Its not much to look at, in all honesty.
It’s a meal I ate every Friday night of my childhood – most of my adult years too – and the only thing that can be said of it is that it is remarkably beige.
It is simple food: a baked potato, scooped out of its skin. Navy beans (nowadays they’d be called Great White Northern Beans, and you’d want to mail-order Rancho Gordo’s heirloom variety) – cooked all day in a pressure cooker with a chopped onion, and perhaps some chicken stock if there weren’t any vegetarians coming for dinner. By the time I can remember fixing my own plate, there was always sour cream and Bac-O chips on the table to top things off.
Every Friday night my father would bow his head over our meal and whilst offering his thanks for the food on our table, would ask that his family remember the humble beginnings of the meal and be humbled in turn by the richness of our lives.
You see, once upon a time, this was the only meal that my paternal grandfather ate. It was the only sustenance that laid between a hungry early-morning wakeup call and a stomach-growling bedtime. My great-grandfather had taken off, and my grandfather was old enough to understand that he would now be the man of the family, and that somehow he and his mother would have to survive.
When he became an adult, married a shy-but-lovely farm girl named Roberta and started his own family, he instituted the Friday night meal of potatoes and beans, so that his family might never forget their humble beginnings, and might never forget how close the hot breath of poverty still felt in his dreams. Through the years he built a business that prospered, yet even as he chaired board meetings and snipped ribbons at dedication ceremonies, each week he asked his family to remember. Remember.
My father brought the tradition to his own family, and the meal of potatoes and beans (by this generation drenched liberally in butter, salt, and Bac-O chips) continued to be our touchstone – our very real reminder that life had not always been this easy. I think if you asked any of my friends from elementary school, high school, even college, most would recall the very singular Friday night menu at my house.
As impoverished newlyweds in graduate school, my husband and I identified perhaps a little too closely to the humility of the meal, but because of this, and because of the history, every Friday morning found me rinsing beans soaked overnight, and chopping an onion for the crock pot.
Molly Wizenberg, in her beautiful book A Homemade Life perhaps expresses the idea best: “Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.” Family histories are complex, family rituals multi-faceted, but the simple act of sharing of a meal will always get at the root of both our history, and our future.