Bean & Arugula Salad, for Pythagoras

8 Oct

Last night, I watched a movie called Le Quattro Volte.  I hadn’t read any of the reviews, so all I knew is that it contained no dialogue, it was set in Calabria, and it had something to do with Pythagoras and goats.

The movie is slow and beautiful and, if you are patient, rewarding. It reminded me of a book I’ve been reading, The Plant in My Window, by a late New York Times reporter Ross Parmenter.  In that book, Parmenter describes watching a lonely plant growing stubbornly on his urban window sill. As the book progresses, his ability to see and his awareness of seeing – and that of his reader’s – deepens.  This is what watching Le Quattro Volte feels like.  It’s also a movie that inspires contemplation, a mood that lingers long after the closing credits.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I woke up this morning still thinking of the movie, and of Pythagoras.  I remembered learning about his theorem in geometry class, and thinking of him as a great mathematician.  I was a bit disappointed when I called up the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy over my cup of coffee and learned that scholars aren’t really sure what Pythagoras (570 to 490 BCE) contributed to mathematics because he didn’t leave behind any writings, and some say that his later adherents tended, for their own reasons, to idealize him and his achievements.

There are some things, however, that scholars do agree on, at least for now: that Pythagoras believed that the human soul transmigrates from human, to animal, to vegetable, to mineral on its long journey toward death (the main theme in Le Quattro Volte), that he believed in the virtue of silence and in the “music of the heavens,” and that he firmly believed that humans must abstain from eating beans.

Which I found a bit ironic since Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, 35 miles southeast of Chios and 1 mile west of the Turkish coast. The island is known for the sweet dessert wine it produces from its local muscat grape and, as cookbook author Diane Kochilas has written, for making “some of the most interesting bean dishes in Greece.”  Broad beans, white beans, and chickpeas braised with onions and served with arugula; lentils stewed with onions and chard; and bean purees that “still call for the Neolithic vetch, a pulse that has always, it seems, been eaten in Greece but whose place on the modern table has faded,” –except from the tables of Samos.

Harbor on Samos (

But back in Pythagoras’ day, beans may have been too sacred to eat, since it may have been believed that their stalks provided conduits for all those restless, transmigrating human souls as they journeyed from one stage of incarnation to the next.

Today, Greeks honor Pythagoras and his followers for their contributions to philosophy, math and music. Vegetarians honor him as one of their earliest supporters (people who abstained from eating meat and fish were said before the early 1900’s to be following a “Pythagorean diet”). And women honor his society for allowing women philosophers, including his wife Theano, to participate fully in his society.  But I am so glad that his injunction against eating beans has long been abandoned, especially by the people of Samos, who continue to cultivate and cook such wonderful bean dishes capable of lifting – if not quite transporting – my soul.

Bean Salad With Arugula from Samos (From Diane Kochilas, The Glorious Foods of Greece)

  • 1/2 pound dried navy beans, picked over and rinsed
  • 2 medium red onions, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed (minced)
  • Some olives or 1 Tablespoon of capers, rinsed and drained
  • Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar, to taste
  • 1 pound arugula, trimmed, washed, dried and leaves torn into 2-inch pieces

Soak beans for at least 8 hours or over night in water to cover.  Drain. Bring the beans to a boil in a pot of unsalted water, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered, until beans are tender but not mushy, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat, drain in a colander, and rinse immediately under cold running water.

Place the beans in a serving bowl and toss with the onions, garlic, olives or caperts, salt, cayenne pepper, olive oil and vinegar.  Let stand for an hour at room temperature.  Mix in the arugula a few minutes before serving.

Serves 6 to 8

Note:  Although I prefer the texture and flavor of the home-cooked beans, I have made this dish with canned beans in a pinch. It works because the dressing is so flavorful.  I also always increase the amount of garlic and olives that I throw in — two of my favorite ingredients!


One Response to “Bean & Arugula Salad, for Pythagoras”

  1. Kat October 9, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    Wonderful story! Also, I do want to try the bean and arugula recipe. Thank you!

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