Soup Beans

A bowl of soup beans with green onion and chow chow

Soup beans is a term common in the Southern United States, particularly the regions around the Appalachian Mountains. Soup beans are usually served with cornbreadgreens (such as boiled cabbagecauliflower, or sauerkraut and sausage), and potatoes (stewed or fried) and may be topped with raw chopped onions or ramps (Allium tricoccum). Soup beans are considered a main course, but also serve as a side dish. In rural areas, where food was scarce during the winter, these dried beans were a staple food.

Appalachia. The word conjure up images of hazy mountains, log cabins, moonshine and poverty. When European settlers started coming to America they first populated areas near the Atlantic ocean, which had relatively mild climates and fertile land. As the population grew people moved west, into the mountains, looking for space. The Appalachians are one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet. Like most mountain ranges, there isn’t a whole lot of good farmland available, and even in the southern reaches of the range, winters can be cold and long. I read one description from an old timer who said “the easiest way to plant crops is to load the seed into a shotgun and blast it at the hillside”. Residents of Appalachia were isolated from the population east of the mountians and learned to make do with what food they could manage to grow or harvest from the land. Corn and beans became staples, and pigs could be left to forage in the woods until butchering time, so most families had their own pork.

Due to that isolated mountain culture, Appalachian recipes tend to be simple and cheap, made from a handful of common ingredients. You’ll find a lot of overlap with Southern cooking like cornbread, pork and greens. You won’t find fresh sea food. Historically even common ingredients like wheat flour where a special treat reserved for special occasions.

Originally there were probably dozens of different kinds of beans grown and eaten throughout the Appalachian region, each family finding the one that grew best in the particular microclimate of their holler’. By the 20th century pretty much everyone had stopped growing beans, because they could buy pinto beans cheaper than they could grow them.

Which brings us to soup beans. Soup beans aren’t exactly a soup, although they’re usually liquid enough to pass as one. At its most basic soup beans is simply pinto beans slowly cooked with a generous dollop of bacon fat or fatty pork. The liquid cooks down to a silky smooth delicious “potlikker”, perfect for sopping up with a piece of cornbread. Throughout Appalachia there’s a pot of soup beans on nearly every stove all winter long. (Ok, maybe not in the 21st century, but it is a very common dish throughout the region and people raised on it seem to never loose the taste for it.)

I “fancied it up” a little from the most basic and included some onion and a ham hock. I also couldn’t find fatback here in the midwest. Funny how different parts of animals seem to be prevalent in different parts of the country. I substituted pork belly, but it didn’t seem to release very much fat when I cooked it, so I wound up adding a couple teaspoons of bacon fat to have enough to sauté the onion. The more basic recipes just throw a large chunk of fat back or fatty pork into the pot and let it simmer with the beans. With my method you have the choice of leaving the pork in the pot, or taking it out. If using bacon you could save the crispy bits for bacon bits in another application and just use the fat that renders out. I chose to leave the pork belly in the pot and let it cook into the dish.

Soup bean dinner includes potatoes, collard greens, lace hoecakes and salmon croquettes.

Throughout the region there’s kind of a common list of accompaniments to soup beans that make up a “soup bean supper”. It’s probably just the same dishes that go on the table with every meal, but they do go well with the beans. I’m going to be trying something new here at Lorincookslegumes, and providing some non-bean recipes for those accompaniments. Expect a few weeks worth of this as I work through some variations on the soup beans recipe as well as variations of the accompaniments.

First and most importantly, we have some kind of cornbread. This week I made lace hoecakes, which are thin crispy wafers of fried cornmeal. They aren’t exactly made for sopping up juices, but boy are they delicious. If you’re serving regular cornbread, it’s traditional to either pour the beans over it in your bowl or crumble it on top.

Next, it’s traditional to serve soup beans with some sort of chopped onion. Ramps, which are a variety of wild onion or leek, would be most common. I know they do grow around here, but they are mostly a spring thing, and I haven’t put enough energy into local foraging to have an idea where I would have started looking, so I just used green onions.

Chow chow is a condiment similar to pickle relish. It’s traditionally made with the last of the years harvest, when there isn’t enough of any one thing to preserve on their own. It’s usually made with cabbage, green tomatoes and peppers, pickled in vinegar, sugar, mustard and other spices. Chow chow and onions really zip up a bowl of beans that might be a little plain on their own.

There will usually be some sort of potatoes on the table- usually boiled, mashed or fried. I just served plain boiled potatoes this time.

And finally some sort of greens, if you have them. Greens don’t grow well in the depths of winter, when soup beans are most likely to be served, so even though they would provide some healthy vitamins, they probably aren’t as traditional a part of the meal as Wikipedia would like me to think. This week I made southern style braised collard greens.

In the 20th century, as outside groceries became more available, some other dishes based on packaged foods became common additions to the soup beans meal. This week I made salmon croquettes.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as Doc Watson who said “If I ate twice what there was, it would’ve had half what I wanted”.

Soup Beans

Serves: 6
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 3 hours
Total 3-4 hours plus soaking time.

1 lb. pinto beans
4 oz. fatback, diced small
4 strips bacon, diced small
4 ½ teaspoons ham or bacon fat
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
32 oz. chicken stock
Approximately 7 cups water (enough to cover beans by 1 ½ inches)
⅔ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 bay leaf
1 ham hock
10 oz. ham, diced
½ teaspoon salt

Chow chow

Raw onion, to garnish
⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 ¼ Tablespoons Louisiana style hot sauce

Sort and rinse the beans. Cover with cold water and soak overnight. 

Place fatback or bacon in a heavy bottomed soup pot and slowly heat, rendering the fat. When fat is rendered you may choose to remove the crispy meat from the pot and reserve it for another use.

Add onion and garlic to the fat and saute for about 5 minutes. Drain your beans and add them to the pot, along with chicken stock and enough additional water to cover beans by at least 1 ½ inches. Add spices and ham hock, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until beans are soft, 2-4 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water as needed to keep beans submerged and provide desired amount of pot liqueur. Add salt during last half hour of cooking. 

Remove the ham hock, pick the meat off the bones, and return it to the pot. Serve with cornbread and chow chow. 

16 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.