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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Pinto Beans

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
When 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.

The 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 plain beans.

“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 food.”

Indeed, pinto beans were a staple in 19th century Texas and continue to be today, but their history goes back even further. The Spanish explorer Coronado 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.

True 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.

Sitting 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 of frijoles.

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

That 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.

Naturalist 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.

A 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 longjohns.

“Now’s your chance,” the daughter whispers.

Hearing that, the salesman springs from the feather-stuffed mattress, sprints toward the stove and wolfs down the last of those beans.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 7, 2011 column
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