Jasmine V. Bailey's nonfiction piece "Destiny of Cumin" appears in Issue No. 54: The Everyday.
JASMINE V. BAILEY
DESTINY OF CUMIN
ONCE I HAD A CHILD.
Forget when: let’s say two years ago. Since then, nights are part of day. My friend says, “How was your weekend?” and I don’t know what she’s talking about. All I can remember is struggling with black beans, a struggle that feels like it’s been going on for two weeks, but has been going on for seven years. The Biblical beauty of this fact should mean that some powerful (if unforeseen) resolution is at hand.
Two weeks ago, I became the latest person to buy an Instant Pot, which is a little like finding Jesus. By which I mean that sometimes love is strongest when it’s new. That can be so with Jesus and Instant Pots as well as slender boys. I started delicately by steaming eggs and green beans, then went in hard with black beans. It says everything, the attempt at black beans—it says that I dream of a kitchen that produces the kind of food it takes a dedicated, full-time cook to make while still spending no more than an hour a day in that kitchen. My favorite part of cooking is the dreaming about it. Often, by the time a particularly onerous dish is finished, I would prefer something else for dinner. When I make black beans, I usually wish we were having pasta.
THE PROBLEM is Dan, and the problem is everything wonderful about Dan. Cosmopolitan, relentlessly moral, he is the kind of man who speaks three foreign languages fluently and three more very well. He is that person, but he’s also that kind of person. After two years doing research in Russia for a PhD in political science, he did a year of field work in Brazil, and though he’ll tell you he loves Russia, though he’ll revisit Russia every couple of years, he loves Brazil. In Russia, he lived with an old woman who served him meals as part of his rent. Her favorite dishes were soggy, fried cauliflower and beef heart. Russia was like that. In Brazil, the weather was warm, bikinis abounded, and everyone seemed glad to be alive. He learned about feijoada, and a sweet old woman, the grandchild of a slave, taught him to make a simple version: black beans, a little cured pork, onions, garlic, and cumin.
Imagining Dan’s experience during that year, several before we would meet, I
am reminded of the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. His poem, “Infância” (“Childhood”), begins by setting up the quintessential mythic portrayal of happy youth:
My father rode off on his horse to the fields.
My mother sat in a chair and sewed.
My little brother slept.
And I, on my own among the mango trees,
read the story of Robinson Crusoe.
A long story that never ends.
This opening would be too on-the-nose if it weren’t the poet’s actual biography, and he is careful not to miss any detail of comfort and security that would matter to a child: both parents are present, the father is engaged in remunerated work, and is at least a horse owner, if not a confirmed landowner (which in real life, he was). The mother and younger sibling are quiet, at peace, while the book the narrator reads promises endless entertainment. The child speaker is at the grammatical center of every sentence.
The poet then disrupts the myth he had etched so carefully.
The speaker hears a voice: “that learned lullabies / in shanties from the slave days and never forgot them.” The voice calls the family for coffee, which the speaker remarks is “black as the old black maid.” The maid’s status as a servant in the household disturbs the sense of tranquility in the first stanza that assures the reader everyone in this private domestic world is family. This woman is subservient to those she works for and is physically separated from them. She is also, crucially, highlighted by her race: the family panorama she performs for is a space of cultural as well as economic inequalities. She has been a slave in the past, and in still holding on to the songs of those days, the reader knows she has not forgotten being owned, even if the speaker has. Coffee itself is a reminder of the plantations which temporarily thrived on the backs of tortured Africans. Drummond de Andrade paints a suspiciously perfect rendering of the myth of a happy, white affluent family, then reveals that their peace and prosperity is the result of the exploitation of black people.
I realize now that I misremembered what Dan told me about the woman who taught him to make feijoada. Though she may have been two generations removed from slavery, she herself lived in a kind of indentured servitude: without family and paid in room and board, she had nowhere to go and no means with which to leave.
I’VE READ many opinions on the topic of black beans, and I’ve tried so many techniques I could write on the subject with authority if my efforts hadn’t all led me to despair: soaking with salt, soaking without salt, cooking in the soaking liquid or fresh water, cooking with salt or without. I’ve never made black beans without it taking a whole day to get them soft enough: to that refried texture where the starch spills out of them and they’re suspended like jewels in themselves. The indispensable sofrito in itself takes hours. I don’t understand why recipes tell you you’ll get results so quickly, that the pressure cooker will give you soft beans in ten minutes. Is it a conspiracy, or are they just giving instructions for tough, watery beans, thinking that’s what we’ve come for? Has someone really managed to cook the kind of food people with servants and slaves enjoy, but without servants or slave?
HINA, MY MOM’S best friend, lives high on the hog in Mumbai, where she spends three months a year. “Their family owns the top floor of an apartment building,” my mother says in a tone of explanation, although this detail raises at least as many questions as it answers. “They have one person whose whole job is to cook vegetables. I can remember someone delivering a flat of mangoes and Hina making ice cream.” I haven’t known many people who grew up with the amount of domestic help Hina was accustomed to in India (and which she doesn’t quite enjoy in California: pool boy and gardener two days a week); in fact, I haven’t known many people who grew up with domestic help at all. But it explains a lot about her, like why nothing she says ever sounds like a suggestion, why she is so quick to assume sabotage. I read about an uprising that took place in a posh neighborhood on the outskirts of New Delhi in which maids who were paid abysmally and had to walk miles from the slums where they lived to the luxury condos where they worked went on strike. Their employers were distinctly surprised and distinctly unrepentant. One woman characterized herself as a benevolent boss, commenting, “I would give her tea before making her do her chores.” Even that word, chores. No one expects to be paid for chores.
I’ve only been proposed to twice: by Dan, four years ago, and once in 2000, when I was seventeen. He was named Fawad, he was from Pakistan, and he was only in his forties, although his hair was gray. He was diminutive in stature and a shrewd judge of marital value. I was working at a ridiculous store called Odd Job that sold a lot of crazy crap but never the same crazy crap two days in a row. It was out of business by the next summer, but while I was there it felt like it would go on forever. He came in to shop, and I was nice to him, as I was specifically instructed to be to everyone, especially weird men, my entire life by my mother. I may have been wearing some jewelry that initiated a conversation that led to me mentioning that my family lived in Saudi Arabia for eight years. Some wrong impressions may have, unintentionally, been given.
A few days later, Fawad started working at Odd Job, and I think I kind of knew it was headed in the nuptial direction. He waited about two weeks before laying out, as we hung up some very odd clothes, what he had to offer: a struggling angel store in the Olde Historic Towne of Smithville, New Jersey, and a mother who was still alive. An angel store is a store that sells angels. I have always been excited by possibilities—and as it’s rude to turn someone down right away, particularly when they’ve taken the trouble to find work at Odd Job, I told him I would think about it. My father advised me in the strongest terms against this marriage. He predicted, “He’ll expect you to get up early to start making breakfast, and you’ll be cooking all day.” At seventeen, the proposals were few and far between. It’s nice to be wanted. You wish you could go on being wanted without having to give up so much.
If I had married Fawad, he would be in his sixties now, assuming he lived, which of course he would have under my excellent care. Poor Fawad. He is so frail these days: some days he eats nothing but khichri, some days he takes only cereals. His soul is becoming purer and purer.
I ALWAYS LOVED cooking and wanted someone to cook for who would eat all the idiosyncratic food I wanted to make on any given day, often for the first time. When I moved in with Dan, it was an experiment whose outcome was uncertain: we had lived five hours apart, we’d already broken up once in fairly spectacular fashion, and I was newly unemployed. My relocation was saved in large part by the disorder of the old farmhouse he lived in: it gave me enough to do to avoid overthinking our relationship minute by minute. That summer, Dan was off from teaching, and we raised chickens and a garden and readopted a cat from my ex boyfriend. Sometimes the chickens broke into the house and stood in the middle of the dining room suddenly still, out of ideas.
During these months, I began the project of perfecting black beans the way Dan likes them. When he made them, they took a whole day, but he didn’t make them often and rarely cooked at all. I put them on regular rotation, the only meal that was. I had the time to nurse slow food between reading and cleaning and writing and weeding. I soaked anything you could soak: grains as well as beans, contemplating all the things I could do with them the next morning. I remember standing over the stove boiling bagels and dipping them in a caraway-seed and dried-onion mixture inspired by my favorite Wegmans bagels (misleadingly called “Russian bagels.” Misleading, because they were good). I wasn’t at all bent out of shape by the time black beans took—if anything, I hated that they made so many leftovers, compromising my cooking possibilities for days afterward. But that didn’t last forever. Dan and I stayed together, and I got a job, lots of jobs. I’m still getting jobs.
Being a mother is a job, although no one pays you for it outside of Norway. Scratch that. They pay you for it in lots of places, but not in the United States. Being a mother is difficult to write about because everyone feels differently about it. When you begin to experience it, you are tempted to think there is a conspiracy—why did they all say the beans would cook in ten minutes? But the mystery is in the beans themselves, the water, the altitude, the pressure, the final, ineffable outcome you are chasing based on someone else’s memory of something made by a woman you didn’t know, but heard about, or read about, and whose problems and joys you will never understand because most of the time connection to other people eludes us, and we are very lucky when it happens, or when we imagine that it’s happened.
DID I SAY that I make black beans because I love Dan? Did it come across that I love the man he was before I met him, and I want to keep that man, even the teenager, the child, before him, alive in any way that seems plausible? Does it ever feel to anyone else that the pressure, the heat, the sheer time that your love lasts will destroy everything you love about the one you love? Do you ever get to the end of the most exacting, interminable dish and wonder if this was really the best destiny for those onions, that cumin, that water you lugged from the drugstore because the tap water here is contaminated? Do you ever watch yourself in the middle of the most quotidian task, lifting the lever of the beans in the bulk section of your local Whole Foods knockoff, and suddenly question why you’re doing it, whether the value you suppose it has, the vague plans entailing it, are right at all?
FOR THE LAST two years or so, I haven’t slept much. For a while I hoped that would become a source of deepening mystery in my thoughts and perception. In other words, I hoped it would make me a better writer. But it made me tired.
Dan and I talked about having another child, or, more precisely, about not having one. It’s hard to say no to a possibility. It’s hard to accept that doors close. It’s the beginning of death, or feels like it is. It’s the beginning of noticing death more urgently. We finally articulated the fact at the heart of the matter, which took some time to find: the possibility of having another child was no insurance against the loss of the one we have. This is not the book of Job. She cannot be replaced. There are other men, single men who want women. They abound. But they are no protection against losing Dan. A family is a group of people who hope they die before the others.
One of the worst crimes of slavery must be its violence toward family. The same violence can be true of modern servanthood. I have met rich people’s servants who only see their families, left behind in their home countries, for a week or two each year. Even before the prisons our government put immigrant children into, families have been forced to separate by American immigration policy, or lack thereof, for decades. That we do this to workers who make less than a living wage and have none of the securities of citizenship denudes that policy for what it is: an arrangement that frames the absence of economic freedom in a different rhetorical formula.
DAN BOUGHT special curtains on the internet that promise to cancel out light and even some sound. They were meant to improve everyone’s sleep. They are ugly and cost one hundred dollars. There’s no question that, living on a main artery in Lubbock, Texas, and having a street lamp right outside our bedroom window, light and noise affect our sleep, and because he sleeps closer to the window, this was particularly true for him. Our daughter seems to be sleeping somewhat better, although it’s only been a couple weeks, and she goes through phases of better and worse sleeping. She has learned words like dark and bright; she will learn any word for any reason. And for some reason she is suddenly willing to announce I tired, although she is no more willing to go to bed. Since daylight savings time, the sun doesn’t set until after eight. Today is May 9, and the sun will set at 8:36. In this respect, as well as the pungent sewer smell after rain, where we live reminds Dan of summer in Brazil. The curtains are a good idea, but you can’t fool a smart kid into thinking it’s night when it isn’t, and the curtains don’t make work start any later.
They also don’t cancel out thoughts. After our daughter woke last night, I lay in our dark room worrying about when I would manage to edit an essay some journal may or may not publish in a year. When would I work, make dinner, work out, take a shower, and still spend most of the day with my little girl? What delightful thing could we do to make her forget I’d been away so long?
I got up and walked into our living room, which is the same room as the kitchen and the little nook where we eat. The room is surrounded by windows that let in not only the light from the street but the lightning of a thunderstorm that, in our bedroom, you could barely distinguish from the central air. I stepped into a theater of lightning, thunder, cacophonic rain, and the definitional wind. I lay down on our futon wrapped in percussion and orange, the telltale smell of cumin still thick in the air. I slept like Bolívar in his hammock, weary and still committed to all the old dreams, until 6:24 when the real dawn came.
Jasmine V. Bailey is the author of Alexandria (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014), Disappeared (CMUP, 2017), and the chapbook Sleep and What Precedes It (Longleaf Press, 2009). She was the winner of Michigan Quarterly Review's Laurence Goldstein Prize, was a finalist for the 2018 Gulf Coast Translation Prize, and has held fellowships at Colgate University and the Vermont Studio Center. She is a contributing editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.
Read the other poems, stories, and art from Ruminate's Issue 54: The Everyday.
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