What is it about Soup Beans?
Most Appalachians can tell you what soup beans are: dinner. A lot of us have eaten them throughout our lives, as a staple of the mountaineer’s diet. They’re cheap, you can leave them stewing on the stove all day if you want. They can be seasoned with some scrappy pork meat which allows us to feel we’re getting the most out of such resources. And they taste so good with a fresh pone of corn bread. Are you hungry yet?
My upbringing was replete with soup beans. At least once a week, sometimes more. The smell of the beans cooking would get your appetite going. As a child I couldn’t get my taste buds to adjust to this delicacy, so I did what young’uns are wont to do: covered them in ketchup. It took the sugar in the ketchup to make them acceptable to my palate, but as the adults around the table would be quick to admit, I eventually would grow out of that. Now I eat them plain, or add onions or sweet pickle relish or chutney or any other dressing that might be around where they’re served.
When I served the church in Jonesborough, Tennessee, they began offering a bean dinner to the National Storytelling Festival crowd. Because the festival draws folks from all over the country, we had to explain to people at the door just what “soup beans” were. Here’s what we had to say: pinto or October beans that are cooked with a little ham (and we also offered some that weren’t seasoned with meat for the vegans), served with a piece of corn bread (which we had to explain as well to people born a little north of the Mason Dixon line), with various dressings, and of course a piece of cake to top it off. I was just stunned that there were people in the world who were not familiar with soup beans. No, it’s not Lentil Soup, not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . but it is an Appalachian delicacy, and the beans are simply delicious.
Of course there are other Appalachian ways of eating beans. One of my favorites is “beans in leather britches.” Instead of shelling the bean out its pod, you break them as you would green beans, and then with needle and thread, sew a string through several beans, making a long chain which you then hang from the ceiling of the porch or attic, to allow them to dry. After they dry, oftentimes people would put them in a jar or later in the freezer, and when they wanted to eat them, soak them and cook them. The dried bean and pod would make your taste buds dwell in wonder. Really, its mmm . . . .mmmm good.
That cornbread is often served with beans is a cultural practice that defines mountain cuisine. Cornbread accompanies many of our meals, as a way to use a crop that could be preserved for winter and helped families survive often harsh conditions between growing seasons. Cornbread used to choke me as a child. Literally, I couldn’t get it down without drowning it my drink. In fact one very popular way to eat cornbread is to break it into little pieces and put it in a tall glass of cold cow’s milk. We had a preacher in our family about twenty years before I was born whose reputation for eating corn bread and milk is still legendary.
I was homesick for corn bread when I moved off to Durham, North Carolina for seminary at Duke. In the eastern Carolina region cornbread is usually fried in a skillet in little cakes, fried in a pool of oil. It just didn’t taste like home. So being the homesick sort of soul I usually am, I called my Mammaw and asked how to make this treat. I was going to show off to my friends.
She very dutifully agreed to write down her recipe for corn bread. In a few days I had a letter with a 3×5 card in it entitled “Corn Bread.” I was thrilled. Here’s what it said: “take the right amount of corn meal, and the right amount of milk, and mix it until you get the right consistency.” What? I was a seminary student, so I didn’t understand this scientific method. I called her back up and said, “Mammaw, what’s the right amount?” She answered: “It depends on how much you want to make.” I never really got an answer, so I had to experiment. My room mate was delighted to have ANYTHING to eat, so he didn’t mind my trial and error approach.
I would used about a cup of corn meal, and a half to three quarters cup of milk, and when I was worried my concoction might not stay together, I would add an egg. Some folks use sugar to make it sweeter, but I just used what I had. I sacrificed and bought myself a little six inch iron skillet. I had to season the skillet by baking some shortening in it, causing it to coat so the corn bread would turn out without any trouble. My grandmother had told me to melt butter in it before I cook my corn bread, so I tried that.
Over the time I was in seminary I got better at it, but when I met my wife, the first time I ate at her mother’s house the corn bread was just plain delicious. I bragged and bragged, hoping I was making points with her mom. Come to find out, Tammie had made the corn bread, and her mother never admitted to that. But I later told people I married Tammie for her mother’s corn bread. I could have said the same for her soup beans. They were cooked sometimes on the wood stove in the kitchen. And they were SO good.
I’d write more, but I’m going to have to see if I can find some soup beans and corn bread. It’s almost sacramental, believe me.