Soup Beans: A True Mountain Meal

Photo Courtesy: Tereberna
Photo Courtesy: Tereberna

They say that the sense of smell is the strongest sensory memory and though I often struggle to remember the distinct sights and sounds of my childhood, the very moment my nose is confronted with an aroma from my past, I am immediately transported to a different place and time in my mind.

The smell of cherry cough drops place me in the pickup of beat up Dodge truck alongside my Papaw.  The distinct and pleasant odor of a crackling woodstove has me standing with my back to a potbelly wood burner in our family’s garage.

As much as I love these childhood reminders, my most favorite is the aromatic blend of cornbread and the hot steam produced by boiling beans.  One whiff of this and I’m seated in a kitchen alongside my mother and father back in an era when all seemed right in the world.

Known in our circles as soup beans, the distinctly southern-mountain dish served as a staple meal in our home during lean times and helped fuel generations of other Appalachian families for too many decades to count.

Typically served with onion and either cornbread or some type of vegetable (like cabbage, cauliflower or potatoes), “soup beans” was a generic term for pretty much any collection of beans that would be the main course for a family evening meal in the mountains of Appalachia.

My dad always insisted on putting ham hock into the boiling beans — though I never knew what a ham hock was as a kid, I would later learn that it was a portion of the pig’s leg and though I’m sure the addition has contributed to some later health problems, they sure did make the otherwise bland food a bity more tasty.

The history of soup beans, whether butter beans, black-eyed peas, or white beans, goes back several years and owes its mountain popularity to little more than old fashioned necessity.

In a time when grocery stores were unheard of and the settlers of the region lived on what they raised, by the worst of winter many families’ cellars were looking empty and fresh food was unavailable.  With no fresh-seal packaging or refrigeration, hardy dried beans proved to be a lifesaver for struggling families and it was out of this drudgery that “soup beans” were created — often with the person mixing cornbread, beans and onions into a bowl to create the soupy, mountain-culinary masterpiece.

It has even been said that when the conquering Union soldiers tore through the South in the waning days of the Confederacy, the Yankee soldiers left many root cellars barren in mountain and southern farms; however, the soldiers left the many barrels of black-eyed peas completely untouched, mistakenly believing the dried seeds to be food for hogs.

Grateful to have been spared from complete starvation, desolate families found more creative ways to cook beans and in the years ahead, many of the children of this time period would incorporate these foods into tradition.

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