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March 9, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Crescent Dragonwagon cooks inexpensive, “generous” food, bean by bean

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If you’ve ever heard of Crescent Dragonwagon, chances are you haven’t forgotten her. She owned a country inn in the Ozarks, she’s a prolific and award-winning cookbook writer (you might know The Cornbread Gospels or The Passionate Vegetarian) and children’s book author, plus, she teaches writing classes that draw students toward a very different kind of soulfulness and nourishment, titled “The Deep Feast.”

Before all that, though, at age 18 — “when I was really a sprout!” — she wrote the first cookbook published by Workman Publishing, on beans. Nearly 40 years later, realizing it was “kind of their moment,” she’s published a new cookbook, Bean by Bean, filled with stories and with 175 recipes from socca (chickpea flour) crepes to Tex-Mex frijoles to a Thai-style green bean curry and Japanese red bean ice cream.

Whenever I talk with people about cooking on a budget these days, the first thing I hear is to start the week by cooking up a pot of beans. “It’s about 18 cents a serving for organic high quality protein. You can’t beat that at the fast food place,” Linda Watson, author of “Wildly Affordable Organic,” told me.) But Dragonwagon’s relationship with beans — yeah, I think I can call it that — goes beyond price.

Dragonwagon is in town this week, talking about her book at a free event at The Book Larder at 11 a.m. Sunday , and she’ll be teaching a Deep Feast writing session tomorrow, Saturday, at Camp Long. (Space is still available; register here.) We spoke by phone about scarlet runner beans and plain old pintos, about changing culinary tastes, and about how food is “our contract with being alive.”

On different types of beans (and why the current cookbook is arranged by course, rather than by type): “Most beans are kind of like human beings. They look differently, and have individual characters and flavors and personalities, but underneath they’re more alike than they are different. If you have a lentil soup recipe and you make it with black beans, you will have a black bean soup that is very good. It won’t taste like lentil soup, and it shouldn’t.”

On changes in the way Americans see beans now, compared with the 1970s: “It is kind of their moment. People are understanding a lot more people get fed on a pound of beans than a pound of steak. (They have benefits for) the economy, health, environmentalism, rediscovery of old varieties, and so on…

“(Beans) are actually an amazing plant in that they are the single plant family that leaves the soil better off for having been grown in it, rather than depleting it. That, to me, is one of their little amazements. Another is that you can eat them at every single phase of their life cycle… they’re such generous plants. And if ever there was a time in our society in general that we could use generosity, this would be it.”

On some of her own favorite types of beans: “Scarlet runner beans have bright red flowers the hummingbirds love. They’re very unproblematic, they don’t attract pests, (and) if they’re allowed to grow past the tender pod to mature (but not dried out yet) shell beans, those beans are bright pink with purple markings on them, a vivid, vivid, fuchsia pink… There’s a variety I grow in my garden called Musica, and it’s an heirloom, it was a New World bean but it was primarily grown in Spain…it’s a delicious, delicious fresh green bean. And of course, I would have to grow the Dragon’s Tongue beans.”

On changes in the American culinary landscape: “In 1972, in those days, if you wanted tofu and you were in New York you took a subway down to Chinatown, as hard as it is to believe. Now you can go into Wal-Mart in Albany, Georgia, and find tofu. Fresh ginger is everywhere, and things that just weren’t available at that time.

On that first 1970s book tour, she described the book to a Chicago cabbie, and he replied “Who the hell do they think is going to buy a book like that?” Now, she hears “Oh, yeah, we’ve been trying to eat more beans!”

On the very different subjects Dragonwagon addresses on her blog, which grabs at the guts and soul and epiphanies of life, versus her cookbooks: “I write about life through whatever thing I’m looking at. So on the blog, for instance, I do a lot of exploring about whatever…emotionally, is taking my attention. I wind up writing about life and death and living with life on its own terms. I’m doing that for me. I’m so the opposite of someone that tries to build a brand (through a blog). It’s amazing to me that people want to do that. Brands are for cows, and they don’t like it.

“Writing is the way I make sense of and am rooted in the world…but in my culinary writing I get the pleasure of thinking into something that is very much outside of myself. And here’s the thing with food, it’s our contract with being alive. We stop eating when we’re dead, and then we become food. When we’re born we receive food and then our physical selves turn into food…

“I do two basic things, I write and I teach… I get really happy when people have breakthroughs when I’m teaching writing — and when they make something out of the cookbook that turned out well, or buy that (new) variety of beans, or say “I wouldn’t have thought about putting snap peas in citrus-mint vinaigrette.” It all comes together in “the passionate belief in narrative as the thing that shapes life.”

On including some meat options in the recipes, although she’s become a vegetarian herself: It’s interesting to her that there are people who think it’s essential to have a ham hock or salt pork in a pot of beans, and people to whom it’s unthinkable. “Let’s just celebrate what we can all like, and be tolerant of each other.”

On learning: During Dragonwagon’s Cornbread Gospels tours in Memphis, the doorman greeted her at a hotel, and they began to talk about her book. He debated getting it for his mother, but worried she might be insulted, as “she thinks she makes the best cornbread in the world.” He told Dragonwagon his mom’s style, and “even though I had spent six years on cornbread, his mother had a trick I’d never heard of.” (It had to do with toasting cornmeal in advance, making an extra crunchy layer in the hot buttery skillet.) “My jaw was down on the pavement. How could I have studied cornbread for six years and not have ever heard that?…Just because I finish a book, it doesn’t mean you stop learning, ever.”

On the affection for beans that seems apparent in the book: “We live in a strange world. One year it’s raspberry vinegar and the next year it’s coconut water. We kind of fall in love with these new ingredients — harissa, smoked paprika. I’ve been around cooking long enough to watch them come and go and come and go. But beans are a pretty solid ingredient that’s always been there, and they’re kind of having their moment in the limelight because of their intersection with the environment, health, and heirlooms, and farm-to-table.

“I’m just glad that I’ve been friends with them for so long.”

Have more questions for Dragonwagon? Find her in Seattle this weekend, or she welcomes your conversation on Twitter.

Crescent Dragonwagon photo courtesy of Workman Publishing

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