My brother-in-law’s grandfather was kind and had an infectious laugh, but he was also a tough old bird, and to watch him eat was to be shown what he had endured in his time. As a young man he had been a machine-gunner in World War I, which he spoke of as a life’s adventure, and when he came home he went straight to the mines and then the munitions factory. He was middle-aged in the Depression, in already-depressed southern Illinois.
Most holidays we all sat at his daughter’s kitchen table, with him at the head. He would load up his plate—once—with everything to be had: celery with cream cheese, pickles, olives, baked ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy, baked beans, southern green beans, dumplings, rolls and butter, cranberry salad, baked yams and more. After grace he dug in. He did not race through his meal, but he never spoke either and applied himself to the bounty with a will, pausing only to sip iced sweet tea. He ate seriously and pleasurably, looking at the food, and when it was gone—he never took second helpings—he used his last bit of bread to mop up the juices on his plate, and ate that too. Then he was done and seemed to come to, or come back from somewhere else.
The holidays have always reminded me of other generations’ attitudes about food. My mother, a child of the Depression, always made sure our Christmas stockings each contained an apple, an orange, and a handful of nuts in shells, along with the more pleasing chocolates, candy canes, toys, and coloring books. I thought of the fruit and nuts as mere filler and knew the fun was over when I got to the heavy lump of the orange in the toe of the sock, but she would inhale its fragrance deeply and comment on the fruit’s perfection, so I came to associate it with the miraculous. Even now I insist that Santa put those items symbolically in our boys’ stockings, though we have never faced citrus shortages or prohibitive cost in the supermarket, any time of the year. (Unshelled nuts are still a bit exotic: no one wants to bother.)
He ate seriously and pleasurably, looking at the food, and when it was gone—he never took second helpings—he used his last bit of bread to mop up the juices on his plate, and ate that too. Then he was done and seemed to come to, or come back from somewhere else.
New Year’s supper is the final and the homeliest of these winter traditions. We will want great northern beans with ham, best made from scratch, boiled with stock, vegetables, and bay leaves until they thicken themselves, and served with sweet cornbread. My Aunt Margie was the one who made them in our family.
My mom always said that Margie, an artist, started married life around World War II knowing how to cook only two things: fudge and spaghetti. Twenty-five years later Margie had added to her repertoire, mostly sweets that even as a kid I never really liked: strawberries hand-molded from Rice Krispies and chopped dates, rolled in red granulated sugar, and topped with bitter little green frosting stems; crescent cookies with almost no sugar in the dough but a blanket of powdered sugar on top that was easy to breathe in and choke on; and crumbly shortbread balls that were really an apologia for unexcellent butter. Spaghetti remained popular as a main course, as I remember, and the fudge was always tooth-achingly sweet and good, if a little granular. When she grew older and the husband she had tried to cook for had died, Margie dined like an ascetic, on toast and cups of hot tea, as if acknowledging she had been a culinary poetaster all along.
Still, some of my fondest food memories are from her kitchen, where there was a large round oak table with a lazy Susan that encouraged family-style meals and long walks, at which even the youngest had an equal role. My grown cousins taught me to play card and board games in that kitchen and let me taste kosher wine. At New Year’s, Margie’s great northern beans and ham bubbled on the stove until a light crust formed on top and starchy drippings baked hard down the side of the pot. Margie said every bean you ate that day was a dollar you would earn in the new year, though an exact figure could never be calculated since she would boil them until their atoms recombined to make a motile sludge that grumbled and steamed like a banker.
Never pin your financial hopes on a legume. Ham and beans is really about making use of what one already has at hand, driving one’s own good luck by not wasting opportunities, such as a few handfuls of hard beans and the inedible shank of a pig left over from Christmas dinner. It is food for the poor, who dream of dollars one at a time.
Enjoy a bowl this New Year’s. I have updated her recipe so even the well-to-do will like it.
Recipe for Instant Karma Beans
1 lb. bag of dried great northern beans
Leftover ham bone, with any meat still attached
2 or 3 cans low-salt chicken broth
1 medium onion, diced
1 rib celery, sliced thin
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. baking soda
Salt and black pepper to taste
Rinse and pick over the beans. Soak overnight in cold water. Drain and rinse.
Make a stock by bringing the ham bone to a hard boil in enough cold water to cover it. Skim foam and impurities during first 10 minutes. Add bay leaves, reduce heat, and simmer 3-4 hours, topping with chicken broth as needed to replenish what boiled away. The stock will need to be salty in the end to flavor the bland beans, but if it starts to get overpowering, top up with water instead of chicken broth. Some people like to add a little brown sugar, but there is no need if the ham was glazed. (Glaze will impart cloves and spice too.) Remove the bone and bay leaves when done. Pick the bone for any shreds of meat and return them to the stock. Discard bone and bay leaves.
If the consistency rounds the corner to look like porridge, you might as well stick an immersion blender in it and blend it all smooth. No harm done.
Sauté the onion, celery, and carrot in the oil until the onions are translucent. Add this mirepoix, the beans, and baking soda to the stock. Add water or broth as you see fit. Bring back to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour or until the beans begin to fall apart and their own starch starts to thicken them slightly. Pepper to taste; start with a lot and go from there. You could also use white pepper if you do not want to sully the bean’s color, or cayenne. Or let people add their own hot sauce at table.
The dish should be somewhere between soup and a stew. If the consistency rounds the corner to look like porridge, you might as well stick an immersion blender in it and blend it all smooth. No harm done. Serve with buttered cornbread and a glass of cold milk, and meditate on what just rewards would look like if luck were on your side. …
Editor’s note: This essay was previously published as part of John Griswold’s collected essays, Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life (2014, University of Georgia Press).