FOREWORD: I believe that I wrote this in about 1967. We lived in a little rental house on 10th Avenue in Salt Lake City. I was just going to write down the recipe and got carried away. I do not remember who got a copy of this but it did get into the hands of my relatives and it got passed all around. Occasionally, even today, someone asks me about it. A couple of years ago I ran into one of my cousins who runs a restaurant in Comfort Texas and she asked me about "The Bean Thing". At my mother's funeral in Big Lake Texas in 2002, one of my nieces pushed a book into my hands and said "Here, this is for you. Read it". The book was "Supper Time" written by Leon Hale, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle. In the book, Mr. Hale describes the proper way to cook a pot of pinto beans. He got it right and I wrote to him to tell him so. There was no reply. Little does he know that I am at least as famous a bean cooker as he is.
Yesterday, Diane asked me if I would like to do my "bean thing". I said yes, and so today I am doing it. Several people have asked me for my recipe for beans and I have always intended to write it down for them, but I have now undertaken a much more ambitious project. I am going to attempt to describe what the "bean thing" is. First of all, let us get a few facts straight. By "beans" I mean pinto beans, or red beans as Texans call them. In some other parts of the country, I have found out, kidney beans are also called red beans, but I am willing to forgive those people for their peculiar terminology as well as I am willing to forgive them for eating kidney beans.Secondly, the bean thing is not just a recipe or just a meal, but is a nostalgic soul food experience. I think that the term "soul food" is a great term. It is fun to think about what we consider to be our soul food. It should be those things which we remember eating as we were growing up. We have learned the term "soul food" from African Americans and I suppose that anyone would agree that ham hocks and collard greens should be considered soul food. But "soul food" is such a great term; I think that it should be used relative to the individual. For example, I would have to include in my list, corned beef and cabbage (that is one word: cornedbeefandcabbage). Also, peach cobbler made from fresh peaches is soul food to me because I remember it so well and my mouth waters when I think about it now.
I will now yield to custom and put down a list of ingredients:
Now these are the ingredients for the beans, but a list of ingredients for the entire experience would have to include a six pack of beer, some friends, and some music. The beans should be washed and soaked overnight. You also should run the beans through your fingers and look for rocks. I remember my uncle Elmer used to always complain that every pot of beans would have one rock in it and he would get it every time. I can still recall the look on his face when he bit into a rock one time. He feigned great pain and stomped his foot and restated for the umpteenth time, "Every time we have a pot of beans ... etc". My cousins and I just laughed and then he would laugh too. It was a family joke. If I found a rock in my portion, I would just quietly remove it. Otherwise, I might have detracted from-the sacred joke.
About noon, you should put the beans in a large pot with enough water to cover them by about a half an inch. Cut two onions into chunks and cut the salt pork into three or four chunks and put them in. Place the pot with a loose lid on a low flame. Do not add any salt at this point. The salt pork contains quite a bit of salt which will slowly be soaked out. Indeed, if you add more salt pork, you may not need to add any salt at all.
I remember a story that Smitty told me once. Smitty ran away from home when he was eighteen and vowed to see all forty eight states. He did it. He was a hobo for many years and rode the rails from place to place. He worked for my father for a while and that was how I knew him. He said that he used to carry around with him a small block of wood wrapped in butcher paper. He would take it into a grocery store and confront the manager with it. He would say that the grocery store down the street had given him some salt pork and would the kind man please give him some beans to go with it. The grocer, not wanting to be outdone by the charity of his competitor, would give Smitty a quantity of beans. Smitty, of course would then go to the other grocery store, show his beans to the manager and by the same technique, obtain some real salt pork to go with them.
After the beans have been on for an hour or so, add some black pepper, salt if needed, and lots of chili powder. The chili powder is what gives the beans the essential taste. By this time you should be on about your second or third beer, but your beer drinking rate may be different from mine.Let the beans continue to boil and add spices according to how the juice tastes. Also you should keep the water level up. Fry three strips of bacon and dump it into the pot, grease and all. The aroma of the beans will fill the entire house and the smell of it makes an experienced bean appreciator climb the walls with hunger.Some of my caver friends and I used to have bean parties regularly. Someone would put on a pot of beans and call up some people to come over and share it. Everyone would bring their own bowl and spoon and beer. There would be a banjo and a guitar or two and everyone would have a good time singing and drinking and eating beans. The aroma of beans cooking always takes me back to those hot summer nights and the parties at Fountain Place in Austin. There was another reason, a practical reason why we ate a lot of beans in those days. None of us had much money and when you consider the ratio of total protein content to total cost, I just don't see how you can beat it.
After the beans have cooked for about four hours, you should make some corn bread. Don't use one of those corn bread mixes. Buy a box of yellow corn meal and follow the instructions on the box. I like to add a little extra sugar because I like my corn bread kind of sweet. Now people have various preferences on how to eat the beans. Everyone in my family always ate them the same way and I still do. I crumble up some corn bread on a plate and pour the beans on top with lots of juice. Others prefer to eat the beans out of a bowl and keep the corn bread dry. Some people put catsup on them, but some people would put catsup on anything. Anyway it is nice to have some fresh slices of tomato and onion.
If the smell has not generated enough memories for me during the afternoon, the taste certainly does. It is funny how a scent or a taste can invoke a sudden flashback. My parents, brother and sisters, my little sister still in a high chair, always sat at the same place at the table. I can still recall what the seating arrangement was. I grew up in that house in San Angelo. After one of the bean parties in Austin, we had a limbo contest. I wound up in a tie with a cute little blond named Toni. We limboed fourteen inches. We cheated though, I guess. We used the same technique, holding a quart bottle of beer in each hand for a counterbalance.
These were some of the memories I had today while doing my bean thing. The memories, you see, are the main ingredient really. Now it is time to eat and so I will finish this description of the "recipe". Oh yes, it is only fair that I should mention one more thing. Somehow, a person's internal chemistry converts the beans into a certain amount of methane gas. If you don't understand what I mean, you will if you do your own bean thing.
I have learned a few things over the decades on this vital subject and have made some minor changes to the recipe. I no longer soak the beans overnight. The last time I did that I found the next morning that the beans had fermented! Nowadays, after I sort through the beans, removing rocks and clods, I wash them and put them into the pot, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil. I turn off the heat and let them seep for a half hour or so with the lid on. I repeat this a second time before I am ready to begin cooking. The beans soak up the water and it has the same effect as soaking overnight without the risk of the disastrous fermentation.
I usually cook only one pound of beans at a time unless there is a group of people coming over. And I much prefer to use a cast iron pot. The beans are much less likely to stick to the bottom. To guarantee that the beans get stirred regularly, I set a timer to 20 minutes after each stirring. I do not necessarily cook for 4 hours either. I just go until the beans are the right texture. It varies between 3 and 4 hours.
First of all, Good Grief! I forgot to mention the garlic. Chop up a couple of cloves of fresh garlic and put it in there when you put in the onion. And speaking of onions, I have also tended to prefer the sweet onions over the yellow onions since the yellow onion, if it is too hot, will dominate the taste. If you have some pickled jalapeños, chop a couple of those and toss them in without the seeds. I do not put in the bacon, usually, since I do not need the extra fat. The black pepper is optional also. But toward the end when I am doing the final tasting I usually add just a little ground red pepper (cayenne) for the right level of heat.
So here is a revised list of ingredients for cooking a pound of
Note: The left over beans can be frozen in plastic tubs. We almost always have some in our freezer.