Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Nothing says 'Southern Home Cooking' quite like beans and cornbread. All across Appalachia when you mention beans and cornbread we know what you're talking about and it usually brings a smile to our faces.
That's because it takes us back to happier, peaceful times and because they are so doggone good. It was many of our primary staple food growing up and one most of us never tired of. Our Grandmothers could put on a pot of Cranberry beans and that would feed us most of the week. They were cheap and affordable and when you have to feed a hungry crowd of hard-working farmers and kids, that's what you need.
A bean by any other name
What kind of beans are these beans of which I speak? Well, that depends on who you ask. To some, it could mean lima beans, pinto beans, fall beans, shell beans, butter beans, and the like. In my neck of the woods, it means Cranberry beans. Otherwise known as Octobers, soup beans, brown beans, or as my Papaw fondly referred to them, 'pootbellies' or 'poopbellies' (I never could really tell). More often than not, we refer to them as soup beans.
"Beans, beans, they're good for your heart"
When I think of soup beans it brings back memories of my Grandmother. I would help her sort the beans the night before. A process where you carefully look through the beans to make sure there are no rocks or weird-looking, deformed beans. There were 14 rocks in this batch.
We'd rinse the beans well and put them in a bowl with water about an inch over the beans and put them in the fridge to soak overnight. She would wake up early and put those beans in a pot with a nice chunk of our homegrown pork 'fat back'. Then she would set about fixin' breakfast.
With a side of what?
In my humble opinion, the perfect soup bean meal consists of homemade cornbread, chow chow, scalded lettuce, a slice of tomato, and either macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. Much to my ancestor's dismay, I suck at canning, so homemade chow-chow is out and I use the sufficient (but not nearly as good) jar style. Chow-chow is a pickle relish, in case you didn't know.
Anyway, cornbread is a must, learn to make it, it's worth it. It's just cornmeal and flour, buttermilk, and one egg. Some people use white corn - don't. Some people add sugar, again, don't. Use a high-quality, stone-ground, yellow corn meal. I usually add baking powder/soda, but they make self-rising brands, which are suitable and easier to make. Put a few strips of bacon in your skillet and render the fat while you go about mixing then preheat your oven to 325.
I believe the ratios for a full-size cast iron skillet (and you are using that I would hope) are 1 3/4 cup of meal to 3/4 cup of flour and sift it together real good. Put that in a bowl with one egg and a dash of salt. Add in the buttermilk as you mix to a good consistency, not runny and not lumpy. Toss the bacon and add in some of the bacon greases and mix it in, use the rest of the bacon grease to coat the skillet. Use a rubber spatula and pour the mix into your skillet, spread it evenly, and place it in the oven until it's done - light brown. Stick in a toothpick when you are checking it, if it comes out clean, it's done, usually takes 30 minutes or so, give or take, depending on your oven.
I'm also a little too lazy most of the time to fix scalded lettuce. I highly recommend it though, it is delicious. I don't fix it because I normally don't keep lettuce on hand. I don't use it a lot and end up wasting it, which I try to avoid if I can help it. Beans go best with macaroni and cheese or mashed (or fried) potatoes.
Speaking of Fried Taters~n~Onions
These are very simple to make. Wash and peel a few nice-sized russet potatoes. Slice them relatively thin but not too thin. Peel, wash, and slice a couple of onions. Heat some oil in a skillet, and add the potatoes and onions on medium heat. I like mine with a little salt and pepper. I also add some Thyme for extra flavor. Toss them now and then until they are cooked through.
You can almost smell it
They are all simple to make and I won't waste time going into detail on those. My only suggestion is to use a stick of REAL butter and a can (or bottle) of heavy cream in your mashed potatoes. When making macaroni, I cook the pasta on the stove. After it boils and is soft - drain the water and add a can of heavy cream and some strips of cheese. Additional side items can include cucumber, cole slaw, tomato, and fresh green onions.
How about those beans?
The 'pot on the oven' style is still superior but they can still come out very similar, quicker, and easier if cooked in a crockpot/slow cooker. After soaking your beans overnight. ***Important Tip*** Don't add any salt during your soaking process and during most of the cooking. If you do, it will cause them to be too firm. All you have to do is put them in your crockpot (water and all) on high with a chunk of pork fatback. I use a meaty/fat piece about the size of my fist. Place that in the center and cover it with beans. Water over the beans should be an inch or just less - the more water the soupier. Keep an eye on them, and add water if necessary. Cook about 4 hours on high then switch to medium or low. After about 4 hours, you can add salt and pepper. After you switch to medium or low, then you can start your cornbread and serve when ready.
Serve them up with your favorite side items and dig in. Then maybe take a nice long nap.
I hope you cook some beans for your family and/or loved ones. I guarantee they will love you for it. Your ancestors will smile in approval. Thanks for reading and have a blessed day.