Kitchen Call: Baseball, beans and Bob Motley
Anyone who loves baseball has looked beyond Major League Baseball.
They know about Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige, and maybe they know about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
But Bob Motley, the Leagues’ last living umpire, might be less recognizable.
I recently found him in the Penzey’s Spices catalog and on public radio. The 91-year-old still cooks the foods he discovered barnstorming with the African-American teams in Cuba. Back then, ballplayers enjoyed inexpensive, vibrant fare – black beans, chicken seasoned with oranges. Motley brought the flavors home before the doors to that island closed.
Bob Motley’s life has been rich in family, baseball, and the Montford Point Marines, the first black regiment, recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
He and his son Byron, an American Negro Leagues historian, told his story in “Ruling Over Monarchs, Giants & Stars: True Tales of Breaking Barriers, Umpiring Baseball Legends, and the Wild Adventures in the Negro Leagues.”
In a cover blurb, filmmaker Ken Burns called it, “an important step in revealing … a hidden history.” Motley the elder credits his son with the writing; Byron gives credit to his father, whose life echoed 20th-century U.S. history.
At age 19, Motley’s mother, fearing the KKK, packed him and a box of her fried chicken and biscuits onto a train north to safety. There, he fell in love with baseball through the Negro Leagues. He joined the Marines during World War II, and while recovering from battle wounds in Okinawa, he heard the musical crack of a bat outside his window. It rekindled that baseball spark and he umpired games there until going back to the front.
After the war, he settled in Kansas City and a job at the General Motors plant, still dreaming of that spot behind home plate. So he kept after the Kansas City Monarchs, using his Marine experience as his resume, until he finally landed the $5-dollar-a-day job, supplementing his day job.
Old-time baseball, especially in the Negro Leagues, was not the game we know today. Fans dressed their best – no jeans and sneakers - for a full day of events before the first pitch. They demanded entertainment and showmanship from everyone including the ump.
Motley hammed it up, giving them fireworks right from the initial “Play ball!” calling balls and strikes and outs with what he called “zip in the hip.” Old photos show him leaping into the air to emphasize his calls. He never realized his dream of “the show” as the racial barriers were slower to fall for umpires than for players. But as he packed up his things to return to Cuba, he was hired by the minor leagues where he closed his career. By then, 1957, life was soon to change drastically on that island.
Pitchers and catchers report this week; the USA and Cuba are on the road to reconciliation. Having worked alongside legends like Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, as well as Robinson and Buck O’Neill and Paige, and with the great Negro League teams of Kansas City, Chicago and St. Louis, Bob Motley is surely watching the current sweep of history with interest.
The recipes below are from my own trip to Cuba several years ago. And, yes, there was baseball.
HAVANA CHICKEN WITH ORANGE SAUCE
Makes 6 servings
2 whole chickens (2-1/2 to 3 pounds each) cut into 6 to 8 serving pieces
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt, ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
Place chicken in a non-reactive bowl with sliced onions on the top. Season with salt, pepper, and the juice of one freshly squeezed orange. Cover tightly with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 2 hours.
Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet, swirling it to film the bottom of the pan. Take the chicken out of the refrigerator (hold the onion slices aside) and cook over medium high heat, in batches, until lightly golden on both sides. Set aside on a platter.
Add the onion slices to the skillet, cooking 1 to 2 minutes until softened.
Pour the remaining marinade into the pan. Squeeze in the remaining half of the orange. Cover the pan; cook over medium heat for 30 minutes until tender.
Take the cover off the pan. Raise the heat to medium-high, and cook long enough to brown the chicken, about 5 minutes.
CUBAN BLACK BEANS
Makes 6 servings
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 each red and green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
salt, ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet. Add onion, peppers, and garlic. Cook, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring, until slightly softened.
Put the beans and all the vegetables into a heavy pot. Add salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, sugar, and water to barely cover. Bring to a boil; lower to a simmer, and cook, 15 minutes longer.
Remove and discard the bay leaf. Remove a cup of the mixture; process in a blender or food processor and return it to the pot. Add the vinegar and continue simmering, uncovered, 10 to 15 minutes, until the mixture thickens.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at email@example.com, read her blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @Kitchencall.