Houston’s First Presbyterian Church
published its “Texas Cook Book” in 1883, the collection of recipes believed
to be the first ever produced in the Lone Star State snubbed the pinto bean. |
cook book did offer a long recipe for Boston Baked Beans, but that dish has about
as much to do with true Texas fare as enchiladas have to do with Alaska. The editors
of the venerable Galveston News, however, understood the value of just
“The cheapest and most nutritious vegetable used for food
is beans,” the News reported in the winter of 1868. “Professor Liebeg says that
pork and beans form a compound of substances peculiarly adopted to furnish all
that is necessary to support life.”
The article noted that a quart of beans
cost 15 cents, with a half-pound of pork retailing for a dime. “This, as every
housekeeper knows, will feed a small family for a day with good, strengthening
Indeed, pinto beans were a staple in 19th century Texas
and continue to be today, but their history goes back even further. The Spanish
and his fellow conquistadors are believed to have been the first Europeans to
sit down to a bowl of beans in the Southwest, having obtained them from Indians
who cultivated them in what is now New Mexico.
By the time of Texas’
Anglo colonization, pinto beans (better known in the Southwest as frijoles
or Pecos Strawberries) had become ubiquitous. But not until Texas
started getting all urbane did it occur to anyone that how to cook them should
be codified. Before then, folks apparently just took it for granted that anyone
could cook a pot of beans.
bean aficionados, however, understand that while the basic steps in bean-cooking
are simple, artistry lies in the details. Those details usually involve what goes
into the pot besides the beans. The late Fred Gipson, author of “Old Yeller”
and other books, insisted that beans were not fit to eat unless they had been
cooked with a whole apple.
Camping at Castle
Gap, a landmark on the well-worn old trail toward Horsehead
Crossing on the Pecos,
I once enjoyed a serving or two of pinto beans cooked with nopal. The cactus made
an interesting mix with the pintos.
with us around the campfire that night was Paul Patterson, an old cowboy
and long-retired English teacher from Crane.
His claims to fame included his poetry, the fact that Western novelist Elmer
Kelton was a former student and his storytelling ability.
As we chowed
down on those beans, Patterson told us about a youngster named Whistler who had
a very famous mom. He did poorly as an infant, much to the consternation of Mrs.
Whistler. In desperation, she took her son to West
Texas, hoping the dryer climate would improve his constitution. Even so, the
boy stayed pretty puny until she took to feeding him burro’s milk and ample quantities
Happily, the child grew into a robust young man who took
up cowboying. Not only did he have his health back thanks to all the beans he
ate, a fellow waddy bestowed him with a nickname – Mother’s Whistler
raises the downside of pinto beans, their well-known propensity to embarrass their
consumers. Over the years, long before commercially available pharmaceuticals,
Texans swore by a variety of remedies. Cooks tossed everything from squail nails
to mineral oil into their beans in the belief it would take the wind out of them.
and writer Roy
Bedichek told fellow writer J. Frank Dobie
another campfire story about beans:
A party of hunters returning to their
high country camp discovered that someone had raided it in their absence. The
men readily discerned that the intruder had been a bear. Not only had the bruin
ransacked their tents, he had ingested an entire pot of beans left to simmer all
day over the campfire.
It normally takes a trained bear hound to trail
and tree such a critter, but in this case, the hunters did not have a dog. Turned
out they didn’t need one. Even their less-developed human olfactory abilities
proved sufficient to locate the thieving bear. All they had to do was stay quiet
and try to keep upwind until they could get a shot.
final bean tale involves a traveling salesman making his last call of the day
at a rustic homestead deep in the piney woods of East Texas. The widower farmer
invites the drummer to unhitch his team and stay for the night. The knight of
commerce demurs until the farmer’s beautiful daughter appears. She smiles, winks
and allows as how they’re having beans for supper.
Accompanied by slices
of home-grown onions and hot, buttered cornbread that would make a man slap his
mamma just for another bite, the beans had been cooked to perfection. With proper
feigned reluctance, the salesman accepts every offer of another serving. All the
while, the lovely daughter becomes increasingly cordial toward the handsome visitor.
Finally, it’s time to turn in. The farmer explains that while they have only one
bed, he would sleep in the middle so the salesman would have no cause for embarrassment.
Not long after the farmer blows out the lantern, he hears a commotion in the chicken
house, jumps out of bed to grab his shotgun, and storms out of the cabin in his
“Now’s your chance,” the daughter whispers.
that, the salesman springs from the feather-stuffed mattress, sprints toward the
stove and wolfs down the last of those beans.
Cox - December
7 , 2011 column
Food | Texas
People | Texas Towns | Columns
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