Desperately Seeking Black Beans: Dispatch from Scotland

I’m delighted to post this guest blog by Sandra Alland, a Scottish-Canadian poet, rabble-rouser and bookseller, currently based in Edinburgh- MB


Ah, Scottish cuisine. Now there’s an oxymoron for ye.

But seriously, here I am in Scotland – the land of great, fattening snacks like chips’n’cheese and chips’n’curry (mmmmm), jack potatoes (huge potatoes with cheese and sour cream or other fatty stuffings), fish’n’chips, chip butties (which are French Fry sandwiches), haggis (deep-fried sheep guts), deep-fried battered hamburgers, and more deep-fried everything. Once my lover ordered chicken, and they deep-fried a whole frozen chicken before our eyes. Yum.

Luckily for my heart, I haven’t been eating out much, because the prices aren’t exactly like Toronto’s Kensington Market, where we lived up until one month ago. But money aside, nothing can make you homesick for Toronto like a Scottish supermarket. No bins full of delicious fruits and vegetables, ready for the plucking. No buckets of spicy almond-stuffed olives to scoop from. Here everything is packaged and repackaged. Even coriander! A tiny wee bunch of coriander comes with a plastic twist-tie, then it’s sealed in a hard plastic container, and then wrapped in a plastic bag. Broccoli is in Styrofoam and plastic. Cream, if you can find it, comes in a plastic container with a shoddy plastic lid.

The only things I have found not wrapped in plastic are:

huge green beans
bottles of wine

And who do I have to blow around here to get a lime and some black beans? Five aisles of jewellery and kids’ toys, but no limes? I am not known for my cooking, but I am secretly quite good at certain things. One of them is guacamole, which I had to make with pale wilted coriander and lemon juice last night. A lemon is not a lime! But it actually still tasted pretty good, if I do say so myself.

the view from Sainsbury’s

One thing I will say in Sainsbury’s (that’s the supermarket) favour is that they carry a large selection of organic and fair-trade food, and a lot of local produce – way more than you would ever find in Canadian supermarkets (and for cheaper). And there are other options – Leith Walk is an area of town full of small shops and international foods (I dream of finding black beans there today), and every Saturday there is a local farmer’s market on Castle Terrace. Both of these alternatives still come with too much plastic, but slightly less than at the Sainsbury’s.

It’s strange to be rediscovering my connection with food preparation here in Scotland. But certain changes have led to me finding myself with little money and lots of time on my hands. In Kensington Market, I also had little money, but no time. It hardly mattered, because I could just run downstairs and buy a delicious Trinidadian double for $1.25, or one of the best falafels in the city for $2.00. Or a huge sit-in meal at Pho Hung for $4.00. There is a Chinese take-away just downstairs here, but the cheapest thing on the menu is £8.00.

So my lover and I have been a little more housebound, food-wise. For three years in Toronto, s/he did most of the cooking. In three years, I think I made a total of:

35 meals of reheated, store-bought pirogies (I know, Marusya, I know!)
85 salads
15 breakfasts of eggs and toast

Did I ever make an actual meal? In my defense, I did a lot of dishes and all of the laundry, and my lover wears at least two outfits a day, so it was a lot of laundry.


Now s/he’s working 9 ½-hour days, five days a week, and I’m only working eight-hour days, twice a week (plus my writing of course). So suddenly it dawned on me that maybe I should cook something. I’ve made a delicious chicken stir-fry, burritos (with that yummy guacamole), and crepes so far. That is more than I’ve cooked in 10 years! And I’m actually liking being a wife-band (or is that a hife?). I haven’t enjoyed cooking since I cooked for 12 people at a construction site in Costa Rica for four months in 1996. Yesterday at work in the bookshop where I work, I actually glanced at the cookbooks.

A lot of my enjoyment I owe to Edinburgh… it’s a much calmer city than Toronto, so you can actually take the time to have a nice glass of organic fair-trade Portuguese wine, put on some tunes, and relax. The rest of my enjoyment I owe to my new flat, particularly the open concept kitchen/lounge. In this new kitchen with high ceilings and a big window that lets in the way-more-present-than-you-might-think Scottish sun, I can listen to music or talk to someone while I “work.” It’s divine.

So when are you coming to visit?

Sandra Alland is a writer, multi-media artist, micropress publisher and activist. Her most recent book is the stunning poetry collection, Blissful Times, published by Book Thug. For more info on Sandra and her books, go to or click on this link.

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