first published in ‘The Moth’ magazine
“The idea behind the story ‘Bean Popcorn’ was that a man becomes minorly obsessed, well in fact, not minorly obsessed, actually quite majorly obsessed with the idea of making bean popcorn. The obsession starts when he sees a cooking demonstration by a female chef during which she demonstrates the art of creating the aforementioned legume-based snack, the thing about this being that it is essentially no different from making normal corn popcorn but instead of using corn you use beans. The curious and surprising thing being that, as anyone in the world who has tried to make bean popcorn will know, beans don’t pop like corn, only corn pops like corn. Herein lies the nub of the mystery that so entices and tantalises the man, who, I might add, lives in an imagined future that is not so different from our own present, albeit with an incredible degree of market saturation by high quality foodstuffs.
For example, in one scene the man and his friend travel to a poor part of town where they see lots of poor obese people but instead of eating hamburgers and fries and the other classic-type calorie-laden convenience foodstuffs they are eating Pate en Croute, Confit de Canard, Foie Gras and so on. In another scene we see the son of the man, he is happily married and this is very important, demanding in a social situation, those situations when children can be very noisy and embarrassingly demanding of things caring not for the perception of their parents by the judgemental and in this instance somewhat disapproving other parents, it is in this situation that the son forceably requests he eat some very sophisticated and not at all childlike food, for example Pan Seared Cod Cheeks, or Passion Fruit and Stone Bass Ceviche or Andouilette de Troyes or something like that. In this context part of the appeal of Bean popcorn is its simplicity. But anyway, the point of the story is that the man becomes obsessed with perfecting the technique. He initially embarks on quite a long and arduous process of trying, through experimentation and observation, to discover just how the female chef did it. He tries every combination of all the methods and preparations he knows but to no avail. Being a determined character the man then contacts the female chef so as to ask her some extensive questions about the process. Not expecting an answer, imagining that this type of thing would fall under the rubric ‘trade secrets’, he is quite surprised when the lady chef woman is very quick to reply and seems more than happy to give him some information, although she will only do so if they meet face to face, which, in a future near ours, does seem slightly peculiar but is explained appropriately by the chef citing a phobic-level aversion to all forms of digital communication. This actually seems quite ok with the man, who perhaps takes a moment to reflect on the impact digital communication has on all our lives and perhaps how nice it would be to only communicate in the old mechanical/non-digital ways. So he goes to meet the lady chef, who turns out to be quite pretty and also a little crazy. She seems to be emotionally unstable and through a few of her behaviours, particularly demonstrative public behaviours, freaks the guy out. She seems like she hits the highs and lows a little bit too quickly if you know what I mean, see-saws from joy to despair and also appears to be attracted to the man, although of this he’s uncertain, even if she does insist, well not insist, actually just go ahead do, what she does is she holds his hand throughout most of the meeting, an action I’m sure most of you will agree is pretty weird from a stranger. The guy is particularly freaked out by this, as I said he loves his wife and would never dream of cheating on her for any reason. The information he receives from the lady chef is that there is a very specific type of bean that is necessary to make bean popcorn, it comes from the southwest of France and is a close relative of the famous bean of Tarbes, albeit less famous since it is only grown in one single tiny appellation. What then follows is a scene where the man goes through a huge long rigmarole in order to try and buy the bean, firstly in one of the many high-quality and ridiculously comprehensive food retailers near where he lives, the type of place that if you, for example, tentatively request some smoked Kala Namak they won’t even blink before directing you to aisle seven, but no matter how absurdly exhaustive their stock is they can’t help. Then he tries to find a retailer via the internet but again this doesn’t work despite of course the millions, possibly billions, of food websites in this imagined future. Finally he manages to contact the association of French farmers in the appellation where the bean is grown and enters into a vaguely humorous exchange with the farmers that is rendered absurd through their collective use of online translators, which mangle their words not to the point of complete misunderstanding but still with some confusion and general humour at mistranslation. Eventually though, and to his surprise, the man discovers that there is a supplier in Queens. He lives in Brooklyn and in this imagined future there is something of a dividing line between the two boroughs, as in an actual passport-necessitating dividing line, furthermore Brooklyn is basically your affluent middle-class type area, while Queens is much more of your poor ghetto type area, the twist being that the ghetto is primarily populated by the French, hence the aforementioned Pate en Croute and Foie Gras etc. (with regards to the hugely obese poor people). We then have a scene where the man and his friend, who is more knowledgeable in the way these things work, our man has never been to Queens, guides him into the ghetto and to the shop where the beans can be found. In the shop there is a parody of French customer service standards, that are, as anyone who’s visited the country will know, woeful. Despite the unhelpful and vaguely threatening sales staff the man does manage to obtain the beans, notwithstanding some suspicion as to the price, which seems exorbitantly high, like hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a couple of kilos of beans. Such is the man’s desire to complete his quest, he pays the money without even really thinking about it. He returns home very excited to be nearing success, however, when he sets about trying to make the bean popcorn using the beans that cost you know, like fifteen dollars a bean or something, it still doesn’t work. By this point he is pretty despondent and also pretty pissed off to have come this far and still not have his bean popcorn so he does the only thing he can and fires off another email, this time slightly pissy, to the lady chef and again they meet. The man is all bristling and kind of impatient with the woman’s performance on this occasion, just wanting to get the info and get out, while the chef is once again kind of hysterical and again holds his hand. The unfortunate news she imparts is that there is actually no recipe to make bean popcorn, there is no way of telling how a bean will act, one must observe the bean, one must try to communicate to it the necessity of popping, one must connect with the bean. His mood not improved by this information, feeling somewhat cheated and questioning why exactly she chose to tell him this now as opposed to before the vist to Queens, the man returns home. At the next available opportunity i.e. when the house is empty, he is, after all, a little embarrassed to be seen by his wife and child trying to ‘communicate with the bean’, and also not really thrilled about the prospect of his wife discovering that he’s spent a week’s wages on an act of folly. When he has the house to himself he sets about trying to bring his quest to fruition as it were, only to discover something we all know quite well, that beans are essentially inscrutable, and, while not necessarily known for it, also undoubtedly difficult to communicate with. The man has reached the nadir of his despair, not only does he feel a fool for pursuing this whole thing with such fervour, he also feels like a failure for not actually being able to carry out a simple feat he’s seen performed in front of his own eyes, one that basically amounts to putting beans in a dry hot pan until they pop. While he is cursing and hating on himself the man’s wife inexplicably returns from her friend’s house in a clear state of upset, and not just upset, actually upset at the man. He is confused by this situation and particularly by the vehemence of his wife’s hatred for him, hatred not being too strong a word. Attempting to get to the bottom of what’s happened and caring and loving his wife very much he discovers that his wife’s friend has twice observed his rendezvous with the female chef. It turns out that she [the friend] has a passion for the hijiki, ghoji berry and Kefir muffins served in this particular establishment. There has clearly been a mistake but as is the way with these things it comes down to her level of trust and understanding in him, there isn’t any readily available proof one way or the other and the situation is not helped by the fact that the ‘friend’ of the wife is more one of those collective group ‘frenemy’ types and obviously took great pleasure in imparting the news. Eventually and under pressure to save the marriage that he very much values and respects and considers to be the most important wonderful thing in his life the man is forced to come clean about the beans and the bean popcorn and his reasons for meeting the emotionally unstable chef. The wife is understandably sceptical and demands on pain of divorce that he demonstrate to her the making of bean popcorn. This obviously presents a problem. In the end the man decides that he has no choice other than to try. With a strong sense of foreboding and dread that this will be the last act of his marriage he puts the pan on the heat and pours in some beans. The two stand staring at the pan, the man’s brow beaded with sweat and his bowels feeling loose as this is the end of everything he holds dear. Just when the wife raises her eyes to him with a look that says ‘just what kind of fool do you take me for and this entire process is incredibly demeaning and adding insult to injury and I’m pretty much out of here’ there is a loud pop, followed by another loud pop and another and another and so on. The beans are inexplicably jumping into bean popcorn. The wife is joyful about the process, the man also, the argument is forgotten and they sit on the sofa discussing the vagaries of his quest and eating delicious bean popcorn. They are happy once again.
The close of the story comes with the man lying in bed recollecting the events leading to this point and the abiding mystery as to the behaviour of the bean. It seems that the bean might be reacting to heightened emotional states, after all, the emotions in the kitchen were elevated as was the emotional atmosphere surrounding the female chef. He therefore concludes that despite all his efforts and activities, all the human-type energy he put into it, success may not be achieved by us connecting with the inscrutable bean, but by the inscrutable bean connecting with us. He feels for a moment that there might be a lesson we could all learn from this, then rolls over to embrace his wife and falls swiftly and deeply asleep.”