Beans Beans the Musical Fruit
by Jeff Baker
The whole mess started because Steve saw the poster they put up in our dorm lobby about the 40th Anniversary Millington Chili Blowout. The school (University of Millington or Millington University) usually had a group entering the annual contest but this year some of it would be taking place right on campus because of construction downtown. So the University started urging campus groups to take part and enter their own team to compete with their own chili.
College kids usual idea of fancy cooking was using the microwave but Steve got the idea for us to enter the chili contest as “I Study Nada.”
We started calling ourselves that when we all found ourselves living in what had been the old girls dorm before they built the big new one. They used the old one to house the overflow when the other dorms got too crowded. I didn’t mind; it wasn’t that noisy and we were at the edge of campus which meant we were just a block or so away from the convenience store. The dorm was two stories and only about a third of the rooms were occupied and I’d hardly seen most of the people who were living there. Most of us either had jobs or were serious students or both and there were even a couple of guys the college just let rent rooms there. A few of the guys I did know started hanging out when we weren’t in class and joked about being a fraternity called “I Study Nada,” and it stuck.
It didn’t take us long at all to get a booth ready; we had it in the dorm lobby and just carried it across campus to where a few other campus groups had set up. We decorated it with the name “I Study Nada” designed to look like they were Ancient Greek carvings.
Making chili was not going to be a problem. It was about the only thing I’d learned how to cook before I went off to college. We were supposed to make it the morning of the contest at our booth, so all we needed to do was try out the recipe (we did) and be ready to make it that Saturday morning. The ingredients were another. matter. We got the meat stored in the second floor fridge and we had onions ready. The only thing we hadn’t counted on was Friday night after we tested the recipe our running out of beans. Our remaining cans of beans were way outdated and the stores were out of all the ingredients.
That was when Kev came to our rescue, he’d been growing the things. Part of a project for his botany degree, he had a bunch of cross-polinated beans growing in the greenhouse. They were safe he swore, he’d been eating them himself and he had a lot of them.
I went to the greenhouse with Kev Friday night; I’d really never seen beans in anything but a can (“its natural habitat” I quipped) before. But these were reddish-green and growing in pods about as big as my fist.
“One of these pods,” Kev said, “will fill up a couple of those cans. That’s what I’m trying for, an increased yield.”
“And you’re sure they’ll be safe for chili?” I asked.
“I’ve been eating them in my salads for months,” Kev said.
We took enough for a couple of big pots of chili.
The day dawned, bright and clear and we were set up in our booth next to the other booths on campus on the old tennis court that they hadn’t used in a decade. Our booth was a little bigger than a couple of portable toilets. We basically were a table with a big sign and a combination of plywood and cardboard, with a small cooker and a makeshift sink in the booth. From the front it looked like a glorified version of the booth where Charlie Brown seeks psychiatric help.
By nine that morning our first big pot of chili was ready and we could smell the chili from some of the other booths. Before we could sample any, we had our first sale; some Freshman I didn’t recognize who said he’d been up all night and needed breakfast. He bought a small bowl, pronounced it “Real good” and wandered off singing something I recognized from an opera I’d heard on the radio when I was dating a guy who loved opera. I was trying to remember something from the one opera Marcus and I had gone to see when a couple of other customers wandered up and we started dishing out chili in earnest.
We could smell the chili from the other booths and they were also doing a booming business. The competition wasn’t exactly fierce, one of the guys at the other booth gave us a thumbs up and about an hour later I took advantage of a pause in the serving to go over and sampled some of the chili from the other booths. Not bad, I thought. But that was when I started to notice the singing.
I had been thinking about opera so that might have been the reason I hadn’t really noticed but there were several people in the area singing opera arias. I recognized “Aida,” “Madame Butterfly” and “Carmen.” Some promotion the school was doing alongside the Chili Blowout?
That was when Kev nudged me and said “I think there’s something funny going on. Everybody who eats our chili starts singing like that.”
“The opera stuff?” I said.
“That’s opera?” Kev said.
“Think it could be those beans?” Steve started to ask but that was when the four judges for the Chili Blowout came over to our booth.
We glanced at each other. Couldn’t be. Too crazy.
“I Study Nada,” one of the judges read from his sheet, checking it with our sign. “Clever.”
We dished out four little cups of chili in smaller bowls. The judges each took a nibble, then a swallow. They seemed to like it.
Then they started to sing.
Years later I heard the song again and discovered it was a four-part song from “Marriage of Figaro,” but I never heard it sung as good as I did that morning.
By noon we were almost out of the chili and we kept an eye on our customers. The musical effects didn’t last long and they seemed none the worse for the wear. After all that, none of the campus booths won. Not even an honorary mention.
We shut the booth down after one-thirty and carried what was left of the chili back to the dorm. And yes, later that day we heated up what was left of the stuff and took turns sampling the stuff. Pretty good, and the strange side effect only seemed to happen when those beans were used in chili.
So into the evening, as long as the chili lasted, we were happily raising our voices in operatic song.