The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Pinto Beans

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984

Issue: May, 1984

There was a time when no matter what else was on the daily menu, you could always expect pinto beans. Country folks have been known to buy them by the hundred pound sack (if they didn't grow them) in the fall of the year to last their family through the winter.

Patsy Stoneman, daughter of the famous "Pop" Stoneman of old time country music, wrote a song, "Prayers and Pinto Beans." She was one of a large family and says that's what they were raised on - prayers and pinto beans.

Pinto beans are more than a tradition, they're an institution, a way of life. No one ever cooks a small amount. When you cook pinto beans, you cook a lot. They're meant to last for more than one meal and are re-heated until the last one is gone. Most people agree they get better the more they're warmed up. The "soup" gets thick and many people prefer this "soup" spooned over hot biscuits or cornbread than the beans themselves.

There's an art to cooking pinto beans right and here's how, according to a country cook who came from a long line of good bean cooks.

First, start with dried pinto beans. Wash them and sort out any bad ones. Cover them with water and let them set overnight to soak up the water. The next morning, drain the beans, put them in a pot with fresh water and a cured ham hock. You can substitute a piece of country ham or ham "drippings" for seasoning but nothing beats the ham hock itself.

Bring to a boil and cut the heat back til the beans are just simmering. Be sure there is enough water to make good soup. Beans that aren't cooked with enough water over them tend to turn dark and not be as good. Cook until the beans are good and soft and the ham falls apart by itself. This should take four or five hours.

Hot homemade biscuits or cornbread is a necessity to be served with the beans. Most folks also wouldn't feel the meal was complete without hot chow-chow or homemade bread and butter pickles. Last, but not least, the finishing touch to this meal is chopped onions to sprinkle on top of the beans. So many folks eat them this way that I've heard some country restaurants charge you more if you order beans without the onions!

I have sat down to many a meal with nothing more than this on the table and considered it a feast. I'm sure I'm not the only one either!