My sister said once that she doesn’t really like pinto beans because when she was growing up, Mama cooked a pot three or four times a week.
“We’d come home from school and walk into the house and there was that smell,” she said, shuddering at the sensory recall. Pinto beans, cooked with some kind of fatback or pork seasoning, is a unique smell but not necessarily bad. Certainly not in the category of collard greens, which will blanket the house with a stench that couldn’t be drowned out with a truc load of honeysuckle at its summer’s fragrant peak.
“Yuck!” Tink will exclaim when he comes in the door. “What is that smell?”
Sometimes I will pretend that I’ve cooked kale when I’ve really just fixed a pot of collard greens steamed in half of a can of chicken broth. Tink is from California where kale is hip. Collards, though, are what pinto beans are: poor. Without collards (my PawPaw, the righteous one, truck farmed collards), pinto beans and cornbread, rural Southerners would have starved whenever hard times struck them like a tornado taking down a trailer.
If my sister were to admit it, that’s probably what she hated about the frequent smell of pinto beans – it was the smell of poor folks just trying to raise three kids and get ahead somehow. Of course, at the age of 8 or 9, she didn’t know the household economics but she knew they weren’t eating steak or even fried chicken. They were eating pinto beans, cornbread, potatoes fried in a cast iron skillet and drinking milk. Even now, a big pack of pinto beans that will make a couple of hearty pots is only a couple of dollars. I know because I cook pinto beans a lot. With oil not fatback. I could live on them if the need arose and the way things seem to be going around the country, it’s a good thing that I am prepared to survive on pinto beans. It may come down to that.
By the time that Mama’s and Daddy’s fourth child — me — came along, times were a bit improved and Mama didn’t have to cook pinto beans a lot. By the second grade, the other three were gone and we only had pinto beans two or three times a month. The night before Mama cooked the pinto beans, she would dump the package out into a bowl of water and soak them. Then the next day, she would “look ‘em” by filtering them through her hands and taking out any bad ones.
We ate vegetables from the garden — “put up’” over the summer months — and beef and pork that we raised. Their mountain upbringings never left them,so Mama and Daddy continued to love wild poke salad (sallet is the correct name) gathered in the fields and washed many times to get the poison out of it, cracklin’ cornbread and mush (a poor man’s variation of grits made from boiling cornmeal in water). With leftover mush, Mama fried it in butter the next day and it was wonderful.
Whenever I’m in the car and his show is on, I listen to financial guru Dave Ramsey who is full of good, common sense advice on getting out of debt. He is tough on people who are frivolous with money. He has no mercy. Sometimes when people call in and their situation is bad because of their own stupidity, I say aloud, “I don’t believe that I’d call him if I were you.”
And, sure enough, he launches into a scolding that is scalding. He will say, “Now, you need to get serious about this. It’s time to live on beans and rice only until you get this debt paid down.”
That’s when I always think: That’s exactly what my folks did. Only they didn’t have any rice. They just had beans.