A couple weeks ago, Teju Cole, author of Open City (2011), came to Boston College to talk about his novel, his photographs, and his relationship with cities. He is one of those writers who seems to be professionally cool. Cole returned from the Congo only a few days before his visit to BC, and he showed us his photos from India, Baltimore, New York City, Boston, London.
“I think cities are better than places that are not cities,” were the first words he said, but he turned out to have a deeply complex relationship with what he thought to be one of the most innovative of human creations–the city.
More than a conglomeration of people, he said, the city is one of civilization’s greatest inventions–the grid-like web of streets, the high-rises, public utilities and transportation–all these systems had to be developed, they weren’t simply born. I don’t think he visits cities for their aqueducts and power lines, though.
City people, he said, are drawn there because of some internal, personal pull towards the people and the atmosphere, but the aesthetic beauty Cole finds in metropolises is written over layers of history, often histories of sorrow. His novel, Open City, which I’ve just begun reading, is partially a working-through of the trauma of 9/11, but also a love story with New York City. Each gem of experience, from a folk art gallery to a pile of leaves, is transposed like a palimpsest over wars, car accidents, engagements, floods, celebrations. In cities more than in less densely populated places, history is written and rewritten over itself, and Cole’s photographs, like the cities that inspire them, reflect a layered fragmentation.
His novel, I thought, posits a new post-9/11 mindset that is comfortable in the flux of competing narratives of history, an imaginative state particularly suited to what academic types are calling the post post-colonial world. Well.
All of this came to me after a crazy week that had me in Albuquerque, New Mexico Wednesday through Friday, and in New York City Saturday and Sunday. At the pop culture conference in Albuquerque, I encountered a diverse bunch of characters, from beer brewers to language creators, to Native American jewelry artists.
I’m not sure if there can be a much starker contrast of American cities–Albuquerque and NYC. I traded in the flat, dusty, openness of Old Town and the petroglyphs for the metro, the Euro Market, and celebrity territory.
Needless to say, I didn’t do too much cooking over the last several weeks. One of my post-travel go-to meals, though, is a really simple dish that’s always a great detox type snack–Italian white beans. This one is a favorite of my cousin’s. These white beans are dried cannellini (but Great Northern will work as well) cooked with the quick-soak method, with garlic, pepper, and herbs. They come out so simple and peppery that I have, on occasion, even eaten them for breakfast with a poached egg. They’re happy in pasta (You can mix starches! I insist.), on a salad, or in a bowl of sautéed spinach or arugula. The key is to drizzle them with a dark olive oil and a bit of lemon juice just before serving.
1 lb. cannellini or Great Northern beans
3 garlic cloves
5-10 whole peppercorns
Sprig rosemary, thyme, and parsley (tied with twine, optional)
Salt, to taste
Lemon, for serving
Olive oil, for serving
1. Rinse beans, remove any pebbles or funky looking beans.
2. Cover in a pot with lukewarm water (2-3 inches higher than beans). Rapid boil for two minutes, then let sit off heat, covered, for one hour.
3. Meanwhile, crush garlic cloves to remove skins (but leave whole), and tie together rosemary, parsley, and thyme, if using.
4. Drain beans. Refill lukewarm water (2-3 inches higher than beans). Add garlic, herbs, and pepper corns. Bring to low boil and simmer, lid tilted, for 20-40 minutes, checking frequently for doneness. I know that’s a huge range, but it really depends on the humidity and your preferences. Tip: when checking beans for doneness, always test 4-5, since some beans may cook at different rates, and you want a sampling of the general doneness of the whole pot. Turn off heat when beans reach desired texture. Mine are just on the other side of their last bit of bite, since I often heat them again later, and like them to have some texture. Le fiancé severely disagrees, and prefers a refried bean-reminiscent mush. Remove herbs and garlic and discard.
5. Serve with cooking liquids, a spritz of lemon*, and a drizzle of olive oil, hot, warm, or cold. Season to taste with salt.
*Whatever you do, don’t put the lemon in the whole pot–the acids mess everything up.
Below, Lauryn Hill, since I’ve been thinking about cities.