If you don't know beans, you don't know Appalachia
May 21st, 2014
07:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of Southern food. Sheri Castle is the author of "The New Southern Garden Cookbook." She wrote this essay for the Appalachian-themed issue #51 of the SFA's Gravy quarterly.

This is a story about pinto beans. But first it’s a story about my mountain people and one of our curious traditions.

The Appalachian Mountain South is to the rest of the South what bourbon is to whiskey: It is distinguishable from the rest, yet part of the whole. That includes our food, which is rooted in our geography. Like the rest of the rural South, mountain people traditionally ate off the land. Unlike the rest of the rural South, my people live up and back in one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet, where the landscape and climate are quite different. On a map, we’re in the South. In practice, we claim our own place.

Mountain people were, and are, notably self-reliant, eating what they can forage, hunt, or raise for themselves. Farming in the Appalachian mountains is hard now and used to be nearly impossible. The land is combative. The growing season is fickle and fleeting. The ground can be as rocky as a dry creek bed.

Old timers quip that the easiest way to plant crops in the mountains is to load a shotgun with seed, stand on the porch, and blast it into the hillside. To survive the harsh and threatening winters, people preserve what they can’t eat immediately. In short, they grow it fast, and make it last.

Which brings us to beans. Starting with the Native Americans, every generation that has cultivated mountain land has known that certain types of beans flourish there. The Appalachian mountains were once home to dozens of varieties of nutrient-packed beans, including many that seed savers now categorize as heirlooms. When dried, these beans are excellent keepers.

Pinto beans, better known as soup beans, have been essential to the mountain larder since the early twentieth century. Yet Appalachian people didn’t grow their own. No matter how poor, they bought or traded for them.

This makes no sense. Why would people who produced nearly every speck of their own food buy dried pintos that had been grown up in Michigan? Not only buy them, but come to rely on them?

The handful of books and articles written about the foodways of the Southern Appalachians make little to no mention of this, so I started to ask around. I talked with people who know and love mountain food. They cogitated a long while, and finally threw up their hands, shook their heads, and replied, “That’s a good question.”

I finally sought the wisdom of Bill Best of Berea, Kentucky. A farmer and seed saver, Bill Best knows beans, especially mountain beans. Bill ventured that pinto beans were too inexpensive to warrant growing them. “Too cheap to bother,” he said.

Too cheap to bother. This from a people who use the phrase “ain’t worth a hill of beans” to describe things of very little value.

It probably happened like this: During the Depression, struggling mountain families realized that it cost less to buy dried pinto beans to eat than it cost to buy beans to grow. Mountain people couldn’t afford to grow pintos—and they couldn’t afford to do without them.

Dried pinto beans were about the cheapest protein available. A pot of beans remains astonishingly inexpensive. In 2014, a one-pound bag of dried pinto beans costs less than two dollars.

If mountain people once ate pintos because they had to, we now eat them because we want to. Those of us raised on soup beans never seem to lose our taste for them. A pot of beans is reassuringly familiar. We can rely on their tender creaminess; the traces of smoky pork, like the lingering scent of last night’s campfire; and the promise of sopping.

I once heard the musician Doc Watson, who lived his whole life in Deep Gap, North Carolina, wax poetic about his love for soup beans and cornbread. He said that he could never get his fill. “If I ate twice what there was, it would’ve been half what I wanted.”


Watauga Soup Beans
Makes about 6 cups of cooked beans

1 pound dried pinto beans
2 to 3 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
Seasoning meat: a piece of side meat, 3 slices smoky bacon, or 2 tablespoons bacon grease
Aromatics: 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 small halved onion, 1 to 2 fresh hot peppers, or a big pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

Pour beans into a colander and rinse under cool running water. Pick through and discard any shriveled or unappealing beans. Pour into a large bowl and cover with a couple of inches of cold water. Skim off any chaff. Let soak several hours or overnight.

By the next day, the beans will have absorbed much of the water and nearly doubled in size. Drain beans and rinse gently.

Transfer beans to a large, heavy pot. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 2 inches. Add seasoning meat and aromatics, if using. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a very gentle simmer. If you want the beans to be firm when done, leave the pot uncovered. If you want the beans to be creamy, partially cover the pot.

Check on beans once in a while to give them a little stir and to make sure they stay submerged in the cooking liquid. If the top has gone dry, add hot water to cover.

Check beans for doneness after 45 minutes. When the beans are barely tender, stir in the salt and continue to simmer until done, 15 to 45 minutes more. Taste for seasonings. If they are not salty enough, remove the pot from the heat and add more salt, to taste. The beans will continue to absorb salt as they cool.

Most bean eaters spoon on something bright and pungent such as chow-chow, piccalilli, chili sauce, or home-canned tomatoes. Some bean eaters appreciate the crunch of chopped raw onion. Transfer cooled beans to an airtight container.

Store refrigerated for up to one week.

A few notes on cooking soup beans:

Sort: Most pintos these days are pretty clean, but because they are picked by machine, they harbor small pebbles and sticks. It pays to look through them carefully and rinse them thrice. As a boy, Bill Best lived in such fear of breaking a tooth on an errant rock in a bowl of soup beans that he always mashed each bite with his fork before eating it.

Season: Like so many things, beans need fat and salt. The fat can come from olive oil, but pintos prefer pork—a chunk of side meat, a couple of slices of smoky bacon, or a spoonful of bacon grease. People actually argue over when and how to salt dried beans, swearing that ill-timed seasoning makes the beans tough.

Eat: The moniker “soup beans” gives another clue to their charms. The beans and their seasoning make a delicious, satisfying potlikker. Cornbread is a requirement.

Reheat: Pinto beans’ tolerance for reheating is part of their appeal. When reheated multiple times, they thicken and soften into something close to porridge. Cooked beans never look all that good in the first place, so declining appearance is not an inhibiting factor.

Read more at the Southern Foodways Alliance's blog

The indulgence of pickled rope baloney
Kentucky Hot Brown is 'the ultimate drunk food'
Mutton, pork butts and burgoo – an intro to Kentucky barbecue

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Filed under: Appalachia • Cultural Identity • Culture • Obsessions • Recipes • Soup • Southern • Southern Foodways Alliance • Staples

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    articles or reviews.

    October 8, 2014 at 8:04 pm |
  2. amanandhishoe

    A good way I've found for cooking dry beans is to put a cup or two in a pot, add plenty of water, throw in a spring onion or garlic, and put them on a very low burner. Let them cook for three to five hours, stirring occasionally and checking from time to time to make sure they have plenty of moisture. After three or more hours, you've got a very tasty, tender bean mash. Salt to taste and serve.

    June 15, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
  3. Sherry Steffey

    Nobody has mentioned our family's favorite condiment on soup beans and cornbread, which is mayonnaise! If you've never tried it, you're in for a treat. It's awesome! I love some chow chow with it too. Cranberry beans make very good soup beans too. They cook up really tender.

    June 6, 2014 at 8:23 am |
    • catbell7

      no way I would put mayo on beans - I use so little mayo that I don't even buy it - I will pick up some in packets and shove it into the fridge - maybe a packet or two with a can of tuna with very thin sliced red onions, celery and hard-boiled egg white only stuffed inside a whole tomatoe or cinnamon raisin toast (only one slice) or a slice of toasted rye bread.

      June 6, 2014 at 11:09 am |
  4. Berk Demirbulakli

    When I eat beans, I sit in my own little cloud. No one comes to visit me in my little cloud.

    May 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm |
    • catbell7

      do try the entire raw potato in the beans while they cook - my auntie/uncle does it since my uncle gets such bad flatulence and it works like a charm – and her sleeplessness at night - raw onion in a small container works for her and she just takes half a chopped into into a container with a lid on it and is back to sleep in a few minutes and the next day she uses the oniona :)

      May 27, 2014 at 3:14 pm |
  5. shawn l

    $2 a pound for beans is NOT cheap.

    May 22, 2014 at 10:30 pm |
  6. catbell7

    I make mine most of the time with garlic, onions and lots of pepper at the end -sometimes some smoked turkey neck bones or thinly sliced ham hock (my butcher slices mine for me) - from a 20/20 - so many in Appalachia drink Mountain Dew that it causes a similar appearance in the mouth as 'meth mouth' so hopefully they stop feeding that or purchasing for the adults or kids.

    May 22, 2014 at 7:19 am |
    • Jim

      I do not know why one earlier respondent chose to link meth with Mountain Dew with Appalachian values, but please stop.

      May 23, 2014 at 4:43 pm |
  7. Kip

    The pintos are good if you add a couple of beers when you cook them.....and if you take some minced onion and saute it in a little lard, add the beans and enough cooking liquid to mash the lot into a thick paste, you have refried beans!

    May 22, 2014 at 3:35 am |
  8. Jeff

    I grew up in the mountains of East TN in the litlle town of Watauga and we had soup beans every Wednesday and white beans (navy beans) every Saturday. A bowl of soup beans from Tipton's Cafe or the Bean Barn in Greeneville, TN is still one of my favorite meals.

    May 21, 2014 at 11:10 pm |
  9. barb'sbarb

    Beans are very nutritious and inexpensive. Add some wild rice mix to the soup and you have a complete protein.

    May 21, 2014 at 4:36 pm |
    • Thinking things through

      Not quite complete, but pretty good.

      I'm not fond of pintos or kidney beans, but I love black beans, white beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils. And over the years, I've finally grown fond of lima beans, which may be because I can now source them fresh, rather than the childhood canned/frozen.

      May 21, 2014 at 8:23 pm |
      • sam stone

        I grew up eating lots of lentils. I still love them.. Black beans and black eyed pease are great, too. Not a huge fan of kidney beans, but don't dislike them

        May 22, 2014 at 1:30 pm |
  10. ∞ Weeds ∞

    Choose your dried beans wisely. Old beans will stay tough no matter how many days you cook them. Even though a bean may be dried, you can taste its freshness.
    Some cooks swear that adding a good pinch of baking soda in the soaking water makes the beans more tender. Science tends to back this with proof that beans cooked in a acidic environment will remain tough.

    Here is a good bean primer: http://bean.idaho.gov/faq.html

    May 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
  11. Ally

    Love me some beans! I am usually partial to black beans rather than pintos. Possibly because I'm not a fan of pork. Black beans taste best seasoned with vegetables and olive oil.

    May 21, 2014 at 1:45 pm |
  12. CatSh

    It never pays to rush when cooking pintos. A nice long soak is critical if you want them to play nice with your intestinal flora. ;)

    May 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
    • Beavis

      Depends on whether or not you've removed their saddle after riding them.

      May 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm |
    • catbell7

      adding a potato will remove the 'gas' in beans – but even a dog won't eat that potato but it sure works – I don't bother because I don't get gas from beans – I prefer pintos or navy beans – not big on black beans unless someone else makes the soup LOL

      May 22, 2014 at 7:22 am |
      • sam stone

        i eat beans a lot, so they don't give me gas (although my girlfriend would argue that), but i have found that lentils are the most easily digested bean/legume

        May 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
        • sam stone

          tonight i am making mujdarrah (lebanese lentil stew)

          May 22, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
  13. Serge Storms

    Good article, and good cooking advice.

    May 21, 2014 at 11:18 am |
  14. palintwit

    Everyone has their own personal hell. Mine is being locked in a room full of squeaking balloons while someone scratches their fingernails on a chalkboard and plays endless loops of Sarah Palin's speeches.

    May 21, 2014 at 11:17 am |
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