Beans and Cornbread: Feeding Souls a Mile Deep Simmered all day with a slug of fatback, brown beans have warmed many hardworking West Virginia miners. Kendra Bailey Morris shares memories of pintos and cornbread and her great-granny Charity.

Beans and Cornbread: Feeding Souls a Mile Deep

Cornbread and pinto beans, onions, cole slaw and chow chow relish make up a hearty — and heartwarming — meal rooted in the rolling hills of West Virginia and its coal mines. Kendra Bailey Morris hide caption

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Kendra Bailey Morris

Cornbread and pinto beans, onions, cole slaw and chow chow relish make up a hearty — and heartwarming — meal rooted in the rolling hills of West Virginia and its coal mines.

Kendra Bailey Morris

About the Author

Food writer and culinary instructor Kendra Bailey Morris is the author of White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining (Ten Speed Press 2006).

A bowl of smoky pinto beans is to West Virginia what an earthy Cabernet is to the Napa Valley: It's an indulgence relished by locals, intriguing to outsiders and central to the region's culinary landscape.

For a true West Virginian, nothing compares to sitting down to a steaming bowl of brown beans served up with a crumbly wedge of homemade cornbread (or grit bread, as we like to call it). Simmered all day in a cast-iron pot with a big slug of fatback, brown beans have warmed the bodies and souls of many hardworking men and women of the Appalachian coalfields.

My mother grew up in Anawalt, W.Va., a small coal-mining town hidden deep in the state's southwestern hills and valleys. Anawalt is one of many nondescript towns that lived and died by the fortunes of King Coal.

Today, it's a ghost town where the whispers of miners who carried day-old biscuits in their lunch pails as they descended a mile deep mingle with the few inhabitants left, whose per-household incomes hover around the $14,000 mark.

It was here that my mother learned the simple culinary art of making the beans and cornbread meal from her grandmother Charity, who ran a small boardinghouse that welcomed miners hoping to find work inside the damp hollows of the nearby mountains.

Miners, their faces still streaked with coal dust, gathered for supper in Charity's cozy kitchen along with the family. My great-grandmother stood at the wood stove, periodically wiping her hands on a stained, floral-patterned apron.

Pinto beans simply seasoned with a chunk of fatback and a little salt and pepper bubbled inside a large cast-iron pot. As the miners sipped mugs of hot coffee, my mother laid out bowls of chow chow relish, minced onions and cole slaw to accompany the beans. Out of the oven came the cornbread in its own cast-iron pan, still sizzling with the essence of bacon drippings.

It was 1943, only a few years after one of the Pond Creek mines in Bartley, W.Va., exploded, claiming the lives of 91 men. It was a time when phrases like "scrip," "black lung" and "mining disaster" fell from the lips of workers, wives and children like the tar-colored dust that settled on their windowsills. It was a time when the grand comforts of coal company officials contrasted sharply with a miner's family struggle amid the crushing poverty of the coal camp-- where food and provisions had to be purchased at the company store, owned by the coal company itself.

The beans and cornbread meal was born of these ironies and inequalities. Loaded with protein, carbohydrates and fiber, it was a healthy, satisfying reprieve from the 12-hour days a miner spent on his knees in a dark and unforgiving coal shaft.

And, it was inexpensive. Made from ingredients that were often on hand and relatively nonperishable (such as cornmeal, bacon grease, dried beans, grits and fatback), the beans and cornbread supper was easy to prepare and could keep for several days.

Even better, while the beans simmered in a pot for most of the afternoon, a hard-working woman like my great-granny could get back to washing clothes, canning, gardening and looking after the children.

Today, you can still get a taste of real beans and cornbread throughout West Virginia, whether you are curled up in small corner booth at the local diner or are one of 300 guests attending the annual Mercer County Democrats "bean dinner" honoring the likes of U.S. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.

Cornbread and beans are the type of food, simple and warm, that reminds us all of where we come from. And for West Virginians, they represent the true soul of the mountains.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: Purim cookies and candies.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Recipes below excerpted from White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining by Kendra Bailey Morris (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

West Virginia Brown Beans

Serves 10-12

1 (16-ounce) package dried pinto beans

1 medium to large slug of salt fatback (about 3 inches long and 1 1/2 inch thick], or 1 to 2 meaty pork ribs

1 1/2 quarts water

Salt and pepper

Put beans and water in a cast-iron cooking pot on medium heat. Next, put fatback in a microwavable coffee cup and cover with water. Microwave on high for 30 seconds or so, then turn the fat over and do the same for another 30 seconds. Pour the fatback and broth into the cooking beans. Once the beans begin to lightly boil at medium heat, lower the temperature to low, cover and cook for about 2 hours. Every half hour or so, uncover beans and give them a stir, making sure they are simmering in enough cooking liquid. If beans appear dry, add a little more water. Once beans are tender, season with a little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper before serving.

Country Grit Bread

Kendra Bailey Morris
Kendra Bailey Morris

Grit bread is similar to cornbread, but it's made with pure stone-ground grits, giving it a texture unlike any you've ever tasted. This bread is dense, moist and not at all sweet on the inside while golden and crusty on the outside. You can find stone-ground cornmeal in specialty and organic grocery stores.

Serves 8

1 cup plain white stone-ground cornmeal (not instant)

3/4 cup yellow self-rising cornbread mix

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 teaspoon baking soda

3 tablespoons sausage, bacon, country ham, or pork chop drippings (Crisco or half butter and half Crisco will work as substitutes)

1/4 cup plain white stone-ground grits

3/4 cup water

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Sift white cornmeal, cornbread mix, sugar, salt and baking soda into a big mixing bowl. Add fat drippings to a cast-iron cornbread pan (or muffin or cornstick pan) and warm it on the stove. When drippings are melted, tilt pan so the sides and bottom are well greased. Then pour off and reserve two tablespoons of drippings.

Mix grits and water in a bowl and microwave on high for 3 minutes. Stop and stir and then microwave again on high for 3 minutes and set aside. The grits will be about half done, but that's OK. Whisk egg in a bowl. Then mix egg with buttermilk and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until the batter is well mixed but still a bit on the firm and dry side. Add the reserved pan drippings and grits. Mix all of the ingredients well with a large spoon. (If grits and water have cooled, reheat for 30 seconds before adding.) Your batter shouldn't be too dry or too wet, but somewhere in between.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. (Cornsticks take slightly less time.) Your grit bread is done when a nice, golden brown crust has formed. Now, all you need to do is get a big slab of butter and dig in!

Cooking Tip: Leftover grit bread makes mouthwatering fried cornbread. Just heat up a griddle or cast-iron pan and drop in a small bit of butter. Then fry up your leftover cornbread wedges until they are nice and golden brown.

Chow Chow Relish

Makes about 8 pints

2 cups chopped sweet red peppers

2 cups chopped green peppers

4 cups chopped cabbage

2 cups chopped sweet onions

2 hot peppers, chopped

5 cucumbers, chopped

4 cups chopped, cored green tomatoes

3 tablespoons pickling salt

4 tablespoons mustard seed

2 tablespoons celery seed

1 cup sugar

2 cups vinegar

Chop up vegetables into a medium dice. Sprinkle with pickling salt; cover and refrigerate overnight. Lightly rinse veggies and drain well.

Put the remaining ingredients in a large pot, and bring to a boil. Add the vegetable mixture and cook for about 10 minutes. Pack into sterilized canning jars, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Remove any air bubbles. Wipe jar rims and seal at once according to canning manufacturer's directions. If you don't have any canning materials handy, you can store relish in an airtight glass container in the refrigerator for up to a month.