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April 20, 2011

The Taste Bud: For the love of beans

My grandparents met young in the hills of Kentucky — Green County, to be exact — during the Great Depression. My late grandfather used to joke that he met my grandmother while waiting for the relief truck to bring much-needed provisions to the people of Green County.

“I liked her best,” he always said of my grandmother, “because she could spit a prune seed farther than any of the other girls.”

“That’s not so,” my grandmother, ever the straight person to my jokester grandfather, would protest. “He’s making that up.”

My grandparents, however, would often recount eating beans and cornbread for pretty much every meal when they were kids. It was the Depression, after all — they didn’t have much else to eat. At that point in their lives, they would have given just about anything to have a steak or even a good pork chop.

But what I always found curious was that, as their lives went on and they lived comfortably and with plenty of food options available to them, beans and cornbread remained a constant on their menu. In fact, it seemed almost a weekly feature.

This is the nature of comfort food — eating beans and cornbread made my grandparents feel not just full, but fulfilled. And whether you’re talking about navy beans, Great Northern beans, pinto beans (my grandparents’ first choice) or black-eyed peas, one can’t dispute that beans and cornbread is a warming, filling choice for any meal. Even breakfast. (OK, they did give up eating beans for breakfast. But only because they could afford eggs and bacon.)

I also find it interesting that, while I turned up my nose at their traditional beans and cornbread for most of my life, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love this simple, inexpensive, satisfying dish. In fact, I now think it’s pretty delicious.

I recently visited one of my favorite places in town, The Rudyard Kipling, and, while perusing the menu filled with burgers, nachos and pizza, my eyes were repeatedly drawn back to the Kentucky soup beans and cornbread. I mean, a cup of homemade beans with the bread on the side was only a little over $3. Really? I thought. I’m in.

I doubt I have ever tasted a better cup of bean soup, even in my grandma’s kitchen. I couldn’t tell exactly what type of pork was used as seasoning, but my guess is it was a nice, big hunk of smoked salt-cured ham. Plenty of black pepper added after the fact made the soup all the more tasty.

But possibly the best aspect of the beans was that they were so perfectly cooked — tender but not the least bit mushy, so that when you bit into the meaty beans, there was the slightest pop as they burst open. And there was just enough soup for dipping the square of moist cornbread — taking it beyond moist and into the realm of the soggy. And salty. And delicious.

When my mom (who can cook a mean pot of beans in her own right) makes this dish, I make sure to slather plenty of butter on the baked cornbread. This accentuates the mild sweetness of the bright yellow bread. Sure, it may not be terribly healthy, but this is comfort food we’re talking about. To hell with cholesterol levels for one meal, this is about something deeper: This is about my soul.

So, a tip of the hat to the longevity of beans and cornbread — they helped my grandparents survive the Great Depression and secured a spot in the hearts (and stomachs) of Kentuckians and most all Southerners in the process.

I only wish I’d gotten to see how far my grandmother could spit a prune seed.