There has certainly been a good bit of reminiscing about Ben Tucker the last week or so.
It doesn't take a lick of justification or explanation. At his farewell service this week, he was called a philanthropist, a great businessman, an ambassador and most of all, a friend.
There were some stories being told about his eye for real estate.
He didn't discuss it much outside of his inner circle (the great ones never do) but he definitely had that gift of knowing what parts of downtown Savannah were most likely to flourish.
don't know if he did or not, but I'd be willing to bet he made some smart investments in this city when he and his wife Gloria moved here in 1972.
So what is the point, you ask?
Ben Tucker was the first person to offer me money to cook.
My wife and I first moved to Savannah in April 1999. A year or so later, we found ourselves living a few doors down from Mr. and Mrs. Tucker. I actually met Gloria first, didn't know her last name.
Then many, many months later, I realized she was married to this Ben guy who was a big-time New York City musician.
Well, as the story goes with Mr. Tucker, he never really met a stranger. We became good friends.
He gave me advice on the golf course and he gave me advice about business. He passed along his story about being one of the people who created Schoolhouse Rock. Fascinating man, he was. Didn't take long to find out that Mr. Tucker was a big fan of Cuban food. He even frequented the same restaurants in New York City that my dad did once upon a time - small world, indeed.
Well, as we like to do in the South, I was making a Sunday-type meal, Cuban-style. There was probably lots of roasted pork, fried bananas and of course, the Cuban staple, black beans and rice.
I sent some over to the Tuckers and a legend was born (at least in Ben's mind). I took a phone call from Ben later that day. Yes, he called to thank us for the food, but he particularly locked in on the black beans. Best he'd had since New York, he said.
Sure enough, every time I'd see Ben after that it was, "Hey ... pardnah ... when are you going to make some more of those black beans?"
I found myself making them more often just so I could send some over to the Tuckers. In return, Gloria would send us some extras of dishes she prepared. I can absolutely testify that Gloria Tucker is a great many wonderful things, including a great cook.
Then came the black bean drought of 2002. I stopped making them.
Ben would ask and I'd say, "Soon, not sure exactly."
Until that one day he asked again, and I said, "Ben, why don't I just give Gloria the recipe. She can make them for you any time you'd like."
His response was very complimentary of his bride's cooking, but he wanted those beans to come from me. Then Ben Tucker floored me.
"How about you give me the list of ingredients every month and I'll go buy them, and you can have them all at home so you can make them more often?"
I had to laugh. Never before had someone expressed such an interest in anything I cooked.
Of course, I turned down his offer and any "extra for me" that came along with it. I had never, nor will I ever, charge a friend to cook for them.
The thought of it was laughable, but it was a great source of pride for me.
This was a full decade before all this Eat It and Like It stuff came into my life. In fact, when I first shared by business plan with him years later, one of his first questions? "When are you going to make those black beans?"
Of course, no matter what Ben's obsession with my black beans was, the mood was always playful. I will share with you, much like I shared with him many times: My black beans aren't the best I've ever had.
Not by a long shot.
But they are, however, better than my grandmother's - and she taught me how to make them.
Frankly, it has been a while since I sent over some Cuban food to the Tuckers. The last time he got to have some was at a Christmas gathering at my home a handful of years back. On his way out that night, I asked him if they were as good as always. "Oh, yeah," he said. That was good enough for me.
Now, of course, food is business for me. I look at food differently and I taste food differently, but at home, I'm still that same guy experimenting with flavors and fun while trying not to burn the rice.
We all have a million reasons to smile when we think about Ben Tucker. I have a million and one.
I will never make a pot of black beans again without a smile and perhaps a tear for our beloved "pardnah."
ULTIMATE FRIJOLES NEGROS (BLACK BEANS)
By Three Guys From Miami
Frijoles negros is a signature dish of Cuban cuisine. It's black beans cooked to perfection in a thick aromatic stew.
2 1/2 cups black beans, dried
9 cups water
1 1/2 cups onion, chopped
2 cups green bell pepper, chopped
5 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 tablespoons olive oil for sautÃ©eing, or 1/2 pound bacon and 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 bay leaf
3 tablepoons vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
(to drizzle over beans)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Yield: 10-12 servings
Cover the beans with water and let stand covered overnight. Drain and discard water.
Place the cleaned black beans in a large, 6-quart saucepan. Add water and olive oil - this will prevent the beans from foaming. Bring the beans to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour.
Do not add salt to the beans when they are cooking. Salt at this stage of the game will make your beans very tough.
You may also cook the beans in a pressure cooker. Follow the manufacturer's directions for exact times, but our pressure cooker takes about 20 to 25 minutes to cook the beans completely.
Whichever method you use, do not drain the water from the cooked beans.
Meanwhile, chop onion and green pepper. Mash the garlic with salt and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle.
SautÃ© the onions and green pepper in olive oil until the onions are translucent. If using bacon, render bacon fat in olive oil before adding onion and pepper.
Add mashed garlic and sautÃ© another minute or so.
Add the cooked beans, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, vinegar and wine. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf.
Some cooks - including us - like to thicken the beans by taking about 1 cup of beans and mashing them to make a thick paste. Mix the mashed beans back into the pot.
Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
Stir in the sugar, then drizzle a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over the beans.
Immediately cover the pot, remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.