One afternoon, I had a hankering — a primal-like craving — for a supper of pinto beans and cornbread with a tall glass of cold, rich buttermilk thrown in for good measure and extra filling.
This is an heirloom of food handed down from my Appalachian folks who, when hard times threatened to starve them, put a pot of beans on the stove and then later said a blessing over that which would fill their stomachs with fiber and protein.
In my growing-up days, Mama cooked a pot of pintos at least once a week and always, without fail, stretched it into two nights’ worth of supper. She added a crisp cake of cornbread seasoned with bacon grease and baked it in a cast-iron skillet.
“There ain’t no finer eatin’,” Daddy was liable to say as he crumbled his cornbread into the beans and stirred it up. Mama was fancier. She added onion and a good hot pepper if one was available.
In those days of my simple youth, I ate so many pinto beans that I vowed that when times were better — when money was mine for the making, when I had a car and a license and could drive to a hamburger joint — there’d be no more partaking of pinto beans for me. No siree. Once I was in charge of my destiny, I would pave my stomach with fancy foods like steak, pasta and lobster. I would leave way behind me those foods like okra, collards, poke sallet, cornbread, leatherjacket fish and yams — those foods that were salvation to the poor. My own poor family.
And, of course, pinto beans were at the top of that list. Oh, there’d come a day, I promised myself, when I would never have to hold a spoonful of pinto beans again.
Once on my own, earning a paycheck and fully in charge of my grocery list, I kept that promise. For several years. I traveled on business a good bit, so I ate out more frequently than in. I ate all those glorious foods I declared that I would eat — steak, pasta and lobster. Plenty of ‘em. So much so that a strange thing happened — I had my fill of them. I got downright tired of them and dreamed of replacing fancy sauces with sawmill gravy and substituting homemade biscuits for yeast rolls.
I craved the foods that I had once dreamed of deserting once and for all.
“Ronda, why do you cook pinto beans all the time?” Mama, perplexed, asked a few years before she died. “Every time I turn around, you’re fixin’ a pot of beans.”
“Because I love them,” I admitted.
It brings to mind a story long told of Southern writers William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter, a story that, when I heard it, resonated loudly with me. The two Pulitzer literature winners were sharing a meal while abroad in Paris. It was a grand meal but when it was finished, Faulkner said wistfully, “Back home, the butter beans are in. The speckled ones.”
Miss Porter ran her finger along the rim of her glass and sighed. “And the blackberries.”
I understand. But what I can’t figure is why we return so longingly to the foods of our childhood and our homeland. Is it the memories? Or the taste? Or that too much of anything will drive you to something else? Or, that if born a country girl, always a country girl?
So, on that day of my crazy craving, I soaked a pot of pinto beans then cooked them slowly on the stove. I stirred up a small cake of cornbread and baked it in a tiny cast-iron skillet. Then, I poured the buttermilk, said grace and took the first bite, savoring it.
Never has a meal so completely satisfied as did that one. It must be in my genes.
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