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Diane Blanks, Blue Ridge Mountain Views #19: Soup Beans and Politics

Blue Ridge Mountain Views

“Soup Beans and Politics”


As all politicians are expected to be present when at least three people are gathered together in the county cooking food for a fundraiser (barbeque, hotdogs, fried fish, beans…whatever), and as I am currently a candidate for the Watauga County Commission, I went last weekend with friends to the pinto bean supper at a rural church in the county.

The pristine little brick church sits on a mountain ridge out by itself at the side of a winding road–tidy, self-sufficient and obviously beloved by its members.

Chipmunk drawing copyright Levi Walton.
Chipmunk drawing copyright Levi Walton.

The event was scheduled to start at 5 PM, and when we got out there at about 5:30, the parking lot was running over, and cars were parked up and down the roadsides. We learned later that people had started lining up long before five. Either they eat early in the country, or there are some legendary cooks in the church (and I suspect the latter.)

When we made it downstairs to the Fellowship Hall, the food table greeted us. At the head of the table was the piece d’resistance: two enormous bowls of pinto beans swimming in the legendary toothsome broth that gives them the name they’re usually called around here: soup beans. The redolent fumes hinted of seasoning with home-cured country ham. Bowls were available for those who didn’t want to pass up the broth.

Next on the table were generous triangles of warm cornbread, made by a heritage recipe, we were told, from a cook in the church who was famous for her cornbread. This was followed by an enormous bowl of slaw and a big bowl of some of the best and crispiest refrigerator pickles I ever put in my mouth.

Next up were the starches–every flavorful, cheesy variation on macaroni and cheese and potatoes that you could imagine and yes, somebody had brought Funeral Potatoes, my latest favorite. (Hash browns, chopped onions, sour cream and cheese–all sauced up and baked together in a “potato crack medley.”) The peculiar name, BTW, comes from the fact that a lot of people take them to a bereaved family’s house after a funeral. It’s a dish that holds up well and is still extremely tasty at room temperature.

The desserts were too numerous to count and difficult to pick from. I finally settled on cherry cobbler, but still regretted all those others I missed. Afterwards, I went to buy a church cookbook, for obvious reasons, but they were all gone. Luckily, my friend Becky was one of the buyers.

My dear friend Mary, by the way, who will be 98 at the end of this month, says that the best way to cook pinto beans is on the woodstove–all day long, with a chunk of fatback in them.

When I am troubled in mind, there is no place more soothing and settling to be than sitting by Mary’s woodstove, with the kettle steaming quietly away on the top. Sitting there, the jostle and shove of modern life falls away, and I am transported back–back beyond a pot of soup beans simmering on the woodstove to a farther view of a much younger Mary kneeling to drop the hot iron lid on the skillet with the coals under it where the cornbread cooks in the open fireplace. A simmering iron pot hangs from one of the two hooks on the iron bar over the fire. The fireplace served as both heater and cookstove in Mary’s early years, in the same house she lives in now. Which leads me to ask her: “How on earth did people keep warm up here in the winters with only a fireplace for heat?”

“Oh,” laughs Mary, “you roasted your knees and froze your backside. And you went to bed with the hot iron wrapped up in a cloth, and sometimes there was snow on the bed.”


News at eleven,