the music, was dazzled by the performers. But I haven’t been able to listen to one of those late quartets since then. They were context specific. I lacked–then and also now–any technical  understanding of classical forms, but the play was so precise, so intense, I walked away exhausted and moved.

The sax fills me with sadness and joy, with hope and despair

These Sunday mornings, beans bagged and held to my chest, I walk from Salvaggio down to nearby Trader Joe’s for bread. This particular morning, Trader Joe’s FM is playing in the store. Above the hum of the merchandising freezers and refrigerators, above the din of TJ’s workers swarming the floor and talking to each other, I hear Junior Walker and the All Stars, that unmistakable tenor saxophone motif above the rhythm section that begins play in a minor key, then steps down to a major seventh. “What does it take /  to win your love for me… ” Such longing in those sounds.

I grab a couple bags of ciabatta, wishing they would turn the music up.

“Too bad you can’t play this louder,” I say to the cashier.

She gives me a look. She hasn’t noticed the sax and vocal. Or if she has, she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t feel what I feel, remember what I remember. She’s half my age, from another musical universe. 

“This song,” I say. “I’m experiencing time travel. I’m back in high school, at a school dance in the Freeland High School cafetorium.” At the dance, the lights are low. I’m slightly confused by the song’s tempo, trying to figure out, is this a slow dance or a fast dance. The sax fills me with sadness and joy, with hope and despair.

She nods and smiles.  “Just the bread?”

“Remember high school?” I say. “The exhilaration, the turbulence.” 

Her answer: “Yes?” She points to the bag of beans I’m holding to my chest. “Do you need another bag? For your bread?”     

I can’t help myself.  I sing: “How can I make / this dream come true for me?”  

Sunday morning, before 9:00 a.m. I’ve had a few religious experiences. When I get back to the car and turn on the Baroque, it’s music for the lute. Driving home, I’ll go slow, taking the long way if necessary.

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