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.