Appalachian Soup Beans Recipe and History

Appalachian Soup Beans Recipe and History (aka Pinto Bean Soup)

Stove top – Slow Cooker – Instant Pot Pressure Cooker Instructions

In the cold winter months, you can find an inviting pot of soup beans simmering on the stove of every Appalachian home almost every day. A bowl of creamy soup beans flavored with smoky ham is considered a taste of comfort.

Appalachian Soup Beans - Pinto Bean Soup
“If I ate twice what there was, it would’ve been half what I wanted.” Quote from Appalachian musician, Doc Watson on his love for soup beans claiming he could never get his fill.

Television cooking competition, Top Chef season 16,was hosted in the backdrop of Kentucky. One of the contestants was Top Chef finalist and local Kentucky chef, Sara Bradley. Born and raised in Paducah, Kentucky, Chef Sara learned her culinary skills under Michelin star chefs in the east coast and found her way back home to Paducah to open her restaurant, Freight House Food, to highlight Kentucky regional delicacies and agriculture on her menu. Sara did her state proud in the Top Chef competition by taking traditional Kentucky meals to new heights. I found myself routing for her to win. One of the Kentucky staples she wowed the judges with was her take on Soup Beans. For Appalachian mountain folk, a perfect winter meal is a hot bowl of soup beans served with pickled chow chow, corn bread and fried potatoes.

I was intrigued and curious to learn more about soup beans as I was a fan of bean recipes. All around the world you find the most wonderful and homey recipes made with beans. Having cooked and tried many regional recipes that come from humble roots and simple ingredients I couldn’t wait to learn how to transform pinto beans into a bowl of comfort. I was delighted to learn what the homesteaders of Appalachia already knew, that slow cooking pinto beans with fatty bacon and a ham hock resulted in a silky smooth bowlful of smoky goodness.

 

History of Appalachian Soup Beans:

The Appalachian mountain range stretches from New York all the way down to the Southern states of Alabama and Georgia. It divides the Eastern United States from the Midwest. The Southern portion of the Appalachian region mountain range extends down to the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina. As the lands in the new world to settle in eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas filled up in the 18th century, newer European immigrants were pushed westward into the Appalachian Mountains. The majority of the immigrant population were Scotch-Irish and also included Swedish and German settlers. The discovery of the Cumberland Gap in 1750 lured settlers even deeper into the mountains ranges encompassing upper east Tennessee, northwestern North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and central Kentucky.


Mountain Folk Way of Life

The new settlers learned mountain survival and farming techniques for planting and cultivate crops such as corn and squash from the Native American Cherokee Indians. Homesteaders in the Cumberland Gap were separated from civilization by the high mountain ranges so they lived relatively isolated and learned to live a rugged lifestyle becoming self-sufficient. They were dependent on hunting, foraging and growing their own food to provide for themselves. Seeds from the garden were saved for the next year’s crop and this practice still continues on through the generations. This hearty breed of homesteaders are known amongst themselves and outsiders as “Mountain People” or “Mountain Folk”.

Appalachian Mountain Folk
Image from NPR.org

For the mountain folk of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region, farming was a difficult task and nearly impossible. They faced dry and rocky terrain on steep mountains that were shielded from the sunlight by dense forest trees. Settlers brought in cows and sheep but they found the majority of their meat supply by raising hogs and letting them free range in the forest. The entire hog could be put to use for meats and flavoring foods. “It has been said that the only part of the hog that was not used was the squeal!” In addition to raising hogs, they grew their own fruits, vegetables and nuts. The most common foods to grow were black walnuts, chestnuts, corn, pinto beans, apples and wild greens. Corn was abundant and an essential vegetable in the Appalachians. There was no part of the corn that went to waste. It was eaten on the cob, fried, creamed, hominy grits, made into corn meal or moonshine. Even the corn shucks were used for stuffing furniture cushions like bed mattresses.


Wintertime Survival and Food Preparation

Wintertime in the Appalachian mountains did not match typical mild Southern winters. Instead they faced colder weather conditions similar to the Northeast region of the United States. To survive the chilling winters, families had to be skilled at preserving food. Dried pinto beans and corn were among the essential pantry stock ingredients. Pinto beans were the only pantry essential the Mountaineers did not grow themselves. They were the least expensive protein source available and they probably figured it would cost more money to grow them compared to buying a bag of dried pinto beans. Perhaps that’s how the expression “ain’t worth of hill of beans” came about to describe things of little to no value. It’s still common in mountain markets today to find pinto beans sold in 25 pd and even 40 pound bags in the fall for mountaineers to stock up on winter essentials. End of summer vegetables from the garden were pickled together in a spicy sweet medley and canned. This pickled vegetable menagerie is known to Southerners as Chow Chow which served as an essential flavor enhancer to many meals.

Appalachian Root Cellar

 

drying corn

          Image from Mother Earth News

 

Wintertime Meal Staple: Soup Beans

On a cold winter day, a pot of soup beans that are slowly simmered all day with remnants of ham fat results in soft creamy beans in a delicious pot likker. The ham bone and fat is the heart and soul of the flavor. Served up in a bowl with a side of corn bread, soup beans are both an essential source of sustenance and comforting meal. “To a native of Appalachia, soup beans is just a name for a pinto bean soup everyone makes. To outsiders it’s an exotic specialty. Simple traditional and mountain through and through.” Soup beans refer to brown beans (such as pinto beans) that are cooked with pork for flavoring. Other types of beans can also be used such as white beans, butter beans, or black-eyed peas, but it’s the pinto bean that is the favorite of mountain folk. Soup beans are often re-cooked as fried bean cakes, or made into mountain chili the next day. Since beans are known for causing flatulence or excessive gas. One old wives’ tale says, “To prevent this, cook a potato in the beans. The potato absorbs the gas, but be careful when you dispose of the potato because you now have a ‘Hillbilly’ hand grenade.”

A food source that was once eaten as matter of survival is now eaten by choice as a friendly reminder of growing up with family and enjoying familiar smells cooking on the stove.

 

Appalachian Soup Beans Recipe (aka Pinto Bean Soup)
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
2 hrs
Total Time
2 hrs 15 mins
 

Traditional soups beans use very basic ingredients such as water, beans, pork fat, salt and pepper. My recipe gets a little “fancier” with onion and garlic added in. It’s the simplicity of this dish that is so delicious. The garnishments added to your individual bowl of soup beans such as onions and chow chow are what add a little acidity and spicy zip.

Servings: 6 people
Ingredients
  • 1 pound dried pinto beans
  • 8 cups water (for stove top and slow cooker instructions)
  • 4 strips fatty bacon chopped
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1 chopped jalepeno *Optional, if you like some spicy heat
  • 1 smoked ham hock or ham neck bone
  • 32 ounces chicken stock
  • water
  • salt
  • black pepper
Garnishment Options
  • Chopped raw onions
  • Pickled Chow Chow (see recipe below)
Instructions
Stove Top Instructions
  1. Place dried pinto beans in a colander and rinse under cold water. Pick through and discard any shriveled beans or stones. Pour the beans into a large bowl and fill with enough cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Let the beans soak for several hours or overnight. By the next day, the beans will have doubled in sized by absorbing most of the water. Drain the beans and rinse.

  2. In a 6 quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add chopped bacon and let partially cook for a few minutes on each side. Remove the bacon strips and set aside on a plate. Next add chopped onion to the Dutch oven and saute for a few minutes in the bacon grease until softened, add in the garlic and cayenne (or jalapeno) and saute for an additional 30 seconds until aromatic. Pour in about a cup of chicken stock and use a spatula to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Note: It is recommended to not add salt at the beginning stages of cooking beans or it will take longer for the beans to soften up. Wait till the last part of cooking beans when they start to feel softened to add the salt.

  3. To the Dutch oven, add in the pinto beans, ham hock, onion mixture, and bacon. Pour in the remaining chicken stock and add enough water to make sure the beans are covered by 2 inches of liquid. Stir everything together. Let the bean mixture start to come to a boil and then turn the heat down to medium-low to let simmer. Partially cover the pot with a lid leaving some air space. This will ensure the beans result in a creamy texture. Let the beans simmer for 45 minutes while stirring occasionally and checking the beans. If the beans appear dry at the top, pour in additional liquid to make sure the beans stay submerged while cooking. Stir in a teaspoon of salt and continue to let the beans simmer for another 30-45 minutes until they are softened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

  4. Serve up in bowls and garnish with chopped raw onions or chow-chow. Enjoy with a side of corn bread to sop up the delicious pot likker.

  5. The flavor is even better the next day when reheated and the beans soften and thicken even more resembling a mountain chili.

  6. Storage: Soup beans can be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to one week.

Slow Cooker Instructions
  1. Slow Cooker
  2. Place dried pinto beans in a colander and rinse under cold water. Pick through and discard any shriveled beans or stones. Pour the beans into a large bowl and fill with enough cold water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Let the beans soak for several hours or overnight. By the next day, the beans will have doubled in sized by absorbing most of the water. Drain the beans and rinse.

  3. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, add chopped bacon and let partially cook for a few minutes on each side. Remove the bacon strips and set aside on a plate. Next add chopped onion to the skillet and saute for a few minutes in the bacon grease until softened, add in the garlic and cayenne (or jalapeno) and saute for an additional 30 seconds until aromatic. Pour in about a cup of chicken stock and use a spatula to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Note: It is recommended to not add salt at the beginning stages of cooking beans or it will take longer for the beans to soften up. Wait till the last part of cooking beans when they start to feel softened to add the salt.

  4. To the Slow cooker, add in the pinto beans, ham hock, onion mixture, and bacon. Pour in the remaining chicken stock and add enough water to make sure the beans are covered by 2 inches of liquid. Stir everything together. Cook on high heat for 4-5 hours or low heat for 8-10 hours until the beans are tender.

  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Serve up in bowls and garnish with chopped raw onions or chow-chow. Enjoy with a side of corn bread to sop up the delicious pot likker.

Instant Pot Pressure Cooker Instructions
  1. Instant Pot
  2. No pre-soaking required with pressure cooker method

  3. Place dried pinto beans in a colander and rinse under cold water. Pick through and discard any shriveled beans or stones.

  4. Turn the Instant pot on to saute mode, high heat setting. add chopped bacon and let partially cook for a few minutes on each side. Remove the bacon strips and set aside on a plate. Next add chopped onion to the skillet and saute for a few minutes in the bacon grease until softened, add in the garlic and cayenne (or jalapeno) and saute for an additional 30 seconds until aromatic. Pour in about a cup of chicken stock and use a spatula to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Note: It is recommended to not add salt at the beginning stages of cooking beans or it will take longer for the beans to soften up. Wait till the last part of cooking beans when they start to feel softened to add the salt. Press the Keep Warm/Cancel button to turn off.

  5. To the Instant Pot, add in the pinto beans with the onion mixture, ham hock, and bacon. Pour in the remaining chicken stock and add enough water to make sure the beans are covered by 2 inches of liquid. Stir everything together. Cover with the lid and seal. Make sure the pressure valve is set to closed. Press the Manual/Pressure Cook button, at high pressure setting. Set the time to 50 minutes. After the cooking time has completed, let the pressure naturally release for at least 20 minutes. Open the lid and season with salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Serve up in bowls and garnish with chopped raw onions or chow-chow. Enjoy with a side of corn bread to sop up the delicious pot likker.

  7. The flavor is even better the next day when reheated and the beans soften and thicken even more resembling a mountain chili.

Appalachian Chow Chow Recipe
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
30 mins
Total Time
45 mins
 

This is a small batch recipe for pickled chow chow that is quick to make for garnishment. There are many variations of Chow Chow relish recipes to make large batches for canning.

Servings: 6 people
Ingredients
  • 1 cup cabbage or 1 green tomato finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper chopped with core and seeds removed
  • 1 medium onion finely chopped
  • 1 small cucumber finely chopped
  • 1 cayenene pepper minced *Optional for spiciness
  • 1 liter white vinegar divided
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1/3 cup water
Instructions
  1. Placed chopped vegetables in a saucepan. Pour in enough vinegar to cover vegetables and heat over medium-high. Bring the vegetable mixture to a boil until the vegetables become tender. Remove from heat and drain the vegetables and discard the remaining vinegar.

  2. To the saucepan of cooked vegetables, stir in the sugar, ground mustard, turmeric, celery seed, 1/3 cup vinegar and water. Turn the heat back on to medium-high and bring to a boil. Let mixture boil for 5 minutes.

References:
Smokey Mountain Living Celebrating the Southern Appalachians, Appalachina foods: Defining generations by Mary Casey-Sturk,
Appalachia, Wikipedia
Charleston Gazette-Mail, WV Culinary Team: Soup beans -no bean soup – are an Appalachian winter staple by Candace Nelson WV Culinary Team January 18, 2018,
Southern Foodways Alliance, Gravy – A Helping of Gravy: Soup Beans, “A Cake of Cornbread, a Jar of Chow-Chow, and Thou” by Sheri Castle, May 19, 2014,
“Appalachian Home Cooking; History, Culture, and Recipes” by Mark F. Sohn 2005, The University Press of Kentucky

Appalachian Soup Beans - Pinto Bean Soup

Comments and Reviews

One Response to “Appalachian Soup Beans Recipe and History”

  1. Emilie McVey

    I’ve never heard of using chicken broth in a traditional bean soup. I’m sure it’s very tasty, but poor(er) people used water. The ham bone did the seasoning. My mother made the best beans, simmered for hours, mmm good.

    Reply

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