Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule is the story of the down and out characters at a second rate (maybe even third rate) horse track in West Virginia. The really standout feature of the book is Gordon's use of racetrack lingo. All of the characters speak this slang-like language, and it admittedly took me a while to get use to it (and understand what was going on). I do think I may have missed some things because of this, but it really gave the book, for lack of a better word "atmosphere." Horse racing is a dirty and superstitious game, and throughout the book there was a sense of foreboding and danger - something bad was going to happen to one of the characters - it was inevitable. These beans were inspired by one of the main characters - Maggie. We first meet her through the eyes of an old African American horse trainer, who simply refers to her as the frizzy haired girl. Maggie has come to the track with her boyfriend Tommy Hansel - a handsome trainer with a dangerous side. Maggie seems in over her head, but loves the horses and is good with them. In one scene, Maggie makes a pot of beans as a sort of call to bring Tommy home to her when he had gone away to "see about a horse." The recipe she recited was irresistible to me...
Here is the excerpt from the book:
"Three pounds of beans, three cans of beer. Three cloves of garlic, mashed to a xanthous pulp. Three smoked ham hocks, purple-striped, stiff, and reeking, like obscene little baseball socks. Cider vinegar. Thyme honey. Hammered pepper. McNinch’s Loosiana Devil Aged Intensified Chili-Water (From an Olde Family Receipt). In her family house (her mother had hardly cooked and had died young), dry beans had been unknown, and Maggie could believe that the lifelessness of her childhood had had something to do with that fact, for surely sterile luck follows the exile of the bean. Beans, as the Pythagoreans knew, were the temporary lodgings of souls on the highway of transmigration. They sprouted beanstalks to giants in nameless upper regions."
This is definitely one of the best "food" paragraphs I have read in a novel, showing that food can be so much more than mere sustenance. The humble bean, exalted.
In addition the racetrack lingo, the book is filled with great racetrack names - Two Tie, Medicine Ed, Joe Dale Bigg, Kidstuff. These are the people that fill the horse racing world - owners, trainers, blacksmiths, jockeys, gamblers. All of the characters in the book are either tragic or evil. Two Tie, an old Jewish mobster and Maggie's uncle, exiled from the track because of a conviction of some sort, instead he runs things from his apartment in the sad little town the racetrack is in. He lives with his beloved dog, and would have a man killed if anything bad happened to his great-niece, who he never met before she showed up at Indian Mound Downs. Joe Dale Bigg is the bad guy - he just reeks of menace, he is an owner (or maybe a trainer) with clear ties to organized crime and a real mean streak. He would kill a horse just to make a point. In addition to the human characters, Gordon also vividly draws the horses as characters, again with names to prove it - Little Spinoza, Pelter, Mr. Boll Weevil and Lord of Misrule. The horses are as doomed as the humans however, and even after make an unlikely break away to win a race, you know that they will end up in a bad place, and soon. It must have taken an immense amount of research to get this novel right. While I would not say it was the most enjoyable read, it is undeniably beautifully written and admire Gordon for creating such a foreign (to me) and authentic world.
My version of Maggie's Beans (printable recipe)
I tried to create my own recipe based on Maggie's. Main substitution was bacon for ham hocks. I just couldn't find them. Northerners problem I assume. I also only made 1 pound of beans. I used pinto beans, but this recipe would work with any dried bean I think - kidney, black eyed peas...I just kind of improvised this, and that is what I would recommend you do, you can't really go wrong with a pot of beans and their are endless possibilities
6-8 slices bacon, chopped or 1 ham hock
1 pound dried pinto beans
2 bottles of beer
6 thyme sprigs
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
hot pepper of your choice, diced (I used a cherry pepper, not too hot)
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
hot sauce to taste
1 can tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
Directions: To pretreat the beans, I followed the method recommended by The Joy of Cooking. I put the beans in a bowl, boiled some water and covered the beans with the boiling water. I let these sit for 1 hour. I then cooked as normal. Put all the ingredients in a dutch oven. If the beer does not cover beans, add some water. Bring to boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender (1 - 2 hours).