Food & Drink

Not-Quite-Classic-But-Close Soup Beans

The most soul-satisfying—and least expensive—dinner in the Southern-food canon

Photo: Phillip Rhodes

I should tell you up-front: These are not my Mom’s soup beans. Those were conjured from a combination of dried pintos, water, and salt—and probably a hint of it’s-not-payday-yet anxiety, though she never let on. I should also tell you that as a kid growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, I hated those soup beans. I’d eat a bite or two, and push the rest around the bowl, focusing instead on the accompanying corn muffins, slathered with Country Crock margarine straight out of its big tan-colored tub. Looking back on how I imagine Mom must’ve felt about my ingratitude, I burn with shame.

But soup beans were just so… plain. Not thick enough to be stew, not enough ingredients to be soup either. Creamy, spoon-tender pintos floating in a thin broth that tasted of little more than meat and salt. Now, of course, I think, What’s not to like about that? But back then, they suffered by comparison. Mom’s smothered steak, at least, had tangy tomatoes and peppers. Her baked pork chops seemed so exotic in their bed of Uncle Ben’s wild-rice mix. Spaghetti night with garlic bread (made with powdered garlic, never fresh) was my favorite.

Thankfully, I’ve come around. Now, soup beans, like many things from my childhood that I couldn’t wait to leave behind, are something I return to again and again. Each fall, a big pot of beans simmering all Saturday afternoon is a welcome seasonal rite of passage. Though I’ve tweaked my mom’s recipe a little bit—adding a whiff of smoke from bacon grease and paprika—it’s still one of the simplest and most soul-satisfying meals I know how to make. Thanks, Mom—not just for the beans, but also the good sense to appreciate them.


    • 1 lb. dried pinto beans, soaked in water overnight

    • 1 tbsp. bacon grease

    • 1 slice of country ham, diced

    • 1 onion, diced (reserve 3 spoonfuls for garnish)

    • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)

    • 2 bay leaves

    • 1 whole dried chile pepper

    • 1 tsp. smoked paprika

    • 1 tsp. coarse-ground black pepper

    • 1½ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste


  1. Drain soaked beans. Rinse with cold water and set aside.

  2. Melt bacon grease in Dutch oven over medium-heat and sauté ham until browned (about 5-7 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon. In the same pan, sauté onion, garlic, bay, chile, paprika, and pepper for 5 minutes until onion softens. Add beans to pot, then pour in water to cover by 1 inch.

  3. Raise temperature to bring to a boil, then reduce to low, stir in reserved ham and salt, and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2-4 hours, or until beans are tender, adding water if needed. Season with additional salt, to taste. Serve hot with a scattering of diced onion. If there are any leftovers, they’ll be even better the next day, as the beans release starch to thicken the broth.