In Memory of Soup Beans

Featured Stories, Tastebuds
Memory of soup beans

There are few rituals that I enjoy more on a cold, dreary day than the slow-living process of preparing a savory batch of soup beans. Not to be confused with bean soup, soup beans are a time-treasured staple in the history of Appalachian cuisine, capable of transporting a heart to a simpler era when life moved at a tempered pace, and gratitude was readily given for simple graces.

Like a magical concoction, soup beans never fail to stir my soul.

The ingredients are humble; a mess of dried pinto beans, a slice of fatback or a ham hock to serve as seasoning, and a chunk of onion will produce a succulent meal fit for a king at the price of a pauper. A thick slice of freshly-baked cornbread or a few, fried johnnycakes dipped inside a piping-hot bowl of the hearty fare completes the dish, conjuring a nostalgic essence of days gone by.

My love affair with soup beans began long ago with a deliberate decision to embrace minimalistic living. I often found myself yearning to lead an uncomplicated, yesteryear existence of “putting up and making do,” and that included altering my diet to follow suit.

soup beans

Soup beans have become a time-honored tradition for many families in Southern Appalachia.

Raised by a Georgia-native who could whip up southern delicacies like the dickens, I was less than pleased as a choosy child when the primitive aroma of beans would waft through the house. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the basic recipe was much more than what it surface-seemed. Soup beans symbolize an unassuming way of life that is gradually fading with the turn of generations, a past that I hold dear and aim to honor with each rich batch that I prepare.

While there are delicious variations available, my “hand-me-down” recipes are as follows…

Simple Appalachian Soup Beans:
Soak dried pinto beans overnight in a bowl of water. Drain and rinse. Cover with fresh water in a large pot, adding a ham hock or a slice of pork fatback, and diced onion to taste. Do not add salt as it may toughen the beans as they cook. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover, simmering for two hours or longer, adding additional water as needed. Season with salt and pepper (or perhaps a splash of hot sauce) as desired before serving. Top with raw, diced onion, and a side of fresh cornbread or johnnycakes to soak up the potlikker, more commonly known as broth to non-natives.

(Note: A tangy relish known as “chow chow” is often served with soup beans)

Southern Johnny Cakes:
2 c. stone-ground cornmeal
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. salt
1 c. whole milk
2 Tbsp. boiling water
Cream the cornmeal, buter and salt together. Add the milk with enough boiling water to make a moist, yet firm, batter. Drop by large spoonfuls onto a hot, greased griddle, flattening the batter with the back of a spoon. Fry until a golden brown, turning once to repeat.

Do you have a treasured tradition that you would like to see featured in a future article? If so, email [email protected]


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