A book is eventually finished. But its subject? Never, if a writer is lucky enough to have picked a good one.
I keep finding that out.
Back when I wrote Passionate Vegetarian (a process that began in 1991; the book was published in 2002), I had an idea, one which seems to me now both hubristic and almost touchingly naive.
I would write a kind of vegetarian ultra-Joy of Cooking. If an ingredient of plant origin existed on earth, a reader could look it up in the book and find it, clearly described and explained, with at least a couple of recipes or ideas for using it. I actually stated this, out loud, occasionally, as my objective, and worked diligently to achieve it.
But though the book eventually grew to 1110 pages, weighed in at nine pounds, and won a James Beard Award, I did not reach that goal. And thank God for that.
Because the earth is hugely too vast for any one individual’s puny self to grasp. If any part of that world, even its ‘ingredients of plant origin’, could ever be encompassed permanently in a single book, how much less our lives, and the world itself, would be. Less mysterious, less interesting. Less filled with the chance to learn, make discoveries with every step and every bite. Less finding out that, as the Beatles sang, “The farther you travel, the less you know.” Less surprise. Less wonder.
Shortly after I’d sent off the PV manuscript (though written on computer, it was the last one on which I submitted an actual paper copy, which filled 3 large cartons), Ned, my then-, now-late-, but always beloved husband, returned from a trip where friends had taken him to a fantastic international food market. “You would have loved it,” he told me. “But look what I got you!” He then cheerfully presented me with a bag of plantain flour. I didn’t quite burst into tears, but my thought was: how could he have done this? Here was an ingredient of plant origin that was not only not in the book but which I’d never even heard of.
Welcome to adulthood, Crescent; welcome to the fact that not only is being a know-it-all just not possible, even if it was, it’s much more fun to be a know-some-of-it, and live in a state of open, soft curiosity.
Humbled by the Bean
I am learning this again with the legume family, through Bean by Bean, my latest cookbook. I’ve spent six years on it, at the minimum. But legitimately and demonstrably, since I wrote another, much simpler cookbook called The Bean Book, in 1971 — 27 years. Or perhaps even, in the largest sense, one more spiritual than linear, it took my whole life.
But. If ever a person could lay claim to being knowledgeable about beans and writing a definitive book on them, it would be me.
Yet, “definitive” , I’ve come to feel — starting with that lovingly given, less than graciously received sack of plantain flour — always means provisionally definitive.
On the one hand, despite my best intent and effort, I have, in Bean by Bean, written a book that is incomplete. On the other hand, I gave it my best shot, and in so doing I fell in love with a topic that is more than worthy of the years of attention, curiosity, research, writing and recipe-testing I gave it. Too, if the topic is inexhaustible, it means I will go right on learning more and more about beans, as I did about cornbread after the publication of The Cornbread Gospels. And to me, that is not Sisyphean but very, very cool.
Am I happy with the completed Bean by Bean, which, to most people besides me, looks pretty durned definitive? Oh, yes. I like its title, a lot, a title chosen not by me but collectively developed at Workman Publishing, with the final twist by the president of the company, Bob Miller.
I love the book’s design, inviting and readable, and its colors — black and a vivid, sassy green —bright, also inviting, exactly what I would have chosen had I been asked. The illustrations? Most are lovely and seductive, especially those which lead each chapter: sensual, respectful of the food. That some of the smaller “spot art” pieces are cartoony, caricature-ish and to me, overly precious — well, “You have to take the bitter with the better,” as my mother used to tell me, always adding, “As my mother used to tell me.”
But there is no bitter whatsoever when it comes to Bean by Bean‘s cover. It’s not just “the better”, it’s the best. The cover, that all-important piece by which books, correctly or not, are often said to be judged, is luscious. It shows off the inherent sculptural diversity of the book’s real stars: the beans. And it pictures them in an old wooden box, divided and pegged. If you look closely, and you’re into this kind of thing, you’ll discover one magnificent and telling subtlety: the box is an antique printer’s tray. used, not so very long ago, to store physical type. This adds a visual subplot, a brilliant undercurrent: the cover says “writing + beans equal this particular book”. I was wowed from the first.
And I have heard person after person say, “Great cover!” And, almost as often, watched as person after person runs their fingers over the shiny stock, and identifies each pictured legume, sometimes pausing to ask my assistance. Chickpeas, split peas, pintos, lentils, — what are these, Crescent, these large speckled red-and-white beans, up in the left hand corner? They’re Christmas limas, I say, a delicious bean, taste amazingly like chestnuts. And these? Pigeon peas, I say.
Goongoo Peas: off the chart; at least my chart. Regretfully.
One day, I was sitting at my 96-year-old-mother’s kitchen table with two people who were looking over the cover in this way: Carlene and Sharon, two of my mother’s caregivers. Both are Jamaican. “Split pea, kidney bean …. and this one?” Sharon asked, “Is it pigeon pea?” “Pigeon pea,” I confirmed. “Yes,” added Carlene emphatically, nodding. “Back home we call it goongoo pea.”
Goongoo! What a word, round and soft as a bean cooked to melting tenderness itself, instantly lovable. But also, less happily: something leguminous I didn’t know, showing up right there at my mother’s kitchen table. “Goongoo, ” I repeated to Carlene and Sharon, rolling its wondrous soft heft around. “Yes, goongoo pea,” said Carlene authoritatively. She and Sharon both nodded.
I knew exactly where ‘goongoo pea’ belonged in the book: in that long, much-disputed chart in the back. In the appendix.
Called Basic Beanery, my editor and I disagreed about it. I knew a chart could only just scratch the surface: there are hundreds of bean varieties and they just wouldn’t, couldn’t all fit in a chart; she knew readers would want and appreciate a chart. (I was right; it is partial, and some readers and reviewers have already gotten huffy about the absence of more esoteric and heirloom bean varieties. And she was also right; some readers and reviewers have already praised the chart’s inclusion. )
There’s a column in the chart titled “Name(s).” Under ‘Pigeon pea,’ the following aliases are listed, parenthesized: “Congo pea, gandule; when split, toor dahl.” But not goongoo. Congo; goongoo. More internal rolling around: was ‘goongoo’ a Jamaicanization of ‘Congo’?
Maybe I could… wait, Crescent. Your book is done. Goongoo is not there.
You see? Provisionally definitive.
Another area I keep discovering things: quotes, which, had I come across them earlier, would have been in Bean by Bean.
I love, love, love finding and using quotes which reference particular foods or dishes; quotes not just from culinary books but from novels, travel guides, magazine articles, poetry (Rumi wrote a poem called “Chickpea to Cook“; Pablo Neruda wrote about corn, salt, hunger, flour, bread, tablecloths and many other food-related subjects ). Occasionally even a cartoon caption nails it (one that didn’t get used in Bean by Bean but should have, from the New Yorker, shows a boss announcing to a startled-looking room of employees: “Sorry, boys, but we’re cutting back on bean counters till we have more beans.” )
I love material like this, some funny, some sad, all interesting. Some quotes give information, but all offer context and vibrancy, revealing how people incorporate a particular subject — in this case, the bean — into larger life and their understanding of it.
And once I start thinking about something, it is astonishing how often related quotes turn up, often without my even looking for them.
Now, mind you, there already are lots of good quotes in Bean by Bean. And, it must be said that getting permission to use such quotes, when they are still under copyright, is a royal, time-consuming pain in the butt. It usually entails going not directly to the author but to the publisher.
When you are able to go directly to the author, it’s a different story. It’s easy, even fun. I was able to email the novelist Diane Abu-Jaber, who graciously allowed me to use her sensuous quote on the lentil-rice dish known as Mjeddrah, from her novel Crescent. “The smell of food always brought her father into the kitchen. It was a magic spell that could conjure him from the next room, the basement, the garage… he would appear, smiling and hungry. And if it was one of his important favorites — stuffed grape leaves, mjeddrah, or roast leg of lamb — he would appear in the kitchen even before the meal was done cooking… Sirine thought that this was why her mother cooked — to keep her husband close to her, attached to a delicate golden thread of scent.”
Ah … now that’s context.
And many years ago, back in 1982, I wrote Maurice Sendak for permission to quote the line “milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we bake cake and nothing’s the matter!” from his In the Night Kitchen. (I was able to get his address since we then shared a publisher.) Since the line was cake-related, I sent a sour cream pound-cake along with my request. Somewhere I have his scrawled reply: “Crescent — feel free to quote anything of mine, anywhere, at any time, in return for one of those sour cream poundcakes.”
But when you go through a publisher, things get exponentially more difficult. It takes an absurd amount of time-consuming bureaucratic paperwork, which must most often be done by snail-mail — not email, not fax. This is especially irritating when you consider how blithely everyone quotes everyone else on the internet, without even a thought of permission: as long as you give credit and a link, it’s considered a compliment, and helpful, to all concerned.
Plus, you always wind up going after permissions under an impossible deadline. Why? Because you can’t get them ahead of time (like when you first discover the quote). Why? The Permissions Departments of all major publishers want to know a few things. How many copies will the first printing be? How much will the book sell for? Will the quote you are asking about be set aside in bold-face or merely included in a paragraph? All perfectly legitimate questions. There’s just one catch: the author doesn’t know the answers. And her own publisher is likely to get tetchy if she asks “too soon.” Too soon is, in my experience, anything more than a month before publication. And, some questions have to be asked of the Sales Department, some of the Art Department, and some of one’s editor, who usually says, “That’s a good question. I’ll get back to you on that.” And may. Or may not.
It’s aggravating. I would never do it if I didn’t deeply believe in how much the right quote gives.
But even so: once the book is completed, turned in, edited, quote permissions achieved, off to the press, printed and bound, and finally, finally in the hands of readers,what is one to do when new unlooked-for quotes that would be perfectly relevant, still just keep on showing up?
Accept that definitive is provisional? Again?
While working on Bean by Bean, I only found one quote that fit the baked bean section, for instance. It was from Mary Cantwell’s memoir. American Girl: Scenes from a Small-Town Childhood. ““The kitchen has two stoves, one gas and one coal, and Esther keeps saying, ‘May, don’t you think it’s time you got rid of that old thing?’ Ganny won’t listen. She puts her bread to rise on top of the coal stove and bakes her beans in its oven.” That one’s in the book.
But after the book went to press, I came across another baked-bean-related quote, in Alex Witchel’s memoir Girls Only.The book’s at a friend’s house, not in front of me now, or, of course, I’d quote it directly here. But, it included the word “Mommy”, and had a tone of longing; both funny and exquisitely sad. The point is, it would have been a perfect addition to my book. But I found it too late.
Then, I came across this, which the King’s Cake recipe really would have benefited from. It was in the strange, compelling novel The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. It’s 1941, and Leningrad is under siege. A young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, though close to starvation, describes a painting: “There is a party in progress…a feast to celebrate the Day of the Three Kings. The traditional pie has been baked, and the older man in the middle must have gotten the piece with the bean inside, because he is wearing the crown of the Bean King. He is surrounded by happy, jostling couples, children… “The king drinks!” Glasses are raised… (there’s) the Bean King’s son-in-law… They are boisterous, rollicking. The only stillness… a hound whose eyes are focused with canine intensity on the ham in the Bean King’s lap.”
I do not have such a pie in Bean by Bean, but my King’s Cake with its hidden bean, would have been so much more marvelous with this quote. Why? Because, unclunkily, that quote tells the reader, food and art and celebration are connected; how can it be otherwise? A quote like that changes writing about food to writing the world through food: the deep feast.
And, then, going back to baked beans, I found this, in the novel Tracks, by Louise Erdrich: “Every day I took him to the shop and we set to work — sprinkled fresh sawdust, ran a hambone across the street to a customer’s beanpot…” There’s a whole discussion in Bean by Bean about how, to some people, beans without a hambone or salt pork is unthinkable, while to other people (vegetarians) its inclusion is equally unthinkable. Would not that quote, simple though it is, have been perfect right there?
This was not my first Louise Erdrich / Bean by Bean quote heartbreak, however. I’d already noted and set aside for use one from a short story of hers, Plague of Doves, which appeared in the New Yorker in 2004 (this gives you some idea of how long I work on these things), and which I longed to include in Bean by Bean. It was this: ““ For one whole summer, my great-grandparents lived off a bag of contraband pinto beans.” What a delicious invitation of a quote that is; it just makes you want to know more, and it also emphasizes, indirectly, beans’ amazing ability to swell and feed many on little.
But, the New Yorker couldn’t give me permission because by 2008, Plague of Doves was a novel. This necessitated going to the book’s publisher, which advised that it required eight weeks to answer permissions requests, which meant that I couldn’t get permission in time for Bean by Bean‘s publication.
Given how long I work on a book you wouldn’t think that limited time could cause omissions other than in seeking quotes from publishers. But it does.
Like the possible tweak to Julie’s Peanut Butter Cup Brownies. This recipe is in the book, and it should be; these brownies are a great, much-loved recipe. But they do contain both peanut butter chips, a non-natural foods product containing hydrogenated fats, and cut-up Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups. I knew, I just knew, that with enough time to fool around in the kitchen, I could come up with a just-as-good, and considerably healthier, alternative to both, which I would’ve liked to offer as a variation. But I just ran out of time to do this.
In that context, imagine with me, if you will, when after I did a 45-minute long interview on On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a listener, Eric Spears, commented by email, under that brownie recipe, “Surely, there must be a way of making these things without stooping to the candy (Reeces).” To which another listener, who gave his or her name as “Secretly Likes Reece’s”, added, “You know, I think the pb chips are worse… ” Yowch! But then “Secretly Likes Reece’s” offered a natural foods alternative: Sunspire Peanut Butter Chips, and noted, “I’ve checked the ingredients on Reeces and at least the regular sized ones don’t have either high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenized oil.” So, there you go. Live and learn; just not always in time, however, to get that new learning into your book.
(Relevant Digression: Sometimes I imagine a kind of hybrid book that new technology could make possible. It wouldn’t be a Kindle-type downloadable book, mimicking the print edition but delivered to the reader in a new form. No, it would be its own thing: it would have links, and there would be a way for writers to incorporate new information and discoveries, perhaps in a contrasting color. I have long regretted that with the advent of writing-on-computer, we are losing the incredibly valuable archives of writers’ drafts; we see only their finished versions, not the process by which a writer got there. By later addition, clearly visible — hence the second color — we could re-incorporate some feel of the process that those old scratched-over first and second drafts used to give young students of writing. That may seem a long way from Sunspire Peanut Butter Chips; but, speaking as a writer, it isn’t. End of Digression.)
Another time thing: Bean by Bean does not have a recipe for Gado-Gado, the fantabulous Indonesian main dish salad, which not only has a peanut dressing (peanuts are legumes), but cooked, chilled green beans, tofu, and bean sprouts, making it a quadruple play in bean-world. I really wanted a Gado-Gado recipe in there, but there was one small problem: I had never been to Indonesia. So, what it would have taken, timewise, because of the admittedly perhaps-over-perfectionistic style in which I do these things, was something like this:
- using my culinary connections to find a native Indonesian who spoke English and was a chef or at least a good home cook
- contacting, then interviewing, him or her about Gado-Gado and its history, background, regional variations
- Googling various Gado-Gado recipes and possibly watching You Tube videos on Gado-Gado making, comparing the recipes with each other and with the information and recipe or recipes I’d gotten from the Indonesian source
- combining what I liked best of all the recipes and narratives with my own sensibilities to develop one or two theoretical working recipes, which would be both traditional but with some twist that made it mine
- testing these recipes, analyzing what I liked and didn’t like, and getting the opinions of a few other trusted tasters
- Then, after doing all this, writing the final recipe in ultra-clear, detailed fashion, putting in all the little fine points only actual kitchen experience would have taught me, and which most internet or chef recipes omit, for what would’ve been Bean by Bean’s unique Gado-Gado.
When I turned in the manuscript, I had many recipes marked TK, which is copy-edit speak for “to come.” Some I had done once but wanted to revisit. And some, like Gado-Gado, I had not yet had time to do. Same thing with the classic Italian beans baked in a glass flask, in an open fire. I do so little open-fire cooking that I felt this was going to be a big deal to do and get right; maybe it would work the first time (after the same level of research as just described), but maybe not.
And given an unconscionable amount of wait-wait-wait-wait-okay-now-turn-around-and-get-this-back-to-us-in-24-hours stuff from my publisher (one expects some, but on this book, it was way over the top), plus an eleventh hour out-of-the-blue Oh!-We-just-realized-this-is-too-long-cut-it-by-a-fifth-by-Friday, I realized there was not only not going to be enough time, there was not going to be enough space in the book. I said goodbye to Gado-Gado, and to Beans Baked in a Flask, and a few other things.
But, in the end, I said hello to a good book. Nobody, it turns out, sees the missing Gado-Gado and beans-baked-in-a-flask but me, because it wasn’t missing to them, any more than the quotes that arrived too late. They see. and taste, the 7-Layer Middle Eastern Mountain, which is a great recipe, and easy, with authentic roots but hybridized in a brand-new way by the author (she said modestly). Or the-so-fresh-it-practically-leaps-off-the-plate Sugar Snap Pea Salad with Orange-Mint Vinaigrette. Or the CD’s Chile Mole, which, oh Lord, really is so good, sweet and hot and rich and seductive, impossible to stop eating. “… the recipes,” wrote an amazon reviewer, Richard Stringfellow. “I’ve tried 3 thus far. The edamame, bok choy, and broccoli skillet was first up and it’s a lovely winner. Lemon juice and zest offset the sharp flavors of the broccoli and meld very well with the edamame. The Connecticut Kidney Bean casserole with mushrooms, red wine, and tempeh bacon was a hearty main course that took the chill out of the air and filled it with delicious conversation. Finally, the lentil, mushroom, and barley soup is divine with white wine adding a subtle backbone to the dish.”
And they see, too, the Deep Feast aspect of it…the non-recipe, storytelling, integrate-everything-into-everything approach that is the heart and soul of truly good writing, about food, or the bean, or anything else. I was thrilled by this review in the Denver Post by garden writer Susan Clotfelter; she praises the recipes, the “encyclopedic reach”, the quotes, and “an irrepressible spirit of celebration.” Another amazon reader, Rachel Lamb, was kind enough to describe my writing voice as “… honest, passionate, life-embracing…” I am almost embarrassed to keep quoting her extravagant and generous praise, which I only hope I can live up to: “Crescent is the ultimate Girlfriend of all of us who love cooking. SO much more Oprah than Martha… the real deal, she hasn’t been invented by a cable TV mogul (there’s) approachability and empathy, what you see and what you get is trustworthy, real, experienced, improved, shared… In Bean by Bean you learn that you can eat the greatest comforting food on earth AS you save the earth…”
Not a word about the missing gado-gado.
The great New York Times book reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt once wrote, of a marvelous book about salmon fishing in Scotland, The Spawning Run, “I highly recommend this book to anyone with the slightest interest in anything.”
I can promise you that although I am a vegetarian and have not the slightest interest in fishing per se, Lehman-Haupt was absolutely right. William Humphreys, The Spawning Run‘s author, wrote the world (love, sex, culture, fish, geography, human beings in their infinite and quirky variety) through salmon fishing, and I remain enriched for having been right there with him by reading his book. That is what I aspire to do — to write about small things that reference the largest possible life-questions. Though I may never succeed. Though I get driven crazy by things like getting permissions or unreasonable deadlines along the way.
But this aspiration can be met only by forgetting all about it, laying aside the irritants of publication to the best of one’s ability, and, instead, writing, thinking, and falling in love with both the act of writing (again, as always) and the subject.
As I did with beans. And still am. And will be, I think, for the duration. Provisionally definitive is good enough for me.
It had better be, because if we tell the truth, provisional is really all there is. About anything.
A pot of Jackson Wonder beans, a variety not mentioned in Bean by Bean, is presently simmering on my stove with ancho chile, and coriander seed, diced butternut squash, and sauteed onion. It attests to this.
As goongoo is my witness.
Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life
Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.
|Date:||February 16, 2012|
|Place:||On Point Studio, WBUR, Boston|
|At the table with:||