It has to be a cold day. Preferably the first really cold day of the season, when the wind has swept down from the north and left the yellow leaves dangling, threatening to fall all at once; when the still-green summer grass stands stiff and frosted. A gray mid-October day when staying at home is in order.
Pull out the slow cooker and the Dutch oven. Dice two big sweet yellow onions and sweat them in a puddle of olive oil. Throw in a few cloves of garlic. Observe the ragged, decimated head and smash and peel the last clinging cloves. Throw them in too. Divide the onion between the two large cooking pots.
Have a cup of coffee, feed the dog and read about the government shutdown, imminent default and economic disaster pending as balding white men with spray tans scowl and posture in palatial federally-funded chambers.
Outside the window, little white puffs of snow like errant lint from a dryer exhaust waft through the frigid air.
Pick through the bowl of pinto beans that have soaked in water over night. Take out shriveled ones and anything that feels or looks like a rock. Drain them and slide them into the slow cooker. From the refrigerator, four bunches of leathery collard greens. Separate the big fan-shaped leaves and drop them into a sink full of clear, cold water. Swish them around, drain the sink, then fill it again. Swish again until all the sandy soil has settled to the bottom. One-by-one, leaf-by-leaf, cut the thick white vein from the center. Pile three or four leaves together and roll them like a cigar, then cut them across the grain into thin ribbons. This curly mountain of greens looks as though it will never fit into the Dutch oven but it will. Drop the greens into the hot pot a handful at a time, stir with a wooden spoon and throw in more as they cook down. When each leaf is coated with olive oil and limp, pour in just enough chicken broth to barely cover the greens and turn up the heat. Add a palm full of dried red chile flakes and a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar and bring to a boil, then turn down low to simmer beneath a heavy lid.
Get the beans going before you get to the business of the day. Add five cups of water to the slow cooker, along with one or two chopped jalapenos or one nice, dark green poblano. If you’ve got it, throw in some chopped smoked ham. If not, don’t worry. Turn the cooker on high and stir in some brick red chile powder, some ground cumin and just a little dried oregano. Get them going on high, then turn the pot to low for nine or ten hours or however long it takes.
The dog needs walking and the house needs cleaning. Your son, the one with the allergies to animal hair, is coming home all the way from the East coast, a birthday surprise for his twin who lives here at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where they grew up as Colorado boys do —riding bikes, climbing on rocks, making giant snowballs, getting into good trouble outdoors. Suck up all the animal hair in one bedroom, shut the door and pray that he will be able to breathe when he arrives home.
Walk the dog through the neighborhood, past elaborate Halloween tableaus staged in front yards. A family of skeletons. A furry black bat dangling from the telephone wires. Spiders and webs strung along front porches. A demon with glowing green eyes. The dog circles, sniffs and relieves himself on the wire fence surrounding a makeshift cemetery of fake headstones and scattered plastic bones.
Go home and stir your pots. The kitchen is warm and damp. Salt the greens and the beans and grind in plenty of black pepper. The house smells like minerals, like wet iron.
Spend the rest of the afternoon reading and napping and cleaning and thinking about those boys, those men. It appears there is a plan afoot to keep the government running, to avert disaster.
Taste the greens, add a spoonful of brown sugar and a tad more vinegar, then turn off the heat and let them sit. Later you will make a buttermilk and cornmeal batter for soft corn cakes to sop up the juices.
Say a little prayer, that the yellow leaves will hang on to the trees for just a few more hours, for a day, until your son is finally home to see them.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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