A cold wet day at the lake with swans, scaups, and golden eyes practicing touch-and-goes through the rain. A land otter was working the shore last night, feeding on salmon smolt, popping up like a seal periodically to stare at me through the rain. It’s the kind of day for soup or a good pot of beans.
I’ve always been a fan of beans, — as a kid, I even would drink the hot bean juice ladled off the top of the pot— and chilly, damp day calls a pot of it simmering on the stove with cornbread in the oven. It’s one of those meals I grew up with and kept loving as an adult. I know for some people the food of their childhood has no appeal when they grow up, but for me a pot of beans simmered with a ham bone or bacon rind is full of flavor and memory.
American tradition holds a pot of beans in low esteem and harkens back to the Great Depression or other times when food was dear and meat was a luxury unless you could butcher a moose, pluck a chicken, or hook a salmon. For me, it’s a memory of the finest days of my childhood when we were all together in our green-log cabin with dad at one end of the table and mom at the other, anchoring our vessel in any storm.
Back in early April the grocery store ran out of dry beans and cornmeal needed to make complementary cornbread. Such a run on stable food made me wonder if people were really eating that much cornbread and beans or just stocking up for the apocalypse. Or maybe I’m not the only one that is comforted by such basic foods.
My mom bought beans in twenty-five-pound bags and the same for cornmeal. She was from Kentucky where she was taught that only livestock and white trash ate yellow corn. Upstanding white folk ate white cornmeal. Needless to say, by the time we were Alaska homesteaders we had moved beyond that and in fact I think we all preferred the coarse texture and flavor of the yellow cornmeal. Cornbread is a quick bread with simple recipes that pairs nicely with a big bowl of beans. Sometimes we split a chunk of cornbread and ladled the beans over the top, my sister liked to smear her cornbread with butter and crumble it on top of her beans. Now I like to keep them separate.
Mom had to make a ton of cornbread because there were seven of us a the table and sometimes a local stray. Not only did we need enough for the meal but also for dessert. Dessert was a chunk of cornbread spread with butter and rhubarb jam or honey. Not my dad and I, dad liked to crumble his cornbread into a tall milk glass, add a spoon of sugar, and top it off with milk. I followed suit, and we ate our makeshift pudding with a spoon out of our milk glass.
Beans are easy to cook and they can be pretty bland without flavoring, but Mom would add ham hocks or an old ham bone with trimmings and some chopped onion. OF course, we didn’t always have those luxuries around, but we did buy bacon by the slab. Slab bacon came with the fatty skin attached and she would filet that bacon skin from the rest of the slab and slice it to simmer in the beans. Some clove and bay leave added to the smoky flavor of the bacon rind, and the rind turned tender and tasty. With the hot cornbread, some diced onion, and a bowl of cottage cheese the table was set. Yes, we topped our bowls of beans with a dollop of cottage cheese —and for me a good sprinkle of pepper.
Let it rain, I say. Let’s dig out the bean you stashed for emergencies, and make a skillet full of cornbread.