Friday, 19 September 2008


Today, at the Tate Gallery in London, my attention was caught by a late Victorian painting titled Mammon. Painted in 1884-85 by George Frederic Watts, the painting depicts Mammon, the god of money, as a "cruel tyrant on a throne." Two young figures are prostrate at his bloated, gouty feet, presumably crushed by their service to filthy lucre.

Sound familiar? What with the financial meltdown of seeming colossi like Lehman Brothers, and the couple of trillion dollars it will take to rescue the mortgage defaults underwritten by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the subject of money, money, money has never been more topical. Perhaps Watts would argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- as he used both painting and writings to "criticize modern commerce and its de-humanising effect on the nation" (Tate Gallery, notes on the painting). Of course Watts lived in a world innocent of derivatives and short-selling, but presumably the problem of living beyond one's means and chasing the almighty dollar (or its sterling equivalent) has always been with us.

On the train journey back to the countryside, I read a bracing editorial which suggested that financial "hard times" can actually be an opportunity for a beneficial overhaul. Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto contends that "Abundance is bad for you. A tighter-belted Britain would be less obese, less profligate, less self-indulgent, less stuffed with junk food and trash values" (Evening Standard, p. 13). Having taken consumerism to a whole new level, apparently many of us are going to have little choice but to discover the pleasures of a "less is more" lifestyle.

So, at the close of this tumultuous week in the global financial markets, and in the spirit of "cutting back," I offer up a recipe for black bean soup. It isn't as cheap as stone soup, but it is a healthy and inexpensive dinner which can be fed to vegans, those who can't tolerate gluten, and people who are trying to avoid eating methane-spewing livestock.

Black Bean Soup
(serves 4, with leftovers)

One or two onions, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, crushed
Two or three carrots, roughly chopped
Two or three stalks of celery, roughly chopped
A can of diced tomatoes, or Ro-tel tomatoes (if you are lucky enough to have access to them)
Two to four cans of black beans (I usually use four)
A pint of faux chicken stock, made from Marigold Swiss Bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste

Gently fry the onion, garlic, carrots and celery in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, black beans and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and then simmer (uncovered) for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour. (I like to cook it for an hour because it makes the black beans get a lovely, creamy texture.) Season to taste.

Serve with brown rice.

Tortilla chips, guacamole and grated longhorn cheddar (red leicester in the UK) are all suitable embellishments, too, although not necessary. If you have them, and I usually don't, a squeeze of lime juice and some freshly chopped cilantro/coriander can be stirred in just before you serve the soup. A measure of sherry in the broth, and sour cream on top, is also very nice -- and makes for a soup which is slightly less austere.

Truly, this recipe is just a blueprint. It is a tremendously flexible recipe that you can add to or detract from without really spoiling. Sometimes I get a better "scald" (does anyone else know this expression?) on it than other times, but it is always tasty. I have been making this soup for ten years or more, and I've never had a bad batch of it.

After we visited the Tate, we walked along the Thames -- enjoying the fine weather and the spectacular sights of Big Ben and Parliament. Since we opted out of going into Westminster Abbey, thus saving 24 pounds, I suggested to my mother that we use the hour before the 4:18 train from Paddington to enjoy the relatively cheap pleasures of cappucino and people-watching. We hopped off the Tube at Sloane Square, because I knew of a place with could offer the above -- along with alfresco seating.

Perhaps it was due to the "Freaky Friday" effect of today's share bounce; perhaps it can be attributed to the rare and glorious sunshine or TGIF; perhaps it is just analogous to the orchestra playing as the Titanic sank. Whatever the reason, and despite the fact that it was mid-afternoon, all of the tables at the Oriel Brasserie were full and everyone seemed to be swilling champagne! Recession, what recession?

But just in case, black bean soup is good roughage.


Audrey said...

First of all Bee, glad you have rallied out of your funk! I missed you. There is a totally weird sensation around these days that I liken to the Nero fiddling effect. But then maybe everyone swigging champagne had to do with the fact that on Friday the market bounced way up. I can only hope that there will be some profound social changes coming our way. But who knows, obviously greed goes back a while as the Tate commentary pointed out.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you’re back! It sounds like you had a good time with your mother even if you couldn’t get a seat at your cafĂ©. I love the image of the Brits swilling champagne in the afternoon as the economy does somersaults. I guess the financial news isn’t doing much to get you out of your funk, but I hope the art helped.

Living on a tight budget last year in Oxford with the bad dollar-pound ratio (which of course improved once we left,) I have to say I liked the lack of clutter and how much more we appreciated treats. It was easier knowing it was only one year. We were still much happier getting home to a more comfortable and stress free existence. I do miss England though.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Sarah, living in England has helped with my consumerism too. I love being free of years and years of clutter (yes, I realize it's all waiting for me in storage back in Texas--bah!). Now if I could just bring myself to organize my paperwork, things would be a lot better.

Bee, your black bean soup recipe sounds so yummy. Any soup with a onion/celery/carrot/garlic/tomato base makes me happy. I bet your house smelled so good!

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, that was the worst part of coming home. All the boxes (shipped and stored) to unpack and sort. I was tempted to ditch it all. It took 2 months to finish unpacking and cleaning, but at least my office is as clutter free (almost) as it was in England. The packing up to move was easier because there was a deadline so I had to do it. Still, it's probably good to be forced to sort through your belongings and give stuff away to other people who will use it.

Nimble said...

Great minds -- I made black bean soup and corn bread for supper on Wednesday. For the first time I threw a spicy sausage link in too. V. good and so filling that I couldn't even manage that third piece of corn bread I had my eye on. I like to pulverize it with my immersion blender in the pan before serving.

I spoke with my mother today and asked whether she was worrying about the financial news. She said that she doesn't figure there's any point as there's nothing she can do about it. I agree and was surprised that she was being so practical. We touched on politics and agreed that right now it looks like if Obama wins it, it'll be a squeaker. Interesting times, yes, these are they.

Bee said...

Funk over: it must be due to the weather (lovely, lovely sun) because it certainly can't be attributed to any improvement in the news!
Yesterday I was doing errands in town and I went into Starbucks . . . which was full of teenaged girls, all of them chubby. It made me think of the Fernandez-Armesto quote.

I have one of those GRE style analogies for you:
"Nero is to fiddling as Jimmy Cayne is to _______.

Yes, I've been playing tourist for two weeks -- which has given me lots to write about! (It must have been a bit teeth-gnashing to have the dollar strengthen just as you left. Even slightly stronger, my mom kept converting everything into dollars -- which made it seem so wickedly expensive!)
The whole idea of living leaner is an interesting one that I want to explore some more here over the next few weeks.

Having lived for many years with lots of belonging in storage, I can wholeheartedly agree with you that we never missed anything! We usually couldn't even remember what was there. We buy all of this stuff, and we really don't need most of it.
I forgot to mention that this soup is also delicious with homemade tortillas!

We have very limited closet space -- which forces me to take something to the charity shop every time I buy something new.

Sometimes I puree my soup, particulary if I'm going down the sherry and sour cream route, but mostly we like it chunky.
Interesting times, indeed. At least it is giving the journalists something to sink their teeth into.

Lucy said...

After a good meal of organic sausage and mash last night, we started one of those how-we-should-all-stop-eating-these-methane-spewing-animals discussions, which always seem very hypocritical and a bit graceless after enjoying doing so. I would love your black-bean soup, but Tom's dietary exigencies would forbid his eating it.

One of my students once said 'Champagne should not be *banalisee*', but it sounds as though the Brits are banalising it for all they're worth; even after the Dispatches program the other night revealing some of the conditions of its cultivation, essentially on rubbish tips of all the old batteries and disposable nappies Paris can produce...

Amazing how the financiers who created the mess speak about it as though it's all down to forces that have nothing whatever to do with them.

Anyway, I'd like to be playing the tourist in London with you!

Brave Sir Robin said...


The boys do love black bean soup, perhaps I will make some this week.

It goes without saying that I am among the delighted to see a new post.

Mammon indeed. There is not a political or economic system in the world that hasn't been done in by human greed.

During the drive to San Antonio Saturday, David and I lamented that very fact.

I was asked this week why I am a liberal. I responded - Because the rich and the powerful will take advantage of the poor and the powerless -


-Unless there is a mechanism in place to protect them. That is why Governments exist, to make the powerful play nice.

Wonderful to have you back.

Bon Bon said...

I can vouch for the B.B. soup.I recall a Winters lunch some moons ago when we had not long returned to Englands green and verdant land. As we are in full on winter here I must galvanize myself in to preparing it for the clan instead of mounds of cake.. Bye the way that Tuxedo cake recipe was a huge hit this weekend and I have been aksed to prepare one for a birthday boy( OK man) Not a full paying commision but one of recognition at least. Hope to see you soon onmy whirleind visit.

Beeswax said...

I just bought 40 pounds of black beans, and then I wondered, what shall I do with them? So, thank you for the recipe...

Barrie said...

Love the segue from the financial disasters to your soup recipe!

Alyson said...

Love this post and the clever use of the black bean recipe in connection with the financial upheaval.

I missed reading you as I was disconnected from the internet for so long.

Bee said...

Oh well, I like sausage and mash, too, and in fact we ate that on Sunday night! It's a shame that Tom can't eat beans, though. Can he manage lentils? We had a nice lentil soup tonight. (I like to make a one-pot meal if I can manage it.)

You are so right about the banalization of champagne! It used to be for really special occasions, and now young women (especially) drink it any old time. There is no such thing as a "treat" anymore in our age of decadence.

It is good to be back . . . and I hope that I will be more regular in my writing habits . . . at least until next summer!

I always get really annoyed by the many ways in which the rich manage to avoid paying tax. It was strange to be in Monaco -- a country populated almost entirely by tax exiles.

Bon Bon,
I don't think there are many favorite recipes, either yours or mine, that we haven't managed to sample during the years! Please share a Peruvian soup recipe on your blog.
(I'm so looking forward to your upcoming visit!)

Oh, good! Tell me how you get on with it.

I'm all about connecting the seemingly unconnected! I will catch up with soon . . . sorry to be a blogging stranger.

I've missed you, and wondered what you were up to! I looked long at the Ben & Jerry's in the grocery store yesterday . . . but didn't buy. I did think of you, though!

Debski Beat said...

Sorry to be late on this one but I've been bogged down with flu but I am now ready to re-blog.

I have a book called Feeding The Nation written by Marguerite Patten during World War 2 for the British on rations, its not just a fascinating read but it sure shows you how one can cook and stretch a buck, I highly recommend it.

My son is working at FTSE he told me the other day that he witnessed the people coming out of the Lehman offices across the road, 4,000 people with little shoe boxes full of family photos, desk lamps, all that made corporate life personal for them, 4,000, he said it had to be seen to be believed, then he mentioned that they came out alive, a similar number to those that did not make it out of the World Trade Centre, he has a point and it made me pleased to see that he tries to see a glass half full and not half empty... I am trying to gain some of his perspective.

It is possible that I might have met Bon Bon, I would like to think I have .

I have looked at the website regarding Sarah Palin, what a read, like her or not it is a good site. I'll be waiting for the debates to start and will have to record most for the time difference is huge here in the UK. I am so aware that we are actually living a historic time, our Grans and Great-Grans will know they had family who lived through it.

Last thing, does anyone out there have a good recipe for Brunswick stew I am overwhelmed with corn from my organic veggie box and would love to make a huge batch my recipe I have here is not too good, any other fresh corn recipes would be greatly appreciated.

Alyson said...

I'm glad I was thought of, especially in connection with something so yummy! :-)

Are you still feeling funk-less? I hope so because I know how it feels to be in one and it's awful.

Bee said...

Feeding the Nation . . . well that fits right in with my blogging theme for the day: turnips. (Must look for that! Is it still in print?)

I will look up Brunswick Stew for you. I'm not familiar with it, but I have lots of old recipe books.

I've been reading about the financial crisis for the better part of the morning . . . and several financial experts in the U.S. are saying that if the Government doesn't bail out the banks we will have a financial meltdown the likes which have never seen before. Like Sarah Palin, it is frightening -- but compelling reading.

Believe me, I only think of "good things" when I think of you! Depression is gone, but everyone in my family took turns being sick this week and I haven't gotten back on blogging track yet.

Debski Beat said...

Feeding the Nation can be bought as a reissue on Amazon, there are other books of hers of that ilk but this is the better one.