Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lillian R. Again and Again

I was a new vegetarian in 1977 when I moved to State College, PA, with my 3-year-old son to attend Penn State. We happily explored the town together and found what would be our favorite food store for the next six years. It was called New Morning Natural Foods and it was my first experience with recycling and buying in bulk. We learned to reuse glass and plastic containers and scoop our own honey and tahini and peanut butter. We carefully folded and saved small brown bags for dried beans and grains.  

We fell into the reuse-recycle routine easily, and I realized why almost immediately. On one of our trips to New Jersey to visit my mom, she loaded us up, as mothers do, with bags of groceries, leftovers and road snacks. One of the bags was a little brown paper lunch sack with her name, Lillian R, written in her beautiful Palmer Method cursive. She'd used it to take lunch to her church sewing circle meeting, saved the bag, brought it home and passed it on to us. She grew up in the depression, and saving was a way of life.

We added the bag to our collection for shopping at New Morning. The first time we used it the shopkeeper noticed the name and asked about it. I told him about my mom and her lunch and New Jersey. We decided there must have been another Lillian at the sewing circle, prompting her to add the 'R'.  We used that bag over and over, week after week, for beans and rice and bulgur and nuts. Every time we went to the checkout counter the shopkeeper would say, "Ah, we've still got Lillian R." I told my mom she was famous at New Morning and we laughed about it.

We took good care of that bag and used it for a very long time. One day I noticed it was missing from the pile. I don't know what happened to it; it just disappeared. But by that time the habit of reuse-recycle was a way of life, in part because of our personal connection to that one little bag and the pleasure we got from seeing my mom's name again and again.

America's had a tough time catching up to many other industrialized countries in recycling, maybe because we're a throwaway society or maybe because we have so much land that using some for garbage dumps doesn't seem to matter much.We're finally getting the hang of it, though, even if we're not quite as sophisticated as some places.

A few years ago on a trip to Germany I got sick on a morning train to Passau. I was dizzy and nauseated and by the time we got to the station I had to throw up. I grabbed the empty bakery bag from our breakfast pastries and hurled. Now grossed out in addition to dizzy and nauseated, I stumbled through the station looking for a trashcan to dump the bag. What I found was a long bank of labeled containers with strict instructions for their use: metal, glass, plastic, paper, etc. There I was, holding a paper bag of puke, wondering which bin to use. I wanted to be a good recycler but between trying to translate the German lists of acceptable materials, and an inability to categorize the bag and its contents, I had a hard time deciding. Paper? Yes, but --- ? The bag started to leak and I quickly chose Mülle, which I think means garbage, but it was a stressful moment and I wonder even now if some municipal worker in Passau cursed my ignorance.

In my video production work I've been to many dumps and landfills and scrap metal yards and nuclear waste sites. It's staggering how much waste this country generates and we've really got to get a handle on it. All we  can do, I guess, is start at home. We save and reuse everything, and what we can't reuse we try to recycle. Jack thinks I take it to extremes when I wash and reuse plastic freezer bags, but we do what we can and I've got to believe it makes a difference.

New Morning Natural Foods is gone now. I loved that store; shopping there helped me make the transition to vegetarian cooking and the sandwiches they sold gave me tons of ideas for meatless lunches. The sandwiches were made with hummus or tabouli or something called miso pate, always on pita. The best-selling sandwich was called Peanut Better, a concoction of peanut butter, bananas, applesauce and raisins that weighed about a pound and was nearly impossible to finish. I have fond memories of those sandwiches and replicated most of them through the years.

This week I wanted to cook adzuki beans for Monday Beans, and thinking back to New Morning inspired me to make a sandwich they might have made. It's light and healthy, if a little messy to eat.

Adzuki Bean Salad in a Pita
(based on a recipe in Gourmet, September 1994)

1/2 cup adzuki beans, washed
broth to cover by an inch or so

Bring the beans to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until just tender. Drain. (I didn't soak these and it took about 50 minutes for them to be fully cooked. I don't know if soaking would reduce that.)

1 large carrot, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
6 stalks of asparagus, steamed and cut in 1/2" pieces
1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
a couple of handfuls of fresh parsley, chopped
2 2-inch strips of lemon zest, very finely julienned

Mix together in a bowl; add the cooked beans. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 clove of garlic, finely minced, 2 Tbps. each of olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over salad and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

At this point you can go several different ways. You can go Mediterranean and add fresh basil and grated Romano. You can go Turkish and add cilantro and mint. Or you can do what I did this time and add ground cumin, coriander and a little cayenne. Be creative and add whatever you're in the mood for.

Fill pita halves with the salad. Add sliced tomatoes and lettuce. Or just put it on a plate.

1 comment:

  1. Can we have this for lunch the next time I'm in the 'burgh? Yum. I never knew about the bag, but my laundry room is graced with crocheted rag rugs made from fabric scraps that Mom couldn't throw out. :-)