Pinto Beans with Cornbread and Chow-Chow

December 31, 2018
By Holly Jennings

One Friday morning, in early December, Mike and I drove out of Richmond, Virginia, heading west and south toward Knoxville, Tennessee.

As we rode, we listened to Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, a novel set in Knoxville in the early 1950s. Its epic length requires more than a drive to Knoxville and back to hear the whole thing, even when taking a slightly longer return route, through North Carolina, to eat a barbecue lunch.

All of the writing in Suttree is vivid, overflowing its pages. Crossing over from Virginia into Tennessee, we heard a particularly visceral passage about Knoxville’s Market Street that made me long for a less sanitized America, the one before I was born:

Market Street on Monday morning, Knoxville Tennessee. In this year nineteen fifty-one. Sutt with his parcel of fish going past the rows of derelict trucks piled with produce and flowers, an atmosphere rank with country commerce, a reek of farmgoods in the air tending off into a light surmise of putrefaction and decay. Pariahs adorned the walk and blind singers and organists and psalmists with mouth harps wandered up and down. Past hardware stores and meat markets and little tobacco shops. A strong smell of feed in the hot noon air like working mash. Mute and roosting pedlars watching from their wagonbeds and flower ladies in their bonnets like cowled gnomes, driftwood hands composed in their apron laps and their underlips swollen with snuff. He went among vendors and beggars and wild street preachers haranguing a lost world with a vigor unknown to the sane. Suttree admired them with their hot eyes and dogeared bibles, God’s barkers gone forth into the world like prophets of old…

When we arrived in Knoxville that evening, we found a rainy city bedecked for Christmas, its lights reflected in its biggest ornament, the shiny gold Sunsphere thrusting 266 feet skyward, a remnant of the 1982 World’s Expo. The downtown and center city were populated with patrons and browsers of fine restaurants, brew pubs, “speakeasies,” juice bars, coffee shops, and a smattering of boutique-y retail shops, including a bookstore with copies of Suttree and other Cormac McCarthy novels on its shelves.


On Market Street, now a pedestrian mall, families skated on a holiday-themed rink to a D.J.’s selection of appropriate jingles. Just feet away was a huge block of stone with the before-mentioned passage inscribed.


My cousin Joseph’s wedding took us to Knoxville, but we gave ourselves extra time on either side of the event to eat at local restaurants and diners and to take in the town. During one of our wanderings, we ended up in a renovated brick-built train depot and met a photographer there, who, while waiting for Santa and children to arrive, had time to tell us about the town’s motto, “Keep Knoxville Scruffy,” and how it was born after a Wall Street Journal writer, visiting Knoxville in 1980 to report on the next World’s Expo Fair location, dismissed Knoxville as a “a scruffy little city on the Tennessee River.”


For dinner that Friday, the day before the wedding, we had burgers at Littons. It’s famous for them, and has been serving them on their homemade buns since the early sixties. Other things it’s famous for are pies and cakes and homemade blue cheese dressing; you can choose the latter to dress a salad or you can order it as a dip served with individually wrapped Caption’s Wafers crackers. The burger deserves a story of its own, as does the blue cheese dressing (just how did blue cheese dressing, especially Roquefort dressing, become a thing in Tennessee?). But it’s the pinto beans I want to talk about here: They were one of the sides, and were described simply as “pinto beans,” giving no indication of the preparation; I quickly learned that when you see “pinto beans” on a menu in the South, it means “soup beans”—not soup, but beans simmered with some sort of pork product for seasoning and served with their liquid-y broth, or pot liquor.


After the wedding, we fit in meals at a cafeteria-style restaurant called Chandler’s, known for its fried chicken and other traditional southern dishes, and at Pete’s Restaurant, a downtown spot popular for breakfast and lunch. Pinto beans showed up as side options at both places, and at Pete’s “white beans,” too.


We traveled back to Richmond taking the southern route so that we could stop mid-day in Lexington, North Carolina, home of Western North Carolina–style’Que. We found a lovely, old-fashioned market in downtown Lexington that sells all sorts of regional specialties: liver pudding, pimento cheese by the pound, several brands of local breakfast sausage, chitlin’s, Moravian cookies, pickles and relish of all types, water-blanched North Carolina peanuts, and so on. A huge barrel filled to the brim with dried creamy-colored speckled beans sat near the check-out counter. Thrust down into the beans was a large metal scoop and a sign that read “New Crop Pinto Beans”—a sign to me that I needed to get some pinto beans and make a pot when we returned home.


I asked a friendly looking man at the store, the owner I sensed, to tell me all about “new crop” pinto beans. He said they’re dried, just like regular dried Pintos, but are a little faster cooking and their flavor is more delicate (and for this, he said, they have their devotees). He said that though he likes pintos prepared the traditional way, with a ham hock, lately he’s taken to cooking his pintos in a slow cooker with chicken broth.


After we returned home to Richmond, with my bag of new crop pintos, I searched in my Southern cookbooks and online for pinto bean recipes. For my first pot, I decided to go the traditional route, with the hock. I did, however, add two nontraditional touches: thyme and shallot. (I’ve come up with the notion of late that I want to create a blend of French and Southern home cooking, adding touches of one to the other.)


Reading up on pintos beans, I learned that, along with cornbread, chow-chow relish is a traditional accompaniment for the dish in many parts of the South, particularly Appalachian parts. While I did grow up eating soups beans from time to time at my grandmother’s in Akron, Ohio, the addition of chow-chow relish was news to me. My grandmother was from Smithville, Tennessee, and she made her soup beans with navy beans and a piece of some sort of smoky, fatty pork—in essence, what’s called “white beans” at Pete’s Restaurant—and served them with skillet cornbread and maybe some chopped raw onion. (In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, when Suttree sits down to a pot of beans with a poor family, it’s a pot of “white beans,” not pintos. The family is so poor, they can’t even afford a piece of fatty pork to season the beans: Suttree, “light-headed with hunger . . .,” and hoping for some meat, “ . . . stirred them, but no trace of fat meat turned up.”)


In search of some homemade chow-chow relish to go with my pintos, I went to the farmer’s market, heading straight to a vendor I’d previously bought bread-and-bread pickles from. She had several jars. Traditionally, chow-chow is made with cabbage; hers was made with summer squash and was bright yellow. I told the woman at the table what my plans were for her chow-chow. “That’s just how my father eats it. He piles it on his pintos.” Her father is from Virginia, she said, just across from the North Carolina border, toward the Appalachian side, not the Tidewater side. She said she was familiar with pintos, prepared like soup beans, but the further south you go, the more common it is to see them. Digging for cooking secrets, I asked “Does your father add some chili heat to his pintos.” “I don’t know. I just show up to eat.”


I get that, now that I’ve eaten my first bowl pintos with chow-chow. It’s just plain good, country cooking, but it’s very worth showing up for.



The Recipe


Soup beans, whether made with pintos or navy beans, require crusty cornbread for sopping, or breaking up like croutons across the top. The type of cornbread that’s needed here is unsweetened, made in a cast-iron skillet to create a nice crust. In the recipe below, I’ve linked to my recipe for this style of cornbread; it calls for Bloody Butcher cornmeal because that is what I was experimenting with at the time, but any stone-ground cornmeal can be used.


Topping your beans with chow-chow relish is optional, but it’s a good idea. Sweet and vinegar-y, chow-chow adds a great accent to the spicy, smoky, pork-fat seasoned pintos, creating a delicious mélange of flavors in every bite of soft beans, flavorsome broth, and crusty cornbread.


1 pound dried pinto beans

1 tablespoon bacon grease

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

2 shallots, minced

5 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/16 to 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (see Notes)

1 large or 2 small smoked ham hocks

Coarse sea salt

Cornbread, for serving

Chow-chow relish, for serving (see Notes)

1. Pick through the beans and discard any funky ones or pebbles or anything that shouldn’t be there. Place them in a large bowl and cover with water by at least 3 inches. Soak overnight, then drain and rinse.

 

2. Heat the bacon grease in heavy soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.

 

3. Add the onion and shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

 

4. Add the beans and pour in water to cover by 1 inch. Stir in the thyme, bay leaves, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, then add the ham hock, nestling it down among the beans so that it’s covered by the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface, then partially cover the pot. Maintain a gentle simmer to slowly cook the beans until they’re completely tender but not mushy, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or more. (The exact cooking time will depend on how dried your beans were to start with and how long you presoaked them). When the beans are softened but not yet fully tender, about 45 minutes, season them with 1½ teaspoons of salt. Continue to simmer until fully tender, checking for doneness about every 5 minutes or so.

 

5. Discard the bay leaves and thyme stems and check the seasoning, adding more salt as needed. Remove the ham hock, then pull the meat of the hock, shred or cut it into small pieces, and return the meat to the pot.

 

6. Serve with cornbread and chow-chow.


Notes: The aim here is to have just a hint of chili pepper in the beans. So, if you’re not serving your beans with chow-chow, I suggest you use 1/16 teaspoon cayenne pepper so that the heat isn’t too forward. The exact amount depends, of course, on the potency of your cayenne pepper. The sweetness of the chow-chow balances the greater heat of 1/8 teaspoon quantity of cayenne pepper nicely. The other option is to use a hot chow-chow and omit the cayenne pepper from the beans.


If you can’t find chow-chow where you live, you can substitute finely chopped bread and butter pickles, or some other sweet pickle. I realize this may seem sacrilegious, but what you want is a touch of something sweet and vinegary to complement the spicy, smoky, and pork-fat enriched beans. The resulting blend of flavors works for the same reason barbecue is beloved: smoky, sweet, tangy, salty.

 

Dried pinto beans: “new crop” pintos (top), regular dried pintos (bottom)

 

Resources

Union Avenue Books, Knoxville, Tennessee

Litton’s, Knoxville, Tennessee

Chandler’s Deli, Knoxville, Tennessee

Pete’s Restaurant, Knoxville, Tennessee

Conrad & Hinkle Food Market, Lexington, North Carolina

Bundy Heirloom Farm, Drakes Branch, Virginia (Purveyors of produce as well as homemade chow-chow, bread and butter pickles, and many other fine pickled/preserved things)

McCarthy, Cormac. Suttree. Narrated by Richard Poe. Recorded Books, 2012. Audiobook.

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P.S. This posting is dedicated to my cousin Joseph; if it weren’t for him, who knows if I would ever have learned about pinto beans and chow-chow, or about the southern Jennings sisters’ tradition of making boiled custard at holiday time.


2 Comments to “Pinto Beans with Cornbread and Chow-Chow”


  1. Lauri Robertson says:

    Wow Holly, who knew there was so much to know about pinto beans – how great! And, how great your writing is, as ever.
    I read Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” some years ago – remember it as brilliant, Faulkneresque, and quite dark… Oh, that smoldering Southern sensibility…
    …can’t help remembering on New Year’s Day we’re supposed to be eating black-eyed peas, no? But, perhaps pinto work, too!
    Happy New Year!

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  2. I’m glad my post brought to your mind your past read of Cormac McCarthy’s other good writing. Amazing, isn’t it, how good fiction writing can really stay with you. I agree whole-heartedly—there is something very appealing about the Southern gothic genre, and the feeling of Suttree seems to fall into that. Happy New Year! Yeah, maybe pintos can be a stand-in, kind of, sort of–I mean, pintos are speckled so couldn’t we just think of those speckles as lots and lots of little “eyes”? Maybe that’s too creepy a reference for something we’re going to eat . . .

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