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Soup beans is a term common in the Southern United States, particularly the regions around the Appalachian Mountains. It refers to pinto or other brown dried beans cooked with smoked pork as flavoring.1 Soup beans are usually served with cornbread, greens (such as boiled cabbage, cauliflower, or fried sauerkraut and weenies), corn (whole or sweet), and potatoes (stewed or fried) and may be topped with raw chopped onions. The meal is often topped with pickle relish. Soup beans are considered a main course, but also serve as a side dish. In rural areas, where food was scarce during the winter, these dried beans were a staple food.
Types of soup beans
While soup beans are traditionally brown beans, other types of beans are also used.
- White Beans — Great northern beans and Navy beans are often used to make a soup bean dish. This became more common as residents of rural areas began to rely more on store-bought beans and could afford more variety. This dish is typically referred to as "white beans" although it is occasionally called soup beans. Along with the beans, white beans are typically cooked in the juice of a country ham, often with the ham bone or ham included in the dish. As such, this dish is a prized part of holiday meals, when hams are baked. White beans are sometimes cooked with pork fat like brown soup beans, although this is less common. White beans carried an air of sophistication because they were first available in towns to people who could afford more than one type of bean and ham, as opposed to poorer rural people who often raised only brown beans.
- Butter Beans — butter beans are used to make the soup bean dish called butter beans. These dried limas are cooked, with smoked pork and/or ham until the sauce starts to thicken, hence the name "butter" beans. Like white beans, butter beans represented prosperity and were often prized dishes when served. Butter beans only refers to dried limas. Fresh or canned limas are called "lima beans".
- Black-eyed Peas — While these peas are almost never referred to as "soup beans", the preparation in the Appalachian region is almost identical. Black-eyed Peas, sometimes called blackeye peas, are most common where Appalachian culture intersects with lowland soul-food and coastal food cultures. Like Hoppin' John, black-eyed peas became common as a new year's dish. However, since rice was not a part of mountain culture, the peas were cooked with pork (usually hog jowls) like soup beans and served with stewed tomatoes and collard greens. This dish becomes less common as you move into more isolated mountain communities.
Red kidney beans and mediterranean beans, peas, and lentils have never been a significant part of mountain culture.
While soup beans might be served with any meal, they were typically the main course in a meatless supper. Traditionally, soup beans would be served with other home grown vegetables and homemade breads:
- Corn Bread — Prior to the availability of milled flour, thin, crispy fried yellow cornbread cakes called hoecakes or baked cornbread are sometimes served with a soup-bean supper. Often the beans are served atop a bed of crumbled cornbread, or cornbread may be crumbled into a bowl of beans, almost like adding crackers to chili.
- Potatoes — Irish white potatoes were typically served, especially during the winter months, boiled, mashed or fried (boiled then pan fried). In lowland areas, sweet potatoes are commonly served.
- Greens — Most commonly collard or creasy greens. Slow cooked with smoked pork or bacon grease.
- Ramps/Onions — Strong native onions called ramps were often served raw. They were often cut up onto the beans as seasonings other than salt and local herbs were not available for a long time. Ramps were replaced by cultivated onions.
Modern supermarkets and processed foods have led to two additions to soup bean suppers which are not traditional.
- Salmon Cakes: The availability of canned salmon led to salmon cakes being included with soup beans. The tastes are complimentary and salmon, like any purchased meat, would be considered a luxury and not cooked in large quantities.
- Macaroni and Cheese — Cheese and pasta have no background in mountain cultures. Supermarkets made processed cheese and pasta available, as well as boxed dinners. Macaroni and cheese was inexpensive and easy to add to a soup bean meal. Macaroni was often served with canned tomatoes in a dish called macaroni and tomatoes and often "macaroni and cheese " in mountain homes meant the inclusion of tomatoes.
Soup beans were such a staple during the winter that general stores, when they began carrying dried beans, carried 50 lb. bags alongside the typical 1, 2, & 5 lb. bags. Soup beans are often re-cooked as fried bean cakes, or made into mountain chili the next day. In the winter months, a pot of beans simmered on the stove of every house every day.1
Pinto beans, along with corn meal, represent an unusual connection between mountain and southwestern and Mexican cuisine.
- 1 ^ Sohn, Mark F. Appalachian Home Cooking History, Culture, & Recipes Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2005.