All Beans Is Cooked With Meat
In 1976 I was travelling with a friend, name of Barry, up to the northeastern United States. Barry and I had both been born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and both had the urge to get out of there and see what the the wider world might have to offer. He was going to look at a college up in Vermont, and I was just along for the ride, figuring I'd check out Boston and New York City and wherever else I might find myself.
Now, growing up in the deep south should educate one on how to deal... diplomatically with certain types of people one is likely to encounter. I'm talking about folks not quite as tolerant, shall we say, of alternative lifestyles. What sort of alternative lifestyles? Well, like not cooking beans with meat (more on this later). Or dressing in clothes not appropriate for a day of deer hunting. Or, especially back in the year 1976, being a young man with long hair and that certain anti-authoritarian mindset that came with long hair back in 1976. And being Jewish (which my friend was). Or looking Jewish (which, apparently, I do, according to many folks I've met over the years). Anyway, when you're a little different down south, I guess you learn to act and speak with some degree of prudence and caution. Particularly, to not be too confrontational with that certain type of good ole boy who might think you'd look better with a pickaxe handle across your face. I'm talking about simple, basic survival skills which might just keep you from winding up pummeled, shot or tossed into the Chatahootchie River. This isn't quantum physics we're talking about. Like Tom Hagen said in Miller's Crossing, "it ain't complicated". We're talking mostly just a matter of not making too much noise when you find yourself in the wrong (red)neck of the woods: not letting that certain knucklehead you've been unfortunate enough to have encountered know that you are, well... smarter than he is. Just survival skills, really. Whether my travelling buddy Barry possessed such skills, though, remained to be seen...
We'd been driving all day, and we were hungry. We were somewhere in Tennessee: deep woods all along both sides of the highway. The sun was going down. We were in the proverbial middle of nowhere. An enormous illuminated word suddenly appeared on the horizon, towering above the pine trees. A SIGN. It was positively Biblical. It said, simply, "EAT". Which was exactly what we wanted to do. We took the next exit, and down the road a ways, there it was: a bland little pre-fab structure sitting humbly in the middle of a vast sea of gravel, the sea of gravel in turn surrounded by the deep, dark Tennessee woods. The gravel sea was, of course, the parking lot, made extra large to accomodate big trucks. One imagined truckers made up a big part of this particular dining establishment's clientele. But, there were no trucks at all in the parking lot. And only one other car besides ours, which you'd have to assume was the vehicle of the owner/operator of the eatery. We parked and went in. Sure enough, we were the only customers. We made our way to a booth under the not particularly welcoming gaze of a very thin (okay let's just say it, skinny) woman in a waitress dress. She looked to be about 40 or so. Despite the lack of customers, she looked tired. Maybe just tired of life. She did not appear to be a happy person.
She came over to our table after we'd had a little time to peruse the menu. I ordered a burger or something. But Barry was vegetarian (uh-oh...) and had certain questions to ask about how the food was prepared. I could already sense impending doom. He asked her about several things on the menu, determining, one by one, the reasons why they were inappropriate for human consumption. The waitresses' eyes began to narrow. A certain kind of hate and/or disgust was clearly visible in her expression, to which Barry was entirely oblivious. Finally he came to the baked beans on the menu. He asked: "Do you cook your beans with meat"? She gave him a seething look and said "ALL beans is cooked with meat". To which Barry replied "I don't cook my beans with meat." At this moment I became painfully aware that Barry was not a practitioner of the basic Southern survival skills described above. And I was fully aware that this situation could get unpleasant. Or worse than unpleasant. Barry then ordered some toast, and as the waitress walked away toward the kitchen, he went out to the car. I saw him through the window, fishing around in the back seat, looking for something. He came back into the restaurant carrying a big jar of organic honey. This, of course, was for the toast he'd ordered. It was also an enormously bad idea. The waitress, stepping out of the kitchen, didn't miss a beat: from across the room she said to us: "Nuthin' frum thah OUT-side comes IN-side!" I suggested to Barry that he take the honey back out to the car. He did. The waitress had gone back into the kitchen. But the next person to come out of the kitchen wasn't the waitress. The next person was a male. Not a small, friendly, unthreatening-looking male. No. He was a big, unfriendly, threatening-looking male. He was holding a spatula. He stood there near the kitchen door, glaring at us, for what was fast becoming too long. I was by now becoming fearful for our physical well-being.
What exactly happened next is not crystal clear in my memory, but I know it happened very fast. I believe we hastily informed the nice man that we'd have to cancel our order and be on our way. Basically we got out of there, as fast as possible. And, as I recall, for the rest of our journey, we steered clear of deserted greasy spoon diners situated deep in the dark woods of Tennessee or any other state. I accompanied Barry all the way up to Vermont, and enjoyed hanging around the pleasant campus of the nice little progressive college he would be attending, where one imagined the beans were never cooked with meat. Then after a few days I hitch-hiked down to Boston, promptly decided I would move there, and, about 3 months later, I did.
In the ensuing decades, I've cooked beans many, many times. Sometimes with meat, sometimes not.