Soup Beans Are A Beloved Appalachian Staple

Pass the cornbread.

Soup Beans
Photo: Sheri Castle

For people raised in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, perhaps no meal is more comforting and satisfying, or less expensive and fussy, than a big pot of pintos cooked in the style known as soup beans.

Soup beans are not soup, but these slowly simmered beans are soupy, bathed in a rich, creamy, nutritious pot likker that's inseparable from the beans themselves, sometimes literally.

Each time soup beans are reheated, the beans get creamier, and their liquid gets thicker and more delicious. This tolerance for reheating is part of their appeal. Even when freshly cooked, soup beans can look drab, but their looks have nothing to do with their beauty.

Pintos and Soup Beans

Bean soup can be made from any small dried bean, but when a mountain person says they want soup beans, they mean pintos.

The Appalachian Mountains are home to dozens of varieties of nutrient-packed beans, including many that seed savers now categorize as heirlooms. Starting with Native Americans, every generation that has cultivated the mountain land knew that certain types of beans could flourish there.

In fact, there is a richer lode of genetic diversity among beans in Appalachia than anywhere else in the world, yet pintos don't grow there. This makes their rise to dominance a long and curious story, with no clear-cut answers, but we know that a bag of dried pinto beans was perhaps the least expensive protein around, available in almost any store that carried groceries.

The dried beans lasted for months, and the cooked ones lasted for days. The lack of a cleared path to the Appalachian table isn't a big deal, because the most important part of the story of soup beans is that they hold sway in Appalachian foodways.

What's in Soup Beans?

There's more to soup beans than simply cooking pinto beans, however. Soup beans look nothing like store-bought pinto beans from a can.

Like so many things, soup beans need fat and salt. The fat can come from good oil, but pintos prefer the judicious use of a little cured pork seasoning—a chunk of side meat, a couple slices of smoky bacon, or a good spoonful of bacon grease.

Usually the only other seasonings in the pot are plenty of salt and pepper. Some people shake on hot sauce at the table. There are oral histories from people who, in the absence of seasoning pork, added a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter or yellow mustard to the pot, which is odd, but resourceful.

Although few Appalachians will turn down a bowl of beans at almost any meal, soup beans usually are the meal, needing nothing more than good cornbread for soppin', and maybe a little chow chow, if it's handy. Some people top them with a little chopped raw onion or a couple of home-canned tomatoes mashed with a fork. But if we add so much that the pintos get lost, we've lost our way with soup beans.

Soup beans satisfy more than hunger; they fulfill a longing, nostalgia, and a need for the all-too-rare luxury of humble foods prepared perfectly.

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